The Wide World of Professional Volleyball Is Coming To America

Athletes Unlimited is about to start a new professional volleyball league, and the games will be easy to find.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Like so many other sports, volleyball has a far different reputation internationally than it does in the U.S. Perhaps the biggest difference is that it’s widely played by both men and women; plus, its ever-popular beach iterations and the more-clad indoor editions both garner enough attention to justify professional competition. 

Italy, Brazil, Russia and Cuba all tend to dominate.

Domestically, our trenchant, gendered view of the sport has mostly prevailed. Like other sports that have been deemed “for girls” — not even women, really, but only girls — the ceiling for volleyball competition has only been as high as the NCAA, in spite of a number of valiant attempts to establish a professional league. The U.S. tends to still fare well on both the men’s and women’s side in international competition even though players don’t have the option to play professionally, but the fact that the strong infrastructure for girl’s volleyball hasn’t led to a single Olympic gold medal for the U.S. women speaks to the way the highest levels of the sport are being ignored.

Over the past few years, two up-and-coming men’s pro volleyball leagues have been launched: the National Volleyball Association, and the Volleyball League of America. For whatever reason (sexism), the well-developed pipeline for women’s volleyball talent, though, has been left without an outlet. Athletes Unlimited, the same organization that launched a pro women’s softball league last summer, is aiming to create one with its new volleyball league, which will debut in Dallas next week.

athletes unlimited womens volleyball

Given the pandemic, the five-week league is functioning in much the same way as the softball league did: in a strict bubble, made possible by the brief length of the season. The vast majority of its 44 athletes have competed professionally abroad, and several of them are U.S., Dominican and Brazilian Olympians — essentially, the level of competition couldn’t be higher. 

As with the softball season, each week the top-scoring individual player (whose stats are determined by a league-specific points system) will draft their own new team; cash incentives and prizes are available based on each player’s season-long individual performance (yes, team wins earn individual points). 

For volleyball fans, the most exciting part of the league is likely the wide availability of the games. 22 out of 30 matches, which begin on February 27, will be broadcast across CBS Sports and FOX Sports networks, and the remaining eight will be streaming free across Twitter, Facebook and the like (in other words, you have no excuse not to check out at least one). That access is indicative of the money and clout behind this endeavor (both of which are all too rare in the realm of women’s professional sports in the U.S.) — as is the fact that Gatorade has signed on as a national sponsor

The league is refreshing, not just because someone is finally investing in a long-popular women’s sport (as Athletes Unlimited co-founder Jon Patricof has pointed out, more girls play volleyball than basketball), but because they appear to be doing it in a way that addresses many of the persistent complaints of women’s sports fans. Games are easy to watch and stats are readily available, players are compensated fairly — even merch availability is more reliable than it is in plenty of more established leagues. 

Launching a new women’s professional sports league in the middle of a pandemic sounds like a recipe for disaster, but all signs so far speak to an investment built to weather the crisis we’re currently enduring (and keep players and staff as safe as possible at the same time, although it must be said that obviously playing any sport is ultimately an unnecessary risk). At least — and most importantly — for the players, it seems like an endeavor that will pay off. 

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