the American problem: flag-waving hysterics and gold-medal fever in [the Olympics], out to lunch in-between — “In Volleyball League, the Caliber Is All-World”

In search of a U.S. pro women’s volleyball league: Major League Volleyball

Remembrance of a league past

I really got into women’s volleyball this past year. My family bought 2015 season tickets for the University of Michigan, and after I got dragged along to the Wolverines’ second-to-last home non-conference game — vs. South Carolina, the second game of a double-header that day and midpoint of the Michigan Challenge — I was hooked.

http://www.mgoblue.com/view.gal?id=183095

And yet, now that the 2015 NCAA women’s volleyball season has ended, I have nowhere to regularly watch women’s volleyball. ESPN showed the qualifier that the USWNT had to win to represent North America — along with the winner of Dominican Republic-Puerto Rico later this year — in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, and those Olympics should play host to some great women’s volleyball, with Brazil hoping to win a gold medal on their home soil while the U.S. and Russia hope to demonstrate their superiority despite the circumstances. And sure, this spring 2016 the NCAA will have women’s beach volleyball for the first “championship” season, but beach volleyball already enjoys much more airtime than indoor volleyball. And while beach volleyball may be tailored for TV — trim, tan bodies in bikinis and swimshorts, 2v2 action that makes it easy to track individual players and make them stars, not to mention the lack of additional blockers leading to more highlight reel spikes — I prefer how much more of a team sport indoor volleyball is.

So here’s one willing viewer of a U.S. pro women’s volleyball league with no league to view. The USA Volleyball-sanctioned Premier Volleyball League is just a collection of regional leagues, which are themselves a collection of men’s and women’s teams that have existed no longer than four years each. The league website resembles the amount of effort put into high school sports, while each team’s website — if they have one — is similarly and uninformative. Based on web presence alone, the whole operation seems to be suffering from a lack of people who care, so the fact that you won’t see any PVL games on national TV should come as no surprise. (And it’s not like I can catch the regional games of the week on Big Ten Network or attend my local team’s games in-person, as I can with Michigan in the B1G, since none of the PVL’s regional leagues have a TV deal, nor does the PVL even encompass every region in the U.S.)

What may surprise you is that there once existed a U.S. pro women’s volleyball league for which ESPN broadcasted 10 tape-delayed regular season games, 1 tape-delayed playoff game, and the championship game live with full coverage. That league was Major League Volleyball.

MLV lasted from 1987 to 1989, disbanding in the middle of its third season. Through its first two seasons, MLV was basically a single entity league — like Major League Soccer has been since debuting in 1996 — under Commissioner Steve Arnold, an attorney and ex-sports agent who had worked for World Football League, American Basketball Association, World Hockey Association and World Team Tennis. There were six teams: the Chicago Breeze, Dallas Belles — who relocated the next season, becoming the Arizona Blaze, who in turn relocated the season after, becoming the Portland Spikers — Los Angeles Starlites, Minnesota Monarchs, New York Liberties, and San Jose Golddiggers.

via this collection of San Jose Golddiggers photos: http://www.bartelt.org/vb/teams/sjg88/

(Spanning from the West Coast to the Midwest to the Northeast, it’s a wonder the league could afford travel costs long enough to even last two full seasons. Maybe that played a factor in the PVL choosing to merely be a conglomeration of regional leagues.)

MLV even had an agreement with USA Volleyball so that every player drafted into MLV — who could only qualify for the draft if they had used up their college eligibility but not yet played in another country’s pro volleyball league or for the U.S. Olympic team — would retain their Olympic eligibility. Thus, as opposed to Commissioner Arnold’s previous leagues — save for World Team Tennis — MLV seemed to be the official pro league of its sport in the U.S.

In this post, I hope to answer two questions about MLV:

  1. What made MLV promising enough to secure a TV deal with ESPN and then survive as long as it did?
  2. Why did MLV fold when it did?

For my research into these questions, I’m indebted to the LA Times, as their archive has a decent amount of articles on MLV — for good reason, as you’ll find out.


What made MLV promising enough to secure a TV deal with ESPN and then survive as long as it did?

The MLV is the brainchild of Steve Arnold, a hockey agent once involved with the World Hockey Association. In what amounts to an experiment of sorts in sports socialism, Arnold is the sole league owner. The franchises will operate under six team presidents and a single league budget.

In 1987, Robert Batinovich. CEO of the Glenborough Corporation — a real estate firm in Redwood City — became the principal stock holder of a fledgling experiment in U.S. sports: a single-entity league. Rather than creating a league made up of franchises owned by individual investors who ostensibly seek to maximize their own profits without much care for the performance of other investors’ teams — so long as the league, which merely acts as a sort of government for the franchises, stays healthy on a whole — eight investors owned not only Major League Volleyball but also all six teams in MLV. This single-entity structure was ultimately not enough to save MLV, but it has been credited for keeping MLS afloat during a rough transition from MLS 1.0 into MLS 2.0, and thus might be considered a model for all non-big 4 pro sports leagues in the U.S.

Once a two-year investment commitment was secured, league offices were staffed and general managers were picked in the six league cities, which had been selected for their television demographics and volleyball interest.

It seems as though Batinovich’s ownership group sought a national TV contract right away, prioritizing major markets when deciding which cities would have teams. They settled with San Francisco/San Jose, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minneapolis, Chicago, and New York. Doesn’t get much bigger than those, and a two-year TV contract with ESPN promptly followed.

[Pat Zartman, former U.S. national team coach and then-coach of the Los Angeles Starlites:] “It’s fun to be a pioneer. If the league does succeed, the girls can say they helped make it happen.”
ESPN will also be able to make that claim.
The all-sports cable network took a chance and signed a two-year deal with MLV. The network showed tape-delayed telecasts of games, about one a week. The championship game was shown live.
The ratings were higher than expected.
“Volleyball is just starting to develop an audience level, and it’s a real good game for TV,” said Jon Steinlaus, director of advertising sales for ESPN’s Eastern region. “It’s a legitimate sport, compared to wrestling and roller derby, but it’s really too early to tell (how successful it will be).”

To be sure, 1987 ESPN was fundamentally different from ESPN now. Disney-era ESPN has tried to adapt to Web 3.0 and the decline of cable by focusing on recognizable talk shows and sports, as opposed to quirkier shows such as Stump the Schwab — one of my personal favorites — or sports such as rugby, World’s Strongest Man, or, yes, volleyball — each of which may still appear occasionally but nowhere near as regularly as they used to.

Besides serving as the first pro U.S. women’s volleyball league and the first single-entity sports league, MLV may have influenced future sports leagues by possibly being the first to work out an agreement with their respective U.S. Olympic committee to allow their players to compete as amateurs — despite clearly being professional:

Another plus is the professional-amateur relationship. If, for instance, a player wants to leave a team to pursue international play, or try out for the Olympic team, she has that right. She can then return to the league when she wishes. This also works the other way. A player can leave the national team and join the league without worry.
“That’s a very important incentive,” Zartman said.

Ultimately, MLV seemed to serve the people that needed it most: the players.

Athletes often are reaching their primes when their college eligibility runs out. For women, the chances of continuing careers at the professional level are especially limited.
But Jeanne Beauprey, a member of the 1984 silver medal-winning U.S. Olympic volleyball team and now an assistant coach at her alma mater, UCLA, has been lucky. She is playing for the Los Angeles Starlites in the new Major League Volleyball, which began competition in February with teams in Dallas, Minneapolis, New York, Chicago and the Bay Area.
“Most girls don’t have any place to take their talent after college,” said Beauprey, 25, a graduate of Mission Viejo High School. “This is a terrific opportunity.”

Even as the league faded.

“This has been a tough road, and it’s hard to make it go,” said Robert Battanovich, a real estate developer from Redwood City who puts up most of the money to operate the league. “But the players have never been a problem. They never give you a hassle. All they want to do is make it happen.”

Why did MLV fold when it did?

While researching for this second question, I found an answer to the latter half of my first: MLV didn’t survive for two-and-a-half years so much as it bled money throughout an ESPN contract and for half an additional season before deciding to call it quits.

[Lee Meade, league director of operations] said the league’s six franchises — in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minneapolis and San Jose — lost about $1.3 million in 1987.
This year, with one franchise relocated — Dallas to Phoenix — he said the losses will be “half that, and Minnesota and San Jose will come close to breaking even.”

(“Major League Volleyball Nets Minor Interest : Only 254 Show Up for Match at Grossmont; San Diego Investor Shies Away”)

By the time MLV decided to fold, they had lost between $2.9 million to $3.2 million with a projected half million required to finish that third season.

And yet, by the end of the first season, Commissioner Arnold had already identified the major issues.

“Right now, there are some problems, like no local ownership,” Arnold said. “Next year, however, there will be some sort of a local ownership interest in each team. There will be a local involvement. I won’t call it ownership. There will be local business people with a financial involvement, but basically, each team will still be part of the whole.”
[…]
The next goal, after expansion, is to get that one big sponsor.
“I’m counting on the league to still be here next year, and, if we get a Coke or a 7-Up, we will be,” Patrick said. “I’ve put four years of my life into this thing. We knew we wouldn’t make money in 1987. And we haven’t. Now, we just need to get a biggie (sponsor). Once we do, we’re there, we’ve made it.”

(“Psst, Los Angeles Has Already Won Title : This Team Is the Starlites, the Champions of Major League Volleyball”)

MLV attempted to fill all three of those needs — local investment, expansion, and a big league-wide sponsor — but did so insufficiently.

Expansion seemed most promising at the end of that first season.

there has been interest from “about 20 individuals who want to own a team,” Meade said […]
Most likely, Arnold said, four teams will enter the league in 1988, bringing the number of teams to 10. Leading candidates for teams are Denver, St. Louis, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and another team in California.

And yet, the only new team for the second season would be the Arizona Blaze, who had relocated from the Dallas Belles. Expansion talks at the end of that second season were much more subdued.

[Meade] said investors in Atlanta and Milwaukee have expressed interest in expansion franchises. A decision on whether to expand will be made in three weeks.

(“Major League Volleyball Nets Minor Interest : Only 254 Show Up for Match at Grossmont; San Diego Investor Shies Away”)

Even though the only new team for the third season was again a relocation — this time the Portland Spikers from the Arizona Blaze — expansion was still being considered.

There’s talk about two teams being added for next season. [Lindy Vivas, league commissioner] said Charlotte, Detroit, Indianapolis and Stockton are the front-runners.

Unfortunately, no expansion transpired before MLV folded. Local investors for existing teams thankfully proved easier to find.

In its first two years, franchises were operated by the league. That will change next season, with teams owned and operated by individual investors.
Owners have been secured for San Jose, Minnesota and New York, Meade said.

(“Major League Volleyball Nets Minor Interest : Only 254 Show Up for Match at Grossmont; San Diego Investor Shies Away”)

Before this [third] season, the teams were sold to individual owners. Vivas said the teams were sold for $125,000 each, except for Los Angeles, which went for less because it had done so poorly at the box office.

(“WRINKLE IN TWINKLE : Beleaguered but Still Champions, Starlites Find a New Home in Bren Center”)

Los Angeles represented a peculiar dilemma for an MLV team, or any pro sports team really.

Today’s brain teaser in crisis management: the Los Angeles Starlites.
The Starlites are entering their third year and in that time they’ve managed to be everything that is good and bad in Major League Volleyball, the fledgling women’s professional league.
They’ve won all the championships the league has held, two, and have been, by all accounts, the worst-run franchise.
“I don’t think you could have run a team any worse if you tried,” said Al Gasparian, Starlites coach.
The team is under new, and from all indications, better management this season.
“Things are 100% better,” Gasparian said. “I really think we have a chance now.”
Not like you’ve been losing any sleep over this. This is probably the first you’ve heard of this team. They attracted about 3,000 people in 11 home games last season, or about as many people who show up for a mediocre high school football game on a mediocre Friday night.
So, why does a team that’s so good put up with being treated so poorly? The Starlites have been the best this league has had to offer, with a 36–8 regular-season record the past two seasons, and consequently have been the league’s biggest draw . . . on the road.
When they played against the Minnesota Monarchs last year in Minneapolis, they jammed 3,000 people in a gym that held 2,800 and turned away 700 at the door.
The week before, Minnesota played in Los Angeles in front of about 200.
“They say L.A. only watches a winner,” said Linda Vivas, league commissioner. “Well, we have a winner in L.A. that no one watches.”
[…]
The Starlites never secured a home arena. They played at Golden West College, Loyola Marymount and Cal State Long Beach, sometimes without a whispering of a warning.
“There were times when if you didn’t know someone directly involved with the team there was no way you could have known where we were playing,” Gasparian said.
The team couldn’t find sponsors or a local television station to broadcast a game or two.

This troubling management could not have its errors immediately corrected by the new regime, no matter how good their intentions.

It appears that Minnesota — which led the league attendance last season with 22,000 — and the San Jose Golddiggers will break even this season, an impressive accomplishment for teams in just their third year of existence. […]
Of the other current teams — Portland, New York and Chicago — each has sponsorship and has worked out various local television and/or radio deals.
But the Starlites? [George Corey, one of Los Angeles’s four new “owners”] says he and his partners will “lose twice as much money as we originally thought.”
How much is that? Corey isn’t saying exactly, just that, “it’s a lot by anyone’s standards.”
The Starlites have no sponsors, no television deal. The present management didn’t take hold until September and, “there just wasn’t the time to get work a deal with a sponsor for their upcoming budget,” Coffey said.
Optimistically, [Gary Coffey, Los Angeles general manager] has started courting sponsors for next season.

While MLV somehow acquired a two-year TV contract with ESPN right away, they had much more trouble finding a big enough sponsor.

“This league is no different than the NFL, NBA or NHL — you can’t survive on attendance alone,” said Lee Meade, former general manager of the Monarchs and now director of operations for the league. “You have to market the league. You need TV. You need corporate sponsors. So building the attendance is not our major concern. Selling the concept is.”
[…]
Also, no major corporate sponsor stepped forward. Companies such as Asics Tiger shoes and Mizuno volleyball equipment helped. “(But) we need a McDonald’s or Coke to come along,” and supply money, Patrick said.
“I’m surprised and disappointed that no major company has come along to sponsor us,” Arnold said. “One of the problems is a major company is reluctant to begin with a new league like ours. To be honest, I would have thought someone would have had the foresight to help.”

(“Psst, Los Angeles Has Already Won Title : This Team Is the Starlites, the Champions of Major League Volleyball”)

MLV was able to secure a sponsor for the second season, though not on a McDonald’s or Coke level.

Part of the difference [between the second season’s losses projecting to be half as much as the first season’s] is because of corporate sponsorship by DHL Worldwide Couriers, which invested several hundred thousand dollars, Meade said.

(“Major League Volleyball Nets Minor Interest : Only 254 Show Up for Match at Grossmont; San Diego Investor Shies Away”)

However, MLV seems to have had failed to find a bigger sponsor than DHL Worldwide Couriers for their third season. This, despite remaining in Los Angeles for that expressed reason, among others.

The fact is that the league wants the Starlites in Los Angeles. One of the league’s top priorities is gaining national corporate sponsorship and Stockton isn’t the enough carrot you want to wiggle in front of General Motors.

(“WRINKLE IN TWINKLE : Beleaguered but Still Champions, Starlites Find a New Home in Bren Center”)

In fact, Los Angeles — and the other two largest markets, Chicago and New York, though to a lesser extent than LA — was possibly the biggest reason why MLV failed.

Vivas attributed the league’s trouble to “immediate cash flow problems.” George Corey, Los Angeles Starlites co-owner, estimated league losses Monday between $2.9 million and $3.2 million.
Those losses were in large part because of the failure of teams in the three major media markets, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Each of those teams averaged about 500 spectators a game, league officials said. Teams in smaller markets, San Jose (1,900), Minnesota (2,000) and Portland, Ore. (1,500), have been the league’s best draws.
“For a combination of reasons, whether it be the lack of local ownership, the marketplace, or the way the teams were promoted, the franchises in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles failed financially,” San Jose owner Gary Schwing said. “The owners of the three successful franchises were unable to bail out the other three (teams), and the league was forced to suspend operations.”

Indeed, the legacy of MLV seemed to quickly produce this story to explain its failure (emphasis added).

Tonight, World League Volleyball begins its second season — with the United States hosting Japan at UC Irvine — not bad as far as professional volleyball leagues go. The International Volleyball Assn. quickly crashed and burned despite the presence of a moonlighting Wilt Chamberlain, not quite the Bo Jackson of his time. More recently, Major League Volleyball folded after two-plus seasons. Cause of death: Force-feeding a cultish sport (women’s volleyball) into the mainstream American marketplace (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles).
“The IVA was a long time ago,” says Grosse, director of the USA volleyball program. “I don’t think the sport was big enough back then. They had some good ideas, they just didn’t have the base of fans.
“The women’s pro league got too big too fast. They thought they had to be like football or baseball and put teams in the biggest cities.”

Los Angeles’s failure to capture an audience was apparent from the first season, and by the second season it seemed unlikely they’d continue to host a team, but that dilemma wasn’t resolved in time to stem the bleeding.

Beyond blaming the league or big market teams such as Los Angeles, I have to note that the product MLV offered didn’t feature the best American talent.

For Beauprey, the Starlites offer a chance to enjoy her sport — without the pressure of Olympic practice. Beauprey always will remember the thrill of playing in the Olympics, but she would just as soon forget about the grueling, eight-hour daily workouts.
“It’s a lot different now,” Beauprey said. “It (the Olympic team) was a lot more work. It’s not as intense now. It’s on a different level.”
And the level of play is no comparison, either. “The competition in the Olympics is a lot stiffer,” Beauprey said.

(“Keeping Starlites Shining : Jeanne Beauprey Brings Her Olympic Talents to Women’s Major League Volleyball”)

Back then, Japan, Brazil, and Italy had the greatest women’s volleyball leagues, all of which were sure to be better than MLV and probably attracted better American players. Even now, Brazil and Italy are still a premier destination for skilled women’s volleyball players after graduating college, and while Japan may have slid in prestige, China and Russia have risen to offer even more lucrative opportunities. The U.S., meanwhile, seems unable to have provided an alternative to Olympic play in the late ’80s and continues in that failure to this day.

Even for those women maybe not good enough to go directly from NCAA volleyball to the U.S. national team or a foreign pro league — not to mention the players who do have such talent— they don’t seem to have stuck around on their MLV team for long.

[Dale] Hall’s all-around game — eight kills, eight blocks, 12 digs — seemed to spark the Starlites all night. She is one of three players presently on the team who played on last season’s championship team. Among those who left was former U.S. Olympic team standout Rita Crockett, who is now playing in Italy.
Though his personnel has taken a change for the drastic, [Al Gasparian, Los Angeles coach] said he felt “fortunate that things on the court didn’t look as different from last season as I thought they might.”
Of course, Portland also only had three players from last season’s team. And unlike the Starlites, Portland didn’t have a lot to build on to begin with. The then-Blaze had the league’s worst record last season at 5–16.
“We were in the same position they were in before this season,” said Terry McLaughlin, Portland coach.

Such turnover in a pro sports league seems incredible, and even with the inaugural draft producing a pool of 160 potential signees, half of which were drafted, and a few more signed as free agents, that doesn’t spell for a sustainable and marketable league, considering every sport requires the emergence of stars who stick around at least a few seasons, if not the majority of their careers, on certain teams.

And yet, for all its problems, we simply cannot downplay MLV’s enormous accomplishment: they offered pro women’s volleyball in the U.S. on ESPN for two full seasons. These ESPN broadcasts are or were apparently available on VHS, and I’ve found a Youtube channel that seems to have uploaded parts of them. I welcome you to check out the clips on that channel, or at least enjoy this half-hour of the 1988 MLV Championship:


We still live in the era in which women’s pro sports leagues have failed to achieve significant and lasting success in the U.S., especially in comparison to their men’s counterparts.

The Women’s National Basketball Association is probably the most successful U.S. pro women’s sports league of all time — debuting in 1997 and continuing uninterrupted to the present — and yet it has historically survived only on the National Basketball Association’s bankroll.

12 WNBA teams presently exist, with 6 having folded — including 4 of the 8 original franchises — while 4 are the product of relocation. 8 of these 12 teams have individual jersey sponsors to go with the league-wide jersey sponsorship by Boost Mobile. The league signed an 8-year TV contract with ESPN in 2007 (for 2009–2016) that was extended in 2013 (through 2022), which costs ESPN $1 million per team. It wasn’t until 2010 that a WNBA team turned a profit (the Connecticut Sun), which increased to 3 teams in 2011 and 6 teams in 2013.

Player salaries are also an issue: the current collective bargaining agreement, as negotiated in 2014, sets the team salary cap at about $900,000; rookie minimum salaries about $40,000; 3+ seasons minimum salaries about $55,000; and maximum salaries $105,000 for those with 3+ seasons and $2500 more for “veterans” (5+ seasons), with both max salaries set to increase by $2000 each year. Many capable players work in the WNBA for half the year and another country’s league for the other half in order to make ends meet. In fact, the Russian Women’s Basketball Premier League has proven to be more than willing to compensate female athletes. Diana Taurasi, one of the greatest female basketball players of all time, earns a salary of about $1.5 million playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, who infamously got Taurasi to sit out the 2015 WNBA season by offering the superstar a bonus greater than her WNBA salary. Taurasi plans to return to the WNBA for their 2016 season, but this trend has to be worrying for WNBA owners, if only because it should give WNBA players more collective bargaining power.

I feel like we as a nation should be ashamed of that situation. Americans pride ourselves on living in not only the most free country but also the most economically powerful. Yet if those national identifiers are true, how can we explain the fact that we don’t have the premier women’s basketball league in the world? And it’s not just basketball. The National Women’s Soccer League represents a string of failed attempts at implementing such a league in the U.S., having just completed its third season, while Sweden’s Damallsvenskan is generally considered a better league, and the men’s soccer associations in various major European countries have recently stepped in to offer a women’s version of their respective leagues, threatening to become as powerful as their men’s counterparts in the long-run — thanks to the backing of these already powerful leagues and clubs who choose to sponsor a women’s side. And I’ve already mentioned how woeful the PVL seems, while Italy, Brazil, China, and Russia all have thriving women’s volleyball leagues. In fact, these latter two superpowers, China and Russia, seem to be a lot more willing to support pro women’s sports in general than the U.S.

It has long been past time for us to put our money where our mouth is. Unfortunately, the WNBA’s level of play seems indicative of the level of youth support in girl’s basketball. And while the NWSL may benefit from greater youth participation in girl’s soccer, MLS is having a hard enough time capturing a TV audience, proving that domestic soccer just hasn’t caught on yet in the U.S. Women’s volleyball, however, not only sees greater participation at every level among girls/women rather than boys/men, but is an action-packed team sport lasting only 3–5 sets. In that regard, volleyball most resembles football as a series of explosive set pieces played out between two teams. A true sports fan doesn’t need the players to wear bikinis for that kind of sport to be exciting. And, thanks to the gender imbalance in participation, there’s not any pro U.S. men’s volleyball league for a women’s league to compete for attention with. We’re currently sitting on a prime opportunity for a popular pro U.S. women’s sports league!

USA Volleyball, dedicate yourself to the PVL and all its regional leagues! Rich U.S. women’s volleyball enthusiast, create a modern-day MLV! Somebody, do something!