VolleyballMag.com co-publisher and editor Lee Feinswog visited with AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer during a break at the NCAA beach volleyball tournament in Gulf Shores, Ala., May 7. That event was started by AVCA and ran for four years before the NCAA took over in 2016.
The AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) is involved in all facets of the sport and puts a strong emphasis on growth and education. What’s more, this interview took place before the AVCA board of directors gave a grant a $150,000 to the MotorMVB Foundation, a non-profit created to help grow boys and men’s volleyball.
DeBoer, the former head coach at Kentucky, is in her 11th year running the AVCA. She’s always on the go, but always willing to take time to talk about volleyball.
VBM: So, let’s start with what the state of affairs is for volleyball in the U.S. these days from the AVCA’s viewpoint.
DeBoer: I was talking to (former USA Volleyball CEO) Doug Beal about this the other day, and also (Beal’s replacement) Jamie Davis, up in Columbus when we were there for the (NCAA) men’s championships. I think there are some real reasons for us to be excited.
We have spent a lot of time in the narrative, I call it our own mythology, if you will, that there’s no way that men’s volleyball can grow because of Title IX. One of the things that I’m so excited about is that Wade Garard along with John (Speraw, USA men’s national-team coach) saying how long has it been, volleyball community, since we tested that hypothesis? Is that correct? I think it was correct at one point and now is just a myth that gives an excuse not to do squat?
I think that challenge is going to be something for us to ask if we’re going to do something.
I know that some of our (AVCA) board members, some of the coaches that have made a good living coaching in the women’s game but they’re going to do something. It’s not my role to name their names, but something is going to happen. It’s going to give us some resources and right now the resources are going towards fundraising and towards the things that need to happen, such as to meet with athletics directors and write proposals.
When you’re starting something it’s just like when we were at the beginning of beach. You have to be excited about little wins. Because that’s all you have. You don’t have any big wins. So getting the first men’s program in the state of New York (Division II Daemon) ever that’s going to put scholarships into men’s volleyball, that’s big news. That’s big news for us. That is one of those wins that’s going to move the dial and get more boys excited about this.
Here in Gulf Shores, what is happening in beach, the AVCA is doing a small conference for administrators who thinking about adding a beach program. There are club coaches and some high school coaches teaching beach coaches how to be professionals. There never were jobs before where you could make a living coaching beach volleyball, so what does that look like? What do training cycles look like? And how are we going to put guard rails on ourselves in the college community to keep people from gaming lineups and what are the tools that we need and what are the resources we need? Because beach is growing rapidly and what’s exciting to me are the Division II and Division III schools that are calling and getting excited about adding beach.
VBM: Are there similarities to starting this tournament six years ago to the growth you’re talking about in men’s volleyball?
DeBoer: I think there are. When we first started talking about beach volleyball, people laughed. I mean, they did. Beach volleyball as a college sport was a joke. It was like, ‘What are you talking about? This is never gonna happen.
But because of Kerri Walsh and Misty May and that you have the whole generation of kids who grew up watching them win Olympic medals, they knew who they were, they knew what this sport was about. I said this to (Kerri) yesterday, what we were smart enough to do was see that there was a boogie board out there called Misti May and Kerri Walsh and get on it and ride it into the beach. But you guys started the wave, you created it. We just rode it.
So it makes me hopeful. Absolutely it makes me hopeful that things can happen. We’re growing robustly right now in Division III. I was at that championship in Springfield (Mass., in late April) and when I first started going to it, and I don’t say this to throw any athlete under the bus, but it was clear that we were not getting elite athletes playing men’s volleyball. But you go to the championship today, we are getting elite athletes playing men’s volleyball. It is really exciting. We’ve got 6-8, 6-7 guys who can move and jump and we’ve got 6-2 and 6-foot guys who can jump out of the gym. And this is all voluntary participation at Division III.
In the next two or three years, we’re going to have a hundred programs in men’s Division III. It took us 17 years to get from zero to 50. Now, we just celebrated our fifth NCAA championship and we’re at over 70 programs. And they’re being added every year. I think we picked up six or seven this year and we know of another seven or eight that are in the queue. So it’s growing as fast as beach volleyball is growing. But right now it’s growing at Division III.
The opposite is that everyone knows about beach is it’s growing so rapidly at Division I. Beach went from zero programs to 53 in Division I in six years. There’s not an NCAA sport on record that’s picked up 50 Division I programs in six years. The next closest sport was like 17 years to pick up 50 new programs in Division I. So there’s a lot of good stuff.
VBM: Beach continues next week with the USA Volleyball Collegiate pairs.
DeBoer: It’s very significant for a couple of reasons. When we lost the pairs championship (when the NCAA beach tournament was converted over from the AVCA), it did hurt those schools that may not have been able to compete with a USC or Pepperdine or Louisiana State across the board, but had two kids that were really good beach volleyball players. And they no longer had a postseason opportunity.
So USA Volleyball putting this together and partnering with the USOC and make it part of the Summer Championship Series is good because it knits the Olympic movement with the colleges. Because the colleges are de facto the minor leagues for our international programs. And so when you only see sports once every four years, it’s easy to lose sight of that.
VBM: Let’s change gears away from men’s and beach. The AVCA Convention in Columbus last December appeared to be a huge success.
DeBoer: It was our largest convention ever. Our largest up until then had been Louisville in 2012 and this one was bigger. We had over 2,700 and that’s counting attendees and exhibitors and there were two nights where there were over 17,000 people that were ticket buyers into the building. It was a huge success.
VBM: It seems like everywhere you look in the sport, everything is on an upward trend, be it the things we talked about, the women’s college indoor game, girls and boys club volleyball, pretty much all of it.
DeBoer: We’re not growing geometrically at the youth level, but we’re still growing steady. The place where we’re growing geometrically is beach and boys high school is second only to lacrosse in terms of what’s happened with it in terms of participation growth. They’ve picked up over 10,000 boys in the last 10 years. Again, you look at where you started and where you’ve gone. So beach and boys are growing quickly and we’ve had steady growth in beach and women’s.
But there are some not bright spots in that growth. If you look at some of our states in the upper Midwest, which is a sweet spot for us right now of volleyball fandom, we have states, like Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Iowa, where we’ve lost 10 percent or more. Double-digit declines in high school.
VBM: Are yYou talking high school programs?
DeBoer: No, girls playing high school volleyball. We’ve had double-digit declines in the last 10 years. We’re still growing overall, because California keeps growing, Texas keeps growing, the southeast keeps growing. Some of it is obviously changes in population. Populations are moving, which means schools consolidate, so there are less programs. This is good news, bad news, because we don’t want to lose participation at the high school level, but we’re doing better at getting kids started earlier. They’re playing when they’re 10, 11, 12, and it used to be that if you didn’t start until you were a ninth-grader, you could still make the team if you were tall and maybe they thought you were athletic. But you couldn’t do that in basketball and you couldn’t do that in some other sports.
Now there are a lot of places where you can’t do that in volleyball. The good news is we’re starting kids earlier but the bad news is we have a leak in the bottom of the bucket because we have kids we might have picked up volleyball who are now picking a different sport to start later because they don’t have the skills to be able to compete.