We had a chance to visit with USA Volleyball CEO Jamie Davis last month in Kansas City during the AVCA Convention and NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship.
Davis, who got the job last January, did not come from volleyball, but has been learning quickly about our sport in a busy year in which he traveled both domestically and internationally to events on all levels.
Among the topics we discussed were growing the game, TV, the Olympics beach qualifying process and reaching out to the other domestic entities in the sport.
You’re almost a year in. What have you learned?
It’s funny, when I was approached with the opportunity with USA Volleyball, I’m not from volleyball, so I knew very little about volleyball. And I said that openly when I first got here.
What intrigued me about the opportunity was the amount of potential in the sport and where I thought I could take it. And I would tell you today, after nearly a year on the job, even in my wildest dreams I underestimated what the potential is.
In sports terms, the athlete has a higher ceiling than you expected?
Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s the largest team participatory sport amongst girls in high school. It’s the largest team-participation sport amongst women in the NCAA. It’s the fastest-growing boys sport, albeit much smaller than the women’s game, in high school. There are so many people that we’re still not touching.
On the diversity side, for example, It’s one of my biggest priorities how we can make this game accessible and grow it.
How do you do that? I know as a club director, it’s expensive. For example, it’s expensive to go to tournaments and all that goes with it. The costs are legitimate. I know some clubs are making money, but even for the ones that make no profit it’s expensive.
We did research and about 25 percent of our membership pay club dues under $500 a year. Of course, that means the rest pay more. But that means that there’s the ability to have a program. It may not have the program at the level you’re talking about, but not everyone has to go to all of those (travel) tournaments and still be introduced to the game and to love the game. So we need to find different ways — and that’s incumbent upon myself and my team — to find different ways to introduce the game.
Take basketball, for example, there are tournaments where you travel and have to pay entry fees and stay overnight and all that. But there are a lot of tournaments in a local YMCA or local gym where you play in your neighborhood. We need to find more of those opportunities to get more people to play and have them realize that we’re a non-contact sport. We’re a safer alternative than basketball is, than football is, than baseball is for the boys and any of those sports where there are many more concussions. We need to get our sport in front of those people and we’re doing that with a thing called Open Court, which is a day a year — this was our second year doing it — where you try volleyball for a day. Go out and try the sport. I want to know what’s the barrier from getting schools to introduce volleyball. It’s primarily the nets. They have basketball gyms. Every rec center has a gym. How do we go out there and say where we can provide the net system and a couple of balls? We’ll have taken the barrier away.
Let’s talk about adidas. I know you’re really happy about that deal. The wheels of motion on that had started before you took over, but then you took it to a so-called different level, right?
We had gotten to a hand shake before I had gotten there. First of all, I want to say the adidas relationship and partnership we have is absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t be happier about it on our side. I’m pretty sure it’s the same on their side, as well.
We are an exploding brand, our sport, as are they. They’re hot, we’re hot. I really wanted to be aligned with somebody who was similar. When I got here we had agreed on some commercial terms. Not all of them. Which is fine and very important to us, because the value in-kind product they give us as well as the money certainly helps us fuel our sport. We’ll invest in our high-performance programs and our grass-roots programs and our coaching education and officials education and certification and our national-team programs. So it’s very important to us.
But I what I really wanted to do was find a partner who said it’s more than just the money. I want to find someone who’s going to activate upon their sponsorship so that it will elevate both of our brands. And adidas has been fantastic in doing that. We’re always promoting adidas, I always wear adidas and we talk about adidas and about the partnership. And they do the same as well. It’s more than just the dollars and value in-kind that they’re providing us. It’s a true partnership and activation that has elevated both our brands. adidas invested more than a million dollars in the week of the launch of the campaign of the association with USA Volleyball and that’s been fantastic as well. They’ve signed 16 of our national-team athletes to endorse adidas and that’s great for our athletes and it’s also great for the association. It’s outside of our deal, which I really love, because it says they’re doubling down on volleyball.
You’ve chosen Lauren Carlini to be the face of that campaign.
We don’t have anything to do with which athletes they choose. That is an adidas deal. The first athlete they chose was Lauren Carlini. Actually, the first athlete they chose was Karsta Lowe, but she decided to resign from playing volleyball. So then they went to Lauren Carlini second. But now they’ve got 16 athletes. Jordan Larson, Max Holt, so a whole bunch of men and women. That’s what I’m talking about in activating a product. I’m happy that 90 percent of our indoor athletes — who are not required by us, USOC regulations don’t allow that — but 90 percent are wearing adidas based on their own decision.
Give me an example of how the USA Volleyball community will see the advantage of having adidas invest in our sport, perhaps on the regional level.
Let’s cut adidas down to what it is. adidas is a retail brand. It’s available, of course, at adidas.com and we sell merchandise at USAVolleyballshop.com. But they’re at retail outlets like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. I think you’re going to see more of a volleyball line being presented by adidas in a mainstream, retail outlet than you might not have seen in the past. And that’s great for our sport, as well. Look, they’re a for-profit company. They’re doing it because they believe in the association, they want to grow that line and they believe it’s going to make money for them.
When you took over we talked about different challenges you have. Two big things were TV and having some kind of pro league. Where are you on those fronts?
When it comes to TV, I’ve had discussions with all the major broadcasters and non-traditional ones, as well. The Facebooks, the Twitters, the Amazons, about how we can better distribute our content. In traditional TV this year, one of our USA cups, we had the USA women’s national team playing against Brazil, we had that one broadcast on NBC. That would not normally have been done, it would have been streamed or not shown at all. Our next step is to see if we can get our girls junior national championships, our boys junior national championships, our open championships, our beach championships, our sitting teams, to get streamed or broadcast more and more.
“The year’s not over yet, but we nearly surpassed in 2017 our streaming numbers that we did in 2016 and that was an Olympic year. So what’s happening is we’re getting more and more content out there and people are wanting to watch, which is great. We’re just going to continue to grow. We’ve doubled down in our streaming technology. We now have it all in house. We bought the equipment, own the equipment and have the staff to do it to send them out there and do more live streams of more of our events. And that’s great for the exposure and we do it for free. We don’t charge to view it …
… It’s an untapped product that isn’t being seen by nearly the amount of people that really want to see it. Going back to the numbers before, with that many girls playing in high school and that many women playing in college, and with the growth in the sport on the male side in high school, as well, the interest is there in the sport. We just have to make it available so people can see it. They will find it.
Let’s talk about the regional level. I know you spent some time and got to meet the region commissioners. What have you learned about the grass-roots level and where we need help?
The biggest learning I heard was that we at USA Volleyball and our 40 regions weren’t always necessarily rolling in unison and weren’t aligned in what we’re doing. Because we hadn’t set that as a priority. So I hit a re-set button when I started that we all need to be — and I call it the 41 of us — working together to try to grow this sport. With better communication, open dialog, listening to what the regions’ needs are, we’ve changed our priorities. We’re not doing everything the regions say. If they say do it, we’re not doing it because they say do it. Sometimes I say no, we’re not going to do it that way, we’re going to do it this way. But through communication and dialog we’ve become a much more unified program.
A perfect example of that is on the beach side. We had two competitive beach tours that were happening. One was the JBT, the Junior Beach Tour that was being run by USA Volleyball, and the other was the ABT, the American Beach Tour, which was being run by and sanctioned by our 40 regions. To me it made no sense to have two competitive beach tours.
So this year we’ve combined. We’ve scratched both the JBT and ABT and created the USA National Beach Tour, which is now a cooperation and collaboration of the 41 of us, the 40 regions and USA Volleyball … We’ll have between 12 and 18 — we’re still working on the exact number — beach national qualifiers that will be run by USA Volleyball. Much like the indoor model. Within that you’re going to get your rankings, get your points and help with your seedings coming into the qualifiers, which will then lead into the national championships, which will be run by USA Volleyball, as well. So for the first time now, instead of having two stand-alone tours, we’ll have one unified tour.
Speaking of beach, any more discussion about the qualifying process for the Olympics? Like bringing it in house?
You mean trials?
We set up a task force. I had a goal that we were going to have a decision by the end of 2017 of what direction we were going to go and had that goal set because I wanted to be fair to the athletes. I don’t think it’s fair to any athlete who is striving to represent the United States in 2020 to not know what criteria we’re going to be using to decide who you’re going to select without enough lead time. You might decide to rest now, play more events in ’19, more events in ’20, but none of those events matter, it’s only the trials, I need to know. You train and compete differently based on that. So I believe that early in the quad whatever direction anyone goes you need to be transparent and let me people know.
So I set up the task force that was comprised of current athletes, former athletes and USA people just in the beach community and volleyball community. After about five or six meetings we had throughout the year a decision was made that we are not going to hold one-off trials and continue to use the FIVB point system, so to speak.
It’s two-fold. One is we felt that any one bad day, we didn’t want the whole Olympic decision to be made on a single one tournament or one day or two days that could eliminate someone. You could always say that’s replicating what it’s like to be in the Games, and therefore …
Yeah, but swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field, they’re all down to that one day. They have trials and you either make it or you don’t.
They do that. You’re absolutely right. But in almost all those, like you’re swimming against yourself. In diving, it’s whatever score I get. Same in gymnastics. In swimming, you’re going against the clock.
In this one you’re playing against somebody else. In volleyball, there’s always another team on the other side of the net. And we have certain teams — and this is loud and clear from our athletes — that say you may be the best at playing against Americans, but the Olympics is an international sport. So you may be great when you play well at home, but how will you do against international teams, the way the Germans play, the way the Brazilians play, and ultimately that’s what’s going to matter at the Olympic Games. So if you have a national trials, it’s only Americans against Americans.
Also, we believe, and our athletes believe it too, if there was a system that could weight FIVB points more heavily in the last six months as you build up to the Games, that would be an even better system than we currently have today. Now there’s a window of 18-20 months prior to the Games and if you’re playing three-, four- and five-star FIVB events, you get points. We believe the points should be more heavily weighted in the last six months, which then will reflect teams that are peaking closer to the Games, they will reflect injuries and new teams that come together that haven’t had the points can build going into the Games. We’ve written and discussed with the FIVB of possibly doing that on a worldwide basis, because we believe that not only for the United States but many countries, that might be the best way to have the most competitive teams coming into the Olympic Games.
And finally, any reaching out to, embracing of, conversations with AAU, JVA, any other other entities involved in volleyball?
We’ve had conversations. Brief. To be honest with you, they’ve been brief. I do believe we’re fragmented and we do need to unify as a sport. It’s almost what I said about the regions. We all need to be together.
There are certain things we agree on and certain things we probably don’t agree on. The key is going to be finding common ground on things we do agree on so we don’t look at ourselves as competitors but we look at ourselves working for the common good of the sport. So I would say there have been initial conversations, but I would love to see more.