We sat down with Jamie Davis, the USA Volleyball chief executive officer, for an extended interview while the USA women were playing in the Volleyball Nations League in Bossier City, Louisiana, in early June.
Davis has been on the job since January 2017, which means he has guided USA Volleyball through the pandemic and was able to enjoy the gold-medal successes of three of our women’s teams last summer at the Tokyo Olympics.
We spoke the night before the entire USA Olympics team and alternates joined the current USA women’s team in Bossier City. Some questions and comments have been edited for clarity.
VBM: You’re coming off a year with a couple of gold medals, so that’s got to make you very happy.
Davis: A couple? Man, we got three. First time any country in the world has swept in indoor, beach and sitting. So that was really pretty exciting. It was, as you know, the first gold medal we got in the indoor women’s team program.
“I was sitting with Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the USOPC, during the match. It was the final day of competition before the closing ceremonies. And I don’t know if you know, but when they say which country won the Olympics, they don’t keep total medal count. They count who got the most gold medals. So when they publish the rankings of the countries, it’s based on gold medals. Coming in that day, we had 36 and China had 38. Women’s basketball was before us, and they won the gold. It was now 38-37. We got another gold, I think it was in cycling, and it was now 38-38. (Davis said there was boxing underway and that both competitors for China and the USA all got silvers). So it was tied and down to us, and when Jordan Larson did that final spike, the USA not only got our first gold medal for this program ever, but the USA won the Olympics and became the top (gold) medal winner.
So there was a big hug between myself and Sarah Hirshland when that happened. She was there to root us on but also watching the medal count.
VBM: Conversely, the men were disappointing. If you had told me after we beat France in the first men’s match that they would win the gold and we wouldn’t get out of pool, I would have said you were out of your mind.
Davis: I agree. We came out so hot against France, and it was fantastic. It certainly didn’t go how we wanted it go after that, not making it out of pool play. It was disappointing, certainly.
VBM: Beach volleyball. The old guys are doing great, but there doesn’t seem to be a pipeline with the young ones like the women because there’s no NCAA beach for men.
Davis: No doubt that there’s a better pipeline for the women than the men because of NCAA beach. Now you’re getting women who came up through indoor who are going over to the beach … It’s something we’re working on and trying to identify talent of guys who aren’t necessarily wanting to play indoor or maybe we’re too deep in their position, and they really want to be an Olympian, and they’re of that talent. You know how hard it is to make the Olympic team. Maybe there’s some talent that’s interested in coming over to play for us on the beach side and move over earlier than the typical, ‘I’ve played indoors for a long time and now my knees are starting to give out or to rescue my body.’
VBM: Is there an incentive for that? Obviously the thing that helps anybody out is money.
Davis: It’s different. The models are different. With indoor athletes, for example, they all go play professionally. It’s a different lifestyle. The lifestyle for an elite indoor athlete is very, very hard on your personal life, if you will. If you think about it, from October through April-ish, May, you’re overseas and often they only do one-year contracts, two-year contracts, so you don’t know where you’re going to be next year or the year after. And if you’re married or in a relationship or have aging parents or have a child, that’s a really tough thing to do. You then come here, you’re with us in the gym, you then go play in Volleyball Nations League, which is five weeks and then you have World Championships or it’s a NORCECA year or Pan Am Cup, Pan Am Games, Olympics, of course, you’re away a lot.
In beach it’s different. They sort of pick what events they want to go to. There is the AVP Tour you can play and compete in the United States and earn prize money. You may earn less money but it’s a different lifestyle that may appeal to some people.
VBM: Speaking of which, there’s a new relationship between USA Volleyball and the AVP, and now that it’s Bally’s.
Davis: We sat down and we said shouldn’t the leading professional tour for beach volleyball in the United States and us being the national governing body for it, shouldn’t it make sense that we’re more aligned? When you look at the top athletes, they compete for us at FIVB events, the same athletes compete on the AVP Tour, so it made more sense if we were more coordinated. We sat down and came up with a strategic alliance, which is the best way to put it. It’s not a joint venture, they don’t own 50 percent of us and we don’t own 50 percent of them or anything like that, but we’re looking at ways to see if there are things we can do at the elite level, are there things we can in the pipeline level to coordinate more.
For example, if we throw beach national qualifiers or beach regional qualifiers, and they do that as well, maybe they’re earning points for USAV or bids for our national championships, but also you could earn AVP points as well. And vice-versa, you could go to an AVP qualifying event, maybe we’re going to give out points and things like that. We’re coming up with a unified ranking system, so you would use one ranking system, which is something I think really needs to happen in this country. The way a ranking system works best is the more tournaments you have in it, the better the data, of course. So we’re doing that. We’re going to have our first joint event this summer, the beach club championships. That’s happening in Fort Lauderdale at the end of July, a joint event sponsored by USA Volleyball and the AVP.
We’re trying to coordinate on education … and we’re the experts in officials training, and we all need the same officials. We’re coordinating on things like that, as well. It’s really an alliance to help grow the sport of beach volleyball which will benefit the AVP and USA Volleyball.
VBM: OK, we’ve talked about this before. I propose the eight finalists play a three-weekend tournament to decide the Olympic teams for beach volleyball. You can have triple elimination so that nobody can say ‘the weather,’ ‘we just missed,’ whatever, but my argument is hey, swimmers miss by one 100th of a second, track and field people miss by one 100th of a second. Why do we have to through the FIVB qualifying system? Why can’t we just decide?
Davis: Well, the FIVB determines which countries. The way it works is for the United States of America to get a bid, the only way to get teams into the Olympics comes through your FIVB Olympic ranking. That’s how it works and how they determine around the world. We can do all the trials we want. Any country can do all the trials they want. But if you’re one of the top countries in the world, you can do trials but you don’t get into the Olympic Games. The way it technically works is once a team earns a bid, they’re actually earning a bid not for themselves but for the United States of America. So in theory, and let’s use Alix and April as an example, who were on top and clearly earned it. In theory, we could say that’s our bid, and we’ve got another one …
But we polled the athletes at the beginning of the quad and we asked them what do you guys want to do? Because ultimately we listen to the athletes carefully. And overwhelmingly they said the model we’re using is important.
The biggest logic that they give on it is that they say is just because they’re the best American teams playing against the Americans, that playing internationally, the FIVB tournaments, is the most akin to the Olympic Games. That’s where you play the international teams. So you may be best at playing against Americans, but maybe the Brazilians have a different game, the Swiss have a different game, the Dutch have a different game, so frankly, you’d be great here but when you face the internationals, you’re gonna get crushed. So they believe the best benchmark or litmus test of how we would perform in the Olympic Games is to look at how we compete against foreign teams.
The second thing is they believe that going to international tournaments mirror the Olympic experience. You’re going to a place, staying in a foreign country, in a foreign city, which is like the Olympic experience.
And the third thing is we’ve done pretty well for a lot of years in beach. Why fix something that may not be broken? If we hadn’t medaled in four quads or something like that, it would be a different story. That hasn’t been the case, so I’d have to look at it and say am I trying to fix something that isn’t broken?
VBM: Men’s volleyball. The game is growing, but the colleges where the game is expanding are schools we never heard of … What’s USA Volleyball trying to do make the men’s game keep going and get to a higher level?
Davis: Well, we work with First Point and others, the AVCA, and we work with others to try at the high school level toward making boys volleyball a high-school sport. The more we have in that pipeline, the more we have at the collegiate level. You’re right, there are universities we aren’t as familiar with, but there are programs there and I encourage that very much, because that means more kids are going there and playing. Not everyone is going to get to go to Stanford or Penn State or some of the huge other massive programs. But that’s more volleyball being played, that’s more potential scholarships being given out, more opportunities for balls in the air, right? And with that it will help grow the game. But I think the growth at the high-school level is a big emphasis.
What we find is that the stigma is gone that volleyball is a girls sport. I don’t think boys are embarrassed to play like they may have been generations ago. And they have fun. Now they’re looking for places to play. And that’s a really good change, obviously, and it takes time, for us, at the elite level for them to come through the pipeline. I’m encouraged by the direction it’s going.
VBM: Volleyball World instead of FIVB. What’s your take on that?
Davis: First of all, we’re seeing Volleyball World putting 100 million dollars into the sport of volleyball. Volleyball World is a joint venture created between a venture-capital firm or private-equity firm called CDC out of the UK and the FIVB. For the 100 million dollars they put in they own 33 percent and the FIVB still retains 67 percent. The Volleyball World joint venture is now valued at 300 million dollars. To get that kind of infusion into the sport of volleyball is game-changing, frankly. And now they’re really investing into the sport at all levels. Not just at the grass-roots level. The FIVB was pretty good at that, as well, but it’s commercializing it. The Volleyball World TV and all the things they’re doing. They’re really trying to commercialize it even more to make the sport even more popular around the world.
If you think about it, volleyball on the women’s side in the United States is the No. 1 participatory sport for girls in high school and No. 1 for women in college … the potential for more TV should be here. When you look at the pipeline for how many women and girls are playing the sport, gosh, there should definitely be that and with what Volleyball World is doing will definitely help grow the sport.
VBM: Let’s stick with pro volleyball. You mentioned Athletes Unlimited. LOVB claims it will launch pro volleyball. There are other entities that are talking about it.
Davis: It’s the first time, with Athletes Unlimited, in my memory of it, that we’ve had athletes of this caliber of players in a pro league in the United States. We’ve had other starts with pro leagues in the United States, but it’s usually been with retired players coming back or others who didn’t make the national team. This is the first we’ve seen it with players like Jordan Larson and Bethania De La Cruz, etc., etc. playing here.
VBM: What have those organizations said to you?
Davis: I’m the national governing body. I want to see them succeed and do well. The more volleyball that’s being played at the elite level, the better it is for the pipeline. It goes back to what we talked about earlier, indoor pro volleyball can be a tough life, when you have to live overseas for seven months and travel. Imagine if you traveled with us and then you got to play in the United States, that takes that one dynamic out that we were just talking about for the ones who don’t know if I’m living in Turkey next year or Poland next year or Italy next year or Russia next year. Athletes Unlimited goes to one city for a period of time, but the other models are going to be more regionally based. You’ll have a home team or zone, at least.
VBM: I’ve given you a hard time about this before, but this is the first time in an interview. We won the (women’s Olympic) gold medal and we didn’t do anything. I know we had kids getting married right after, but the USA won the World Cup in soccer the last time and they had a parade down 8th Avenue with a celebration at City Hall. And it was on live TV. And we didn’t do anything with that team and those kids and it meant so much to the volleyball community. And I always ask the question, “Did you cry?” Because everybody cried. It was so significant for everybody. Did we miss the boat on that?
Davis: We’re doing a celebration here. The band is back together. We’re doing a celebration tomorrow night. We’ll have all 12 Olympians, the core 23, which were the final 23 (players), because we believe they were as important to the program in earning that medal as the ones who went and played on the ground in Tokyo. We’ll have the younger and new players who are here playing in VNL joining them as well. We’re going to have the coaching staff back. You mentioned, there were several weddings (Larson, Kelsey Robinson, Annie Drews, Megan Courtney) that happened right after the Olympics. They kind of landed and dispersed.
VBM: I give you a flyer for that. But what else can you or should you or will you try do to capitalize on the gold medal? Or is it ancient history now that we’re two years out from the next Olympics?
Davis: We’re always trying to capitalize on the popularity of the sport and when you win the gold medal you get extra. We worked really hard trying to use social media and things like that, as well. We created individual shirts. We were ready. When each of the women’s teams won their medals, we were ready for any team to win a gold medal, a silver medal or a bronze medal. And when they won, instantly on usavolleyballshop.com we had the gold-medal shirts ready within a minute. Literally. We had the artwork ready for whatever color. We knew in the gold-medal match we were going to get one of the two. When Alix and April won we had it ready, then when the women’s indoor team won, we had it for them. And we had a double-medal shirt if you wanted to buy one of them. And when the sitting team won, we had an individual gold one for the Paralympic team and then we had one for all three gold medals. We instantly capitalized on getting merchandise out there to connect with people who could share in our excitement.
We last did a Q&A with Jamie Davis in 2018.