Sometime in 2022, we should see the beginnings of a new women’s professional volleyball league in the United States.
A new organization with seemingly deep pockets and a roster full of experienced volleyball people is behind the venture.
“We will start to unveil a pro plan next year,” said Mary Wittenburg of League One Volleyball, also known as LOVB. “We will hope to have at least one event.
“And then we’ll build on that in 2023 and hopefully have events in a variety of markets. And then we’ll grow more in 2024, and we’ll end up, at the right time, with city-based, many-week play. Season-long play, whether it’s 16 weeks and you’re eventually adding a number of all-star and other type events around a whole season, it will extend over time.”
LOVB, which is holding its plans close to the vest, said it’s going to happen as the organization buys and builds junior clubs and builds a base.
“The ‘build it and they will come leagues’ have been tried before. For someone it might be a passion project, maybe themselves or their kids played, and they just keep writing checks and hopefully the sponsors will come and hopefully the media deal and the TV deal will come. We’re doing the exact opposite of that,” said Katlyn Gao, the CEO of LOVB.
“We’re saying let’s build a sustainable approach so that pro league doesn’t launch from zero to 100. We’re building a community and the connection between pro and club first, so that the safe approach gives us the flexibility as well as the runway for it not to have to suffer from a lot of these pitfalls that have happened in the past.”
There have been at least two other pro leagues in America that have come and gone, the NVL and USPV. Last year, Athletes Unlimited launched what it called a pro league, but it was hardly one in the traditional sense. AU gathered its players in Dallas for six weeks and played three matches a week with revolving teams and rosters. AU, which also fields competitions for women’s lacrosse, softball and now basketball, is set for another volleyball season this spring.
Gao said that with LOVB there’s “a vision and shared passion to drive purpose and profit. We shouldn’t be afraid to say that. It should be dual purpose. Without being commercially sustainable, we can’t have the impact. Then you’re just a flash in the pan with a false promise.”
Experienced support team
Neither Gao, nor Wittenburg — who is in charge of the pro-league development — nor the other representative we interviewed, Larissa Pommeraud — who is in charge of club development — have been in volleyball before.
But they have plenty of volleyball people involved.
The LOVB website (that’s its logo above) lists an athletes council that includes Olympians Haleigh Washington, Justine Wong-Orantes, Carlie Lloyd, Alisha Glass Childress, Kelsey Robinson, and Kim Hill.
Advisors include former Hawai’i coach Dave Shoji and former Stanford assistant Denise Corlett, and the working team includes five-time Olympian Danielle Scott.
“The combination of people that are coming together to make this happen is what’s going to make us successful,” Gao said. “We’re doing it layer by layer and brick by brick.”
But why volleyball?
“A rare lifetime opportunity to combine my own professional expertise with my personal passion for women empowerment,” said Gao, who was born in China, raised in Chicago, and now lives in California. “And I think I’ve been searching for that overlap for the last couple decades when I have been part of and led and built and grew businesses that are very women-centric and have always found that while they’ve been very women-centric, we’re always seeking authenticity. And from a leadership perspective, you don’t always get to see as much of the representation from what is predominantly (a) female consumer and the people who are most active in those situations.
“So when my friend of 20 years, Peter Hirschman, introduced me to a group of amazing individuals including Kevin Wong and Emily Hartong, we were talking about the experience that Peter’s daughter had at Kevin’s club and how it really changed her confidence level. It gave her a sense of belonging for someone who had recently moved to Hawai’i not long before she got into volleyball.
“As a teenage immigrant myself from China to the U.S., sports gave me a sense of belonging that was hard to find, especially when I had a language barrier for the first couple of years. So what struck me was the sport itself has already grown to be at a popularity level, but it doesn’t really have quite the recognition that some sports that are not necessarily as popular have gotten.
“And there’s an opportunity for us to do more. In doing so we are going to be intentional about it, and we can bring forth a lot of opportunity for the players and all the stakeholders that are involved. Not the least of which is doing it from the bottom up in a very sustainable way and in a very disciplined way we can complete, if you will, the important part of the journey that is right now missing, which is a full-season league. There’s no reason we wouldn’t have one when we’re so good at it and we’re so popular. From all fronts, there seemed to be an immense amount of opportunity that we can bring by leveraging the resources that are already on the ground, the passion, and the energy that this community already has for the sport and do something about it.”
On its website, lovb.com, it says this:
Our team is made up of passionate volleyball, pro sports, business, and creative minds.
This isn’t just a sport.
This isn’t just a business.
And it’s so much more than the sum of those parts; we came together because we dreamed of creating a professional volleyball league that would headline a meaningful, lifelong community.
There’s a Harvard theme, as well. For example, Athletes Unlimited’s Jon Patricof went to Harvard and Harvard Business School, and his partner, Jonathan Soros, went to Harvard.
Gao went to Harvard Business School, and Pommeraud graduated from Harvard.
Gao has worked at Coach, Sephora, Lululemon, and her LOVB bio says she “contributes her experience leading iconic female centric consumer brands and her passion for female advancement.”
She relies heavily on her experience leading Lululemon, she said, and that will help with the tie-in between clubs and the eventual pro league.
“Very quickly what was so obvious that the reasons why some of the attempts — actually most of the attempts — have not worked, not just in volleyball, but in a lot of other sports, as well, for the most part they’ve taken a traditional approach of top down,” Gao said. “And actually this is what we took a lot of inspiration from, my experience at Lululemon.”
She said the key at Lululemon was being new and different.
“In this day and age, and a lot more brands are like this, a lot of brands started top down. They try to go for eyeballs, they try to spend a ton of marketing money to get consumers and customers to build the brand that way. What Lululemon did instead … is they start in neighborhoods. They start in a second-floor studio where they invite the personal trainers from that town, people who are in Pilates, people in yoga, people who are meditation masters, to come in and do yoga on the second floor studio above the subway. Not glamorous, they have a rack of clothing, but what it does is it starts to engage with the community. And by the time they’re actually establishing their retail outlets on Main Street or inside a mall, they already have people who know the brand of Lululemon and what it means. Very different than how retail was done in the past.”
Wittenburg, the former CEO of the New York Road Runners (NYC Marathon), agreed.
“It’s very compelling,” Wittenburg said. “Our approach of crawl, walk, and run will build awareness of these great athletes and build community fandom, and an audience in these markets will all help us be successful.”
LOVB has bought some big clubs, not the least of which is A5 in Atlanta and in the Southeast, Houston Skyline, and Mizuno Long Beach.
“The goal is creating a really awesome community of clubs around the country,” Pomeraud said. “The number of them is less important than the quality of them, and we’re all focused on growing the sport and improving the experience for players of all ages. Right now, that looks like we’re trying to affiliate a lot of clubs because we’re early days into it, and we’ve found a lot of club directors who are aligned with that vision.”
So is the goal to own hundreds of clubs?
“Or build,” Gao said. “We actually built Madtown Juniors in Madison, Wisconsin.”
LOVB also built a Madtown facilty. More acquisitions are on the horizon, and more new clubs will be started, they said, all in due time.
“Doesn’t make sense to restrict ourselves to one model,” Gao said. “Getting the clubs together is not the end goal. Getting the clubs together has a purpose. Having the clubs join this community allows us to have the foundation and the power to bring a full ecosystem to life that includes more resources absolutely for the clubs themselves, to invest in growth, and to provide best practices for each other and share those best practices and share the resources, but really, the ultimate goal is we’re going to grow the sport together.”
The ultimate goal, it appears but is not exactly stated, is to tie in the local clubs with pro-league franchises.
“To deliver the mission that we have, we need some sort of a critical mass,” said Pommeraud, who is an accomplished dancer. “We need to have a scale that will support the professional league both in terms of audience and for the community of the pro players to engage with, the youth players and things like that.”
This is certainly a new approach.
“It’s been done before and not succeeded. We’re well aware of that. So what a lot of us are really excited about is trying new approaches to make this female sport even more sustainable and successful than it’s ever been,” Pommeraud said. “And what really compels me, and I’ve seen a ton of businesses between consulting and working in a number of them, the strategy and innovation is really fascinating to me. Looking at volleyball a year ago and not knowing a lot about it.”
Level of uncertainty
And they admit to not knowing how it will go.
“I’m not 100 percent sure it will work in the current manifestation,” Pommeraud said, “but I am sure that the team we have put together will figure it out as we grow.”
She joked that the word ecosystem may not resonate with the volleyball community. But …
“We’re not trying to take one piece of the industry and just throw money at it. We’re trying to make a really synergistic, cohesive ecosystem of elements and work them all together. That’s why having the clubs and the professional league and a technology component that makes the whole experience digital, plus physical, working together more efficiently and maybe down the line, merchandise and apparel and a lot more media support.”
Wittenburg, who is from Buffalo, went to Canisius, was a rower, and went to law school at Notre Dame.
“Through sport, I learned to have full confidence, be a great teammate, and not hesitate to pursue whatever my dreams were, at work or in life,” she said. “I really wanted to share that always.”
She left law for the New York City Marathon and most recently was president of education for First Pro Cycling.
So how will the volleyball work?
“I think there are a number of things. One, this is the time. It’s a different time than ever before. We, we as women’s sports, those before us have forced our way through little, tiny openings to actually now to have the attention of media and partners and sponsors. And most importantly of all, fans. This is a moment unlike any other, and we get to follow behind those who are paving the way in other women’s sports like soccer and basketball and the Olympic individual sports,” Wittenburg said.
“Two, I really think that part of it has always been the business model. If you start really big, like the early soccer leagues and you’re relying on a business model with sponsorships and broadcast, it’s so hard to make work because you’re not going to have broadcast until you build an audience, and if you appear out of nowhere with a lot of expense, you don’t get the runway. And that’s been the model not only for women’s sports but for many men’s sports. But the men’s sports have decades and decades and decades longer of a runway and have been at it for a long time, and they’ve had major, major investors hang in there through heavy losses.
“So our opportunity is to build it in a different way.”
Time seems right
Its hard to argue that it is a potentially golden time for women’s volleyball in America. NCAA TV ratings are up, Athletes Unlimited did well under COVID circumstances, and LOVB hopes to capitalize on the excitement created by the USA women’s Olympics gold medal.
“The college game is thriving,” Wittenburg said. “It’s a shame that it ends there. The college audience is important to us.”
It sounds profound, but all the best women’s players went to college.
“You look at volleyball, and we have two things going for us. These athletes are extraordinary. And they’re experienced,” Wittenburg said. “The only way they played is they went to college. They’re ready for a big stage. And the game, I think it’s a great game to watch. It’s ready-made for video highlights, and these are pretty darn compelling athletes, and volleyball’s a compelling game. Social media didn’t exist for most of the previous efforts at volleyball. There’s just a better way to reach a lot more consumers and get their attention. And we don’t need every consumer in the world. Let’s start with the fans of volleyball, and there are an awful lot of us.”
“The goal is to launch a pro league on a community-up basis. And the community-up starts with a network of clubs across the nation. It also starts with reaching volleyball players. Young volleyball players across the nation as fans. Then when we go to a market, we will go to a market where our clubs are for sure. That way we can develop relationships and fans over time. So I hope we can be a real unifier for all these passionate fans across volleyball.”
Once the pro leagues begin, the challenges are many. For example, how do you pay the top pros, so much as keep them in America as opposed to playing overseas?
“We’re gonna take a long-term view, that’s for sure,” Wittenburg admitted. “We will lose money early on. We’re not expecting on the pro side to make money right away. We need to invest. But — and this is a big but — we need to be really careful and mindful about it.
“How are we going to do it? We’re going to bring in great partners who recognize what an amazing chance to have this opportunity to grow this league and — this is what I love so much — but get to engage not only with these headliner players and teams, but a grassroots audience of young people and families across the United States. That’s a big partner opportunity, and it’s pretty different than just sponsoring a team. So I think we’ll do well with partnerships early. We will look to create different revenue streams. Merchandise should be a great opportunity for us.”
But history is against them. When it comes to Olympics sports and spectators, the United States simply is not Europe or Japan, where crowds flock to watch seemingly anything. And it seems unlikely that LOVB can match the tremendous salaries commanded in Europe and Asia by top women’s players.
That’s why Wittenburg said that “volleyball-obsessed markets” will be part of this.
“We have to grow revenue over time, but we have good investors who are really passionate about this who are a healthy part of the model early on,” Wittenburg said. The whole goal is sustainability. The goal is not come out with a big splashy start and be gone.
“We’re going to be cautious and careful.”