“What I’d say to the universities, especially to the ones who are thinking about having men’s volleyball, is the sport is blowing up at the junior level. Kids are playing. They need places to play. Athletic directors, invest in this sport.… It’s not a big price tag. And you have an opportunity to have these incredible athletes who are great students, great ambassadors for your university and future Olympians.”
— Men’s volleyball coach Alan Knipe of Long Beach State
For the better part of the past four decades, boys volleyball and men’s volleyball have been afterthoughts. But there was a time, AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer noted, in the late 1960s when boys volleyball players across the U.S. outnumbered girls players.
Then came Title IX (1972), and as schools rushed to provide more athletics opportunities for girls, volleyball was among the sports most often added. By the 1980s, DeBoer said, there were five times as many girls high-school volleyball players as boys players.
“So (volleyball) just became identified with girls in the United States,” DeBoer said. “I just think a lot of boys who might have thought about the sport ran away from it in the ’80s and ’90s because it became associated with, ‘Oh, that’s a girls sport.’ ”
Jamie Davis, the CEO of USA volleyball, said: “What we find is that stigma is gone, that volleyball is a girls sport. Boys are not embarrassed to play like they might have been generations ago, right? They go out there, and they have fun, and now they’re looking to find places to play. That’s a really good change.”
There remained regional pockets where boys volleyball was popular. Penn State men’s coach Mark Pavlik, who played at Derry Area High School in suburban Pittsburgh in the 1970s, said Pennsylvania has a sanctioned high-school volleyball championship that pre-dates World War II. The West Coast and parts of the Midwest also were bastions of the boys and men’s game.
The push to make boys and men’s volleyball more widespread started only recently. Interest is growing, and now boys/men’s volleyball is among the fastest growing sports in the U.S.
Two college conferences, the Division I Northeast Conference and Division II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which comprises historically Black schools, have added men’s volleyball in the past two years. And in 2022, six states have voted to sanction high- school boys volleyball.
Much work remains. Even with the six newbies, the number of states that have sanctioned boys high-school volleyball remains at less than half — 22 to be exact.
According to the most recent figures available from the National Federation of State High School Associations (2018-19), 63,563 boys played high-school volleyball — but Kenny Rogers of First Point Volleyball Foundation said that number now is likely closer to 70,000. But that’s a drop in the proverbial bucket when compared with girls players, which, according to NFHS, was more than 450,000.
Still, boys/men’s volleyball is trending upward. According to NCAA research, participation between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 academic years grew by 29 percent at the high-school level and by 79 percent at the NCAA level.
As the demand grows, a concerted effort is being made to increase the supply.
Getting to the ‘Point’
One of the prime movers in the crusade for boys/men’s volleyball has been First Point. Founded in 2016, the organization, said new executive director Logan Grenley, has a three-pronged purpose: Growth at the college level, growth at the high-school level and increased diversity. The ultimate goal, Grenley said, is to have the sport sanctioned for high-school boys in all 50 states by 2028, when the Olympics go to Los Angeles.
Grenley described First Point’s approach as “top-down, bottom-up.”
By having more colleges offer men’s volleyball (i.e., more athletic scholarships), young boys would be inspired to take up the game. On the other end, increasing participation at the youth and high-school levels will provide athletes for college programs.
“There’s people all over the country who have been working on this in their own little silos for a while,” said John Speraw, the coach for the USA men’s national team and UCLA and the chairman of First Point’s board of directors. “We felt like we could help facilitate the sharing of information and see if we could accelerate it.”
First Point has arranged group chats and message boards where boys volleyball advocates across the country can trade insights and ideas. First Point officials can check in on efforts to get volleyball sanctioned in the 28 remaining states and also keep up with progress in states where it is already sanctioned.
One of the big breakthroughs came when board member Scott Siegfried was able to get boys volleyball sanctioned in Colorado. Siegfried did the legwork and wrote the bylaw to push the sport through after a long struggle.
He said he heard every excuse and every argument against sanctioning boys volleyball. But Siegfriend remained steadfast, meeting each challenge with extensive research.
And, he said, he made the fight “very public.”
“It just came to, ‘OK, what’s the next argument?’ ” he said. “Let’s dig into the real data and not what you think it is or what you believe.
“As I really sat and looked at it and had a chance to meet with the new (Colorado High School Activities Association) commissioner (Rhonda Blanford-Green), what we came up with is we realized there was no clear process. That’s the advice I give to states whenever I talk to them: Make sure everybody is clear on the process, that you’re working on the same understanding, the same rules.”
Siegfried’s work has become a sort of blueprint for other states in their efforts to have the sport sanctioned. A little case of “seeing is believing” doesn’t hurt either.
Siegfried said that Speraw brought the national team to Colorado Springs to play an exhibition with Canada. Siegfried rented a room at the Olympics training center and invited CHSSA officials to hear Speraw speak. Then, CHSSA officials watched the match with about 500 boys players from around the state.
“It was like an environment they had never felt in Colorado,” Siegfried said. “They felt it … and I think that was important.”
Colorado sanctioned boys high-school volleyball not long after.
Larry Wrather, coach of Fort Valley State’s fledgling men’s program, has a similar story.
During the SIAC’s inaugural tournament in Rock Hill, S.C., several members of the governing South Carolina High School League went to watch Fort Valley play Edward Waters. South Carolina is among the states where folks were pushing hard for boys volleyball to be sanctioned.
Wrather remembers how the board members reacted.
“They were like, ‘Oh my God! This is what it’s going to look like? This is what they’re going to have the opportunity to go to?’ That night, they voted unanimously to push it through.”
But for every South Carolina, there is a Minnesota. That state’s high-school sports governing body recently turned down the sanctioning of boys volleyball. By one vote. In 2021, it missed by two votes.
This despite 1,400 athletes and 55 club teams throughout the state, according to figures reported by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
First Point’s Rogers said: “It (sanctioning) doesn’t mean your high school has to have it. Your high school doesn’t have to vote for it individually. But don’t exclude boys who want to play from playing.”
The Title IX ‘excuse’
Promoting a boys/men’s sport in the 21st century might seem like a slippery slope. In the current climate, most efforts focus on promoting opportunities for female athletes.
As such, the go-to response for many states that haven’t sanctioned boys volleyball is Title IX. States are reluctant to further exacerbate the imbalance that usually is caused by football, a huge participation sport for boys with no girls equivalent.
“The growth of men’s volleyball does not necessarily coincide with diminishing women’s volleyball,” First Point’s Grenley said.
DeBoer, for one, is tired of having Title IX thrown in the faces of groups trying to expand boys volleyball. She calls it “an excuse.”
“There are three ways to comply with Title IX,” DeBoer said. “Number one is you have 100 boys (athletes), you have 100 girls. You’re equal in terms of the number of opportunities. Which, again, is going to be very difficult if you have 85 boys on a football team.
“The second way to comply with Title IX is that you offer opportunities for the underrepresented sex.… One of the things that happened in South Carolina when boys volleyball was made a sanctioned sport — and it also happened in Ohio — they added girls wrestling and boys volleyball. You’re complying with Title IX.
“ … And the third prong is you’re meeting the interests and abilities of the girls in your school. You don’t have to add any sports if the girls don’t want any sports.”
“Title IX simply says you need to add opportunities for girls.… It does not say you have to cut or you cannot add opportunities for boys.”
Siegfried said he ran into the Title IX argument often while trying to get sanctioning in Colorado. As he is wont to do, he dug into the data, and he found that 65 to 70 percent of Colorado high schools could add boys volleyball and not run afoul of Title IX.
Speraw said he believes many schools are just unwilling to roll up their sleeves to add a boys sport.
“I think we have to do the work to find out where we can have some success,” he said. “And I think there are some areas where there also are women’s sports that want to add: cheerleading, girls wrestling or other sports that are out there. Women’s beach volleyball is a perfect example.”
Further, Grenley said, the women’s volleyball community seems to be highly supportive of having more boys/men’s programs. Growing the sport for men grows the sport in general.
And a symbiotic relationship can develop between male and female teams. Pavlik shares a gym with the highly successful Penn State women’s program, and his wife, Heather, coaches at Juniata, which also has successful men’s and women’s programs.
“Where they have men’s and women’s volleyball, you have modeling taking place on the court for each team,” Pavlik said. “I think it’s a great sport to be in, male or female, to be able to influence either side just by your relationship to the game. If you love the game, it’s going to teach you.”
Sophia Spiridonakos, a women’s player at Fairleigh Dickinson, told VolleyballMag.com in October that she and her teammates welcomed the addition of the men’s program this spring.
“They will come and help us if we ask for extra reps out of practice,” she said. “And me digging against a men’s volleyball player is going to be a little tougher than a women’s player because their swings are more aggressive and stronger.
“Other athletes come and support (us) at our games, but it’s not always the same translation. They don’t always understand the game the way another volleyball player would. So it’s easy to talk to them and get their feedback after games of what they saw and what they think we can do better and things like that.”
Major push for minorities
Doug Beal, a former USA Volleyball CEO, has seen a lot of changes in his six decades around the game. One of those has been the proliferation of club teams, a development that he said is good and bad.
On the upside, it helps the overall growth of the sport. On the downside, not everyone who might want to play volleyball can afford to pay club fees.
“High school is where everybody is, and the availability is much broader,” said Beal, a former national-team player who coached the USA men to this country’s first volleyball Olympics gold medal in 1984. “There’s a much more level playing field for opportunity (in high school).
“High school, in a whole bunch of sports, might not provide the high-level focus as a certain percentage of participants want … but if it’s everywhere, so many kids get exposed to it, and the sport just grows in a really positive way.”
By helping make volleyball available in more high schools across the country, First Point officials are hoping to expand the sport’s diversity. Having teams in more high schools would help expose underserved populations to the sport.
Speraw helped the cause by taking his Bruins to Georgia — one of the states where a sanctioning effort is ongoing — to play matches at Morehouse and Fort Valley State. Not only did Speraw and his players interact with the fledgling HBCU teams, but they, and First Point, also staged clinics for urban youth.
“It was more successful than I ever imagined would be possible,” Speraw said. “I think it was really most impactful on our men, our UCLA players. I had a mom come up to me and tell me, ‘That was a life-changing event for my son.’ ”
Speraw said he wants to do a similar road trip in the future. That won’t happen next season because of scheduling complexities, but he is eager to return to a couple of HBCUs, perhaps different schools the next time.
Fort Valley’s Wrather applauded Speraw and the Bruins for their effort and said he is hopeful that more premier programs will consider similar matches. Moreover, he hopes Georgia will sanction the sport soon, noting the incongruity of having six collegiate men’s volleyball teams in the state and no sanctioned high-school boys volleyball.
“How are you going to have the best in the sport if you’re not having everyone in the sport?” Wrather asked rhetorically. “We’re stopping these kids from having opportunities to go to college in-state and play a sport. How does that help us?”
From a financial standpoint, volleyball is relatively cheap, especially, DeBoer said, if a school already has a girls team. The court is the same size. The balls are the same size. The net height can be adjusted.
“Then all you need is a pair of shorts and a T-shirt,” DeBoer said.
Beal: “We need to diversify who sees it, who can engage in it and its availability.”
All parties involved are optimistic that First Point can reach its goal — or at least get close — by the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. While the desire is to see men’s volleyball grow nationwide, Grenley said there will be a special emphasis on the South and Northeast.
In the South, according to First Point data, there are active sanctioning efforts taking place in Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina.
Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Maine also are trying to get on board.
In terms of selling a sport once identified with girls to young men, there are plenty of avenues to be explored.
“We don’t have enough boys exposed to men playing volleyball,” DeBoer said. “We need to get boys seeing men play volleyball, not boys seeing women play it at a high level.
“That might whet their appetite, but they need to see guys playing so that they know this is a men’s sport.”
To that end, Penn State’s Pavlik said when men’s volleyball is broadcast on television — something everyone agreed there needed to be more of — the physical nature of the game must be emphasized. Pavlik doesn’t think the power of the men’s game translates well on TV.
He likened it to the way the physicality of men’s basketball is celebrated with dunks and long-range 3-pointers. Wrather concurred and said volleyball needs to promote the same characteristics as men’s basketball.
“On the men’s side, (officials are) kind of being a little more lenient with calls and kind of letting guys play and be athletic,” he said. “And that’s what’s going to help our sport take off.
“You have people who love basketball because of the dunks and highlights. Volleyball has highlights on every play. A spike is a dunk. You want a blocked shot? OK, cool. We have blocks in volleyball.”
Social media is another aspect that men’s volleyball advocates would like to see used more. The AVCA, DeBoer said, is active in this area, putting out polls, naming college and high- school All-America teams and, in her words, “producing things that produce social media.”
Pavlik said social media needs to be flooded with as many highlights and other material as often as possible.
Wrather sees simply getting the sport in front of more young boys as a big piece of the puzzle. He plans to have his Fort Valley State men’s team go to local elementary schools and demo the sport, and he’s encouraging other college coaches to do the same.
“It’s a high-intensity and energetic atmosphere when you’re in a men’s volleyball gym,” he said. “So you think of adding 9-year-old to 12-year-olds in a gym, they’re going to be losing their minds. We’re all about pushing this movement forward because we talk about it in our gym: This is bigger than us.”
And if Rogers is right, there will be plenty more boys interested in volleyball in the coming years.
“I think the more women graduate from college having played, the more moms we have giving birth to both girls and boys to play,” he said.
Pavlik called the influence of mothers who were volleyball players “underrated.” This past season alone, Pavlik had three men on his roster whose mothers were accomplished college players, including Canyon Tuman, whose mother is former USA national team member Molly Dreisbach.
“They (mothers) were on the cutting edge, the opening of the curtain, if you will, of Title IX,” Pavlik said. “So they got to enjoy their sport and make their mark in it, and I think they are certainly not the outliers. I am willing to bet there are more guys playing now that were introduced to the sport from their mom. More than we would likely guess.”
Of course, more media coverage is on the minds of all involved. But they acknowledge that might not happen until participation and demand increase.
USA Volleyball’s Davis said: “Obviously it takes time, for us at the elite level, for them to get through the pipeline. But I’m encouraged by the direction it’s going.”
Boys/men’s volleyball advocates believe their sport has a lot of selling points, and they hope to see it continue to be made more available and accessible.
“I think there are a lot of factors that play into volleyball’s success,” Beal said. “Maybe it’s just volleyball’s time.”