State of the Sport

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Early each year, the president of the United States gives the State of the Union address to bring the country up to speed on recent goings-on and outline the administration’s agenda for the coming year. Similar speeches are given by local government officials and even CEOs of major corporations.

Consider this our state of the sport address.

Volleyball recently conducted a wide-ranging online survey, the results are below. There is one major takeaway from the survey: Interest in volleyball remains high and people are as passionate as ever about the sport.

INDOOR INTEREST

Respondents indicated they are interested in many different arms of the indoor game with 37 percent saying the collegiate women’s game piques their interest the most, while 21 percent are most interested in indoor youth volleyball, and 12 percent favor the U.S. national teams. Nine percent say the collegiate men’s competition is their game of choice.

Many respondents indicated they follow various facets of the sport.

I enjoy watching college ball, as well as the FIVB, U.S. national teams, and the high school level, one respondent wrote.

Any volleyball I can watch or participate in, echoed Jon Boss of Washington.

Not surprisingly, at the collegiate level 61 percent of survey takers said they are most interested in the NCAA Division I women’s game, while 18 percent prefer the NCAA Division I-II men’s game.

Readers attributed the continued rise in popularity of the women’s college game to better television coverage, the increased fitness level of athletes, and the large number of playing opportunities available.

The talent level across the country has risen, Nebraska resident Henry Vogt said. The West Coast used to have the most talent, now it’s spread across the country.

On the flipside, readers feel there is one key element that would help increase the popularity of the boys and men’s game: get kids into the sport earlier through more boys club programs and high school teams. Many respondents also mentioned increasing the number of opportunities for men to play in college.

When forced to choose, the majority of respondents indicated they favor the women’s and girls indoor game. Reasons given included longer rallies, having children who play, and the lack of boys and men’s volleyball in their area of the country.

The women’s game provides a lot more rallies and I think women actually have better technique and skill, said one respondent. Much like women’s tennis, volleyball is a sport where women’s athleticism can be appreciated even more than men’s.

Men and women play the sport very differently, said another. The men’s game is more about overpowering the opponent, and the women’s is about finesse and outsmarting the other side.

On the other hand, respondents who expressed a fondness for the men’s game commented on the increased intensity.

I like the power and speed of the [men’s] game, said Jerry Strub, proprietor of middlehitter.com. I get tired of watching [the] easily dug hits and free balls I see in the women’s game. Some people like to see the ball go over the net more often but not me. I like to see the athleticism and power to create the point in both attacking and serving.

Too much competition from other major league sports was the reason cited most by respondents for why professional indoor leagues havent worked in the U.S.

Over the summer I attended one of the matches where the U.S. Men’s National Team played Serbia in Chicago, Illinois resident Katie Wagner said. The turnout was abysmal on the U.S. side. There were definitely more Serbian fans than U.S. fans. For some reason, professional volleyball is just not that popular here. Ive never understood why and probably never will. Whoever figures this out and is able to make it successful will be considered a god in our sport.

At the same time, survey respondents overwhelmingly support the idea of professional indoor leagues in the U.S.

One respondent, Tim Snarr of Utah, was particularly enthusiastic about the idea. I would buy tickets and go to the matches, he said. I would buy my favorite team’s apparel and other items. I would talk smack about the teams my coworkers and friends like. I would arrange my schedule as far [in advance] as possible to watch them on TV. I would live through them vicariously because their wins are my wins, and my next day settering (think quarterbacking) around the water cooler will absolve me from their loses. Im all in.

Others expressed their support, but admitted they had their doubts about whether anyone would take the initiative to create such a league or if a sustainable business model could be developed.

TAKE IT OUTSIDE

All but 5 percent of respondents said they were interested in the outdoor game, with 26 percent saying they prefer the professional beach game, 22 percent favoring the collegiate sand game, and 19 percent showing the most interest in recreational beach activities.

When asked where one would most likely play or watch an outdoor event, 24 percent said a professional tournament, while 19 percent said an adult amateur tournament, and 15 percent said a recreational event (a day at the beach).

However, when it comes to professional beach volleyball in the U.S., respondents were candid with their comments on why the pro beach game hasnt found success in recent years.

Beach life is not a reality for so many people living away from the coast, Arizona resident Sam Mendivil said. Only recently has there seemed to be an upsurge in respect for the sport. The college level being added to so many Division I schools will really help to promote the game.

California resident Chris Salles feels television will play a key role in the pro game’s re-emergence going forward. Consistent TV exposure is necessary for casual fans to become interested in the game, he said. They need storylines that connect [them to] the already colorful characters we have on the beach.

Readers were much more positive in their feelings on the potential of the relatively nascent collegiate sand game.

Sand volleyball is the greatest sport in the world and having the sport at the NCAA level is attracting younger players to start playing sand earlier, California resident Julie Spicer said. The level of sand volleyball players between the ages of 14 and 26 has dramatically increased in the last few years. The indoor college players that used to play in CBVA [California Beach Volleyball Association] tournaments had a hard time adjusting to the sand, wind, and court size. Now they are dominating. This is going to make a huge difference in helping our country dominate international events. They need to do the same for boys and men.

California resident Jason Castle added, Just like Little League exposes young boys to baseball, I believe the trickle-down effect of NCAA sand volleyball will reach youth volleyball for the kids wanting to play in college. This is a great opportunity for our young girls and it will help continue to grow our sport.

THE YOUTH GAME

Respondents saw myriad benefits to participating in club volleyball, including greater improvement opportunities for players and the acquisition of skills that can be used later in life.

[In club,] players get way more touches on a ball than they get during the high school season, one respondent noted. It teaches teamwork and other things that carry over to real life.

A respondent from Virginia added more detail: It sounds clich, but having young people (in my case girls) learn to handle conflict, perform under pressure, and win with grace and lose with dignity [teaches] such powerful lessons. These are the same young girls who will become mothers, CEOs, doctors, and politicians. I would like to think the confidence they develop while competing with their teammates on a court can benefit them for a lifetime.

Respondents were mixed in their opinions of whether too much emphasis at the club level is placed on earning a college scholarship, and numerous respondents expressed displeasure at the relative lack of scholarship opportunities for boys looking to play at the collegiate level.

I believe that there should be more discussion and thought put into how club volleyball is structured for high school aged participants, wrote Joel Schafer of Nebraska. There should be opportunities for athletes who still want to compete at a high level, but have other aspirations than volleyball when it comes to college. Scholarships are a way in which a club promotes itself and validates their success; many times girls who do not show an interest in college recruiting are pushed aside in later high school years, even though their commitment and skill level remains high. There could be more education about what playing in DIII or NAIA is like and showing girls that there are many opportunities beyond DI.

Nevada resident Zoltan Berenyi sees the issue a little differently, however. I believe [earning a scholarship] is the ultimate accomplishment for hard work and sacrifice, he said.

Stephen Wheeler of Michigan voiced his opinion as well: Club volleyball brings in the majority of the top-level athletes for the sport. Placing the focus on college scholarships presents yet another draw for the elite athletes to get involved.

One California-based respondent would like to see college exposure increased for club players. I think most clubs need to do a better job helping all their athletes compete at the next level, not just the players who make their top team.

Survey respondents were also asked their thoughts on the pros and cons of the travel associated with club volleyball, and the majority feel it has a variety of tangible benefits.

Club volleyball travel gave me the tools I need now as a varsity athlete to be able to balance school and volleyball, Ontario resident Caitlin Genovy said.

However, some respondents feel the benefits of travel such as team bonding and playing opponents outside of the home area can be muted by the cost involved.

Another in the survey asked respondents if they felt the number of injuries in the youth indoor game is on the rise. Many who answered affirmatively felt the number is increasing due to greater participation. Others cited the length of seasons (high school and then into club season) and lack of recovery time as another possible factor.

I think the severity of injuries may be increasing, one respondent noted. We need better training in strengthening knees and shoulders as well as proper landing technique for attackers.

Responses were mixed when we asked whether the high school game has taken a back seat to club volleyball. Some respondents said the quality of coaching at the two levels factors into the split.

I would not say [high school competition has] taken a back seat. It’s just not the driver’s seat, one respondent said.

But others say the high school game offers other positives.

There is a certain degree of pride in representing your school, community, and fellow students that is missing in club ball, Colorado resident Chuck Ellis said.

Iowa resident Martha Pace mentioned how club complements high school play: At our high school, girls play both. Club experience has made the players better and that makes the [high school] games more exciting for fans and players.

What then did our respondents wish could be different about the club game?

Getting outside help from people in the sports medicine field to ensure athletes in the club system are staying healthy and not putting themselves at risk for injury, Ontario native Genovy said.

Other changes mentioned include lowering the cost of participation, rules unification, shorter seasons, better training for coaches, and better interaction with USA Volleyball at the regional level.

A shorter season is needed, Coloradoan Ellis said. Players need a break so their bodies can recover. This shouldnt be a 12-month sport. Also, every coach should go through more than just IMPACT training so they learn proper training and coaching techniques.

Our survey also indicates that respondents are in favor (if it were ever possible) of a season-ending national high school championship tournament and for the various club national organizations to come together to determine definitive national age-group champions.

THE NAME GAME

What do you think were the top-three volleyball names that came to respondents minds? Most followers of the sport wouldnt be surprised to hear that Karch Kiraly, Misty May-Treanor, and Kerri Walsh Jennings were the most frequently mentioned by a landslide. Current U.S. women’s national team coach and sport legend Kiraly was the runaway top name mentioned followed by fellow Olympic gold medalists May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings. Rounding out the top five were Sinjin Smith and recent Penn State grad and two-time NCAA champion setter Micha Hancock. Logan Tom and current U.S. Men’s National Team star Matt Anderson followed.

Respondents overwhelmingly chose Hancock as their favorite women’s college player with Wisconsin setter Lauren Carlini placing second. U.S. Men’s National Team member and USC senior Micah Christenson was respondents favorite men’s college player. He was followed by former BYU star and current national team player Taylor Sander.

Penn State women’s coach Russ Rose was the top vote getter in the college coach category with more than three times as many votes as runner-up John Dunning of Stanford. University of Minnesota women’s coach Hugh McCutcheon and retired UCLA men’s coach Al Scates came in third and fourth.

On the beach side, Phil Dalhausser was the favorite male player followed by the long-retired Kiraly and Beijing gold medalist Todd Rogers. For the women, Walsh Jennings ran away with 35 percent of the votes. She was followed by now-retired May-Treanor with 15 percent, while Walsh Jennings current partner April Ross claimed 10 percent.

In a race to the wire, survey respondents voted former Penn State standout Alicia Glass as their favorite U.S. Women’s National Team member. Glass edged Texas great Destinee Hooker by one vote and former Washington setting star Courtney Thompson by two votes. Former Penn State star Matt Anderson was the favorite U.S. Men’s National Team player, followed by Sander.

Some additional survey results:

Would you support a professional indoor league?

Yes: 76%
Not sure: 20%
No: 4%

What types of outdoor volleyball are you interested in?

Professional beach: 26%
Collegiate sand: 22%
Recreational beach: 19%
Youth beach: 14%
Grass: 14%
Not interested in outdoor volleyball: 5%

Favorite female beach player

Kerri Walsh Jennings: 35%
No preference: 30%
Misty May-Treanor: 15%
Other: 10%
April Ross: 10%

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