A recent study conducted by the Partnership for New York City estimated that roughly one-third of small businesses in the nation’s largest city will close as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying economic challenges.
As best as we know, there hasn’t yet been a similar study done to track the fates of club volleyball programs across the nation, but it doesn’t take a trained economist to realize they’re some of the most vulnerable entities in our sport.
With the dominos of lockdowns and cancellations starting to fall as far back as February, clubs all around the country have missed out on months of membership fees, while their insurance, rent, and payroll bills continue to come due. The lucky ones have found a way to continue to practice or offer small group or private lessons or maybe even compete at one of the few tournaments that didn’t cancel, but that hardly makes up for the revenue a regular season would typically bring in.
Eddie Brown, owner of Athlete Performance Solutions, has worked closely with clubs and college teams in a variety of Olympic sports for more than 20 years, first as an employee of Nike and then at the helm of APS, an official licensee for the famous sportswear and shoe company. This spring, as he and his staff began to realize just how big of an impact the novel coronavirus would have on all sports, Brown knew they had to come up with a plan.
To stay afloat and keep his employees busy, APS started selling non-medical face masks and gaiters, emblazoned with the logos of USA Wrestling, USA Fencing, and USA Weightlifting. But Brown also felt a responsibility to provide whatever assistance he could to the teams and clubs that had been his best customers.
“What we came up with was this campaign we’re calling ‘We Will Play Again,’ and we’re doing it across several sports,” Brown explained.
APS designed T-shirts around the theme of “We Will Play Again” and has customized them for many of the sports they work with. Proceeds of these shirts go to a variety of worthy causes, depending on the specific sport.
The “We Will Wrestle Again” shirts raise money for USA Wrestling, with half of the purchase price of each shirt going into the national team athlete stipend pool. “We Will Skate Again” shirts are a partnership between Alex Ovechkin of the NHL’s Washington Capitals to raise money for a hockey club in Washington D.C. that is trying to rebuild its rink after a fire.
The volleyball “We Will Play Again” is new and it’s all about the clubs. What’s more, APS reports that its single-best back-to-school-selling T-shirt is for volleyball.
Any club that is interested in participating in the fundraising program can send APS their logo and have it printed onto a shirt, along with the “We Will Play Again” design. Then, APS will add the customized shirt to its website and send the club a URL it can blast out to parents, players, and boosters, with half of the purchase price of the shirt going right back to the club. The first club to sign on is KC Power of Kansas City, but Brown hopes to add many more.
“The program is designed to be super simple,” Brown said. “The shirt’s already designed, we just use the team logo and their team colors, we send them the artwork for them to review. If they like the artwork, we put the shirt up on our store, every shirt that sells, they get money.
“I think this is a moment where we can be helpful, and I think we should be. We have an obligation to be.”
Haleigh Washington recently signed on as a APS-sponsored athlete, and you’ll see her sporting Nike gear during her upcoming professional season with Igor Gorgonzola Novara in Italy’s Serie A1 league. The former Penn State All-American is thrilled to be aligned with a brand that is trying to help during this time of need.
“I’m so excited about it and it just kind of further affirmed that this was a step in the right direction,” Washington said. “I want to be a part of something that gives back more than it’s trying to just try to grow and be all about itself. So it was really cool when I saw that this was something they were trying to do because the volleyball community is so tight knit, if we can find ways to support one another, that’s only going to further grow the game, so I love that.”
“I know (the pandemic has) been tough for the clubs,” said Chiaka Ogbogu, the former Texas star who is another recent APS signee, via email from Turkey where she plays for Eczacıbaşı VitrA. “Having JOs cancelled was not only a MASSIVE hit for USA Volleyball as an organization, but the clubs were also negatively affected.
“I just know a lot of clubs, especially in Texas, have either had to close down the club permanently, or merge with another club for financial support. I’m sure there are so many cases of clubs on the verge of closing, which is terrible to think about.”
KC Power, one of the first clubs to join the We Will Play Again fundraiser, has been in many ways lucky through this worldwide crisis. They took a financial hit, said KC Power co-director/recruiting coordinator Danielle Stowell, but as a small club with no full-time employees and no dedicated facility, they were able to continue to pay their coaches during the months they couldn’t play or practice.
“It could have been worse, I’ll say that,” Stowell said, “because we don’t have a facility that we have to fill with multiple teams. We just have one team per age group so where we practice and how we practice and the logistics of the building that we use, it’s structured to where we lost some but we made it.
“We were pretty determined to just pay our coaches. We don’t pay them enough but we were pretty determined that they got their pay through the year, so we could help them however we can. Just knowing that everybody was impacted economically, even if Power isn’t their (main) job. So we just made it a priority to really step up and make sure our coaches were taken care of. Any players or families that needed assistance or that needed help, we always have cut them a break and we did that here during the pandemic.”
KC Power shut down March 12, but was able to start offering some private and small group lessons starting in late May. They’ve been having team practice (with lots of precautions and cleaning procedures) since the first week of June.
Other clubs have not been as lucky. Those with facilities to pay for and those with full-time staff members have suffered the most, with many being forced to lay off staff and even contemplate shutting down completely.
Washington noted that overseas, professional teams often run the youth programs, and the pro teams’ corporate sponsorships trickle down to provide funding for the clubs.
“We don’t really have sponsorship like that in the states, so it can be hard to find the money sometimes,” she said. “So I love that this is something that we’re doing that we’re finding ways to support the club game because that’s where a lot of kids start and have opportunities to go beyond the high school game.”
“When APS first told me about the idea, I was pumped,” Ogbogu added. “It felt good knowing that there’s something tangible being done to at least attempt to offset the financial damages to the clubs. It’s a cool concept that supporters, by simply buying a t-shirt, can help out a club.”
The “We Will Play Again” campaign is a great reminder of just how interconnected we all are. Sure, it might be club programs who are struggling today, but without the lasting survival of clubs and sports teams across the country, companies like Brown’s could be among the next to falter. Brown not only employs former athletes, like Texas alum Nicole Skoch (nee Dalton), but also provides funding to pros like Haleigh Washignton and her fellow national teamer Chiaka Ogbogu. Like Washington said, it’s a tight knit sport.
One way or another, yes, we will play again, and hopefully APS’ fundraiser can help make sure that we don’t lose a significant portion of our clubs before that day arrives.
“I tell anyone that will listen that playing club volleyball played such a vital role in where I am today,” Ogbogu said. “Personally, I don’t think I would be in this position today (playing professionally and on the USAV National team, etc.) without the knowledge and support I received from my TAV days. So to know that I can help out my club and other clubs in the smallest way, makes me feel like I’m helping further the volleyball dreams of some young girl out there.”
The “We Will Play Again” T-shirt fundraiser is open to any interested volleyball club. Learn more by contacting Athlete Performance Solutions directly at info@athletePS.com or call (888)-588-8834.