Theres no US pro league in mens volleyball. But these guys arent sitting around in California beach houses theyve been hardened by tough competition in Europe and Asia
In the USA, mens volleyball has no domestic pro league. Most US colleges, in an effort to comply with the gender-equity standards of Title IX, have womens volleyball teams but not mens squads. A 2015 high school survey counts 15,534 girls volleyball programs but just 2,287 boys teams.
And yet, the US men are Olympic medal contenders, building on past successes (gold medals in 1984, 1988 and 2008) with a strong team that tore through World League group play with an 8-1 record heading into this weeks league finals in Krakow, Poland.
So, how does a team with no league to play in push for gold? Forget the volleyball stereotypes. These arent a bunch of guys sitting around beach houses in California. The roster has some representatives from the east coast and the midwest, and the players have been hardened in the competitive cauldrons of Europe, Asia and anywhere else that has the professional league the USA lacks everywhere from Dinamo Moscow to Berlin Recycling Volleys.
I definitely think it would be beneficial for us to have our own league, but it toughens us up to have to go play abroad, says Murphy Troy, a first-time Olympian from St Louis who has played professionally in Italy, France and Poland. It weeds out the people who arent all-in.
Being an American on a foreign team isnt easy. You have to be sharp, says Reid Priddy, who has come back from an ACL injury to make his fourth Olympic roster. You have to give it everything and play great to get a contract the next year. That in contrast to some of the other countries we see where they have tremendous talent, but they know if they have an off year, theyre going to be picked up in their home countries. It almost prepares us even more so because theres nothing to fall back on.
And the calendar is relentless. Unlike soccer, in which international games are spread throughout the year, volleyball players go through a professional season and an international season.
Last fall, the US men qualified for the Olympics by winning the World Cup, eliminating the need to play in a regional qualifier in January in Canada. A month later, Troy started his professional season with Polish team Lotos Trefl Gdansk. That team played its last match on 26 April. By 11 May, he was back in action with the US men in their southern California home base. In June, the US men traveled to Havana, Rio and Rome before getting a home weekend of World League play in Dallas.
Not much time there for an off season. A couple of years ago, for me, it was a day, Troy says.
Volleyball leagues have tried to carve out a presence in the USA in the past. The co-ed International Volleyball Association got a bit of publicity in the 1970s for giving retired NBA star Wilt Chamberlain another sport to play.
USA Volleyball has taken steps toward a new pro presence with the Premier Volleyball League, which just finished its fifth season. But Priddy sees other priorities, especially at the college level. A 2015 NCAA survey counts 21 Division I mens teams, compared to 328 womens teams.
Personally, I think it would be even better to create a scenario within the university system where theres more competitive volleyball teams, Priddy says. I think thatll grow the game more than trying to underwrite a pro league.
Another frontier: television and online broadcasts. Priddy says the quality of mens college volleyball has gone up as players have more opportunities to watch top-level matches on YouTube. NBC Sports Network is now airing World League matches.
The added exposure doesnt just help players learn and refine their games. More broadcasts can bring in more fans who have not yet seen the pace and power of pro volleyball.
Ive never heard anyone come to a volleyball game and say, yeah, thats not for me, Priddy says.
This is not the kind of volleyball you see at a church picnic.