New pro volleyball federation aims to change the women’s volleyball team scene
The Ohio and Texas-headquartered league sees opportunity in the popular women’s sport, looking to launch in 2024.
Updated on May 30, 2023 at 6:30 p.m. ET
Imagine pulling up to your local sports bar to have a few drinks and catch the local sports team on TV. But instead of the Detroit Lions or the Tigers, it's the Grand Rapids Rise, Michigan’s pro women’s volleyball team.
That could be a reality in just a few short years.
With play slated to begin in February 2024, the Pro Volleyball Federation is a pro league aiming to make indoor volleyball one of those regularly televised events, competing with other professional leagues for airtime. And Grand Rapids is home to the league’s inaugural team, the “Rise”.
PVF wants its product to operate and look like a traditional American sports league. That means teams playing home and road games in pro arenas throughout a 16-game season.
“Ours is a traditional league, where you have rivals, home games, road games, you crown a champion,” founder Dave Whinham said. “We are a league that’s broken into teams, that represent different cities and markets, that build a roster around a head coach, that take on the best of the rest of the league, playing towards a championship.”
The league has a host of players that have committed to playing in its first season. That list includes multiple former collegiate players and a couple of former U.S. National Team members. Jenna Rosenthal and Morgan Hentz both have experience with Team USA.
The 2024 inaugural season will include eight different teams, each with 14 players, according to league. Columbus, Omaha, Atlanta and Grand Rapids are franchise locations that have been publicly announced.
However, Grand Rapids is currently the only team with a name and branding.
Featuring a phoenix logo and a red, gold and blue color scheme, the Rise will play its eight regular season home games at Van Andel Arena. That’s the home of the Grand Rapids Griffins, a minor league affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings.
An arena isn’t the only thing the Griffins and Rise share, though. Dan DeVos, the son of Amway’s co-founder, and currently the family-held Orlando Magic’s chairperson, will own and operate the Rise.
“They [DeVos family and company] were in agreement that it was the right thing at the right time,” Whinham said. “We worked together to build the economic and business models for this thing, based on our collective experiences in this area.”
The Rise already announced former Michigan State head coach Cathy George will helm the team.
There’s still plenty of ground that needs to be covered before the league launches next year. That includes how the league will be viewed outside of the arenas.
“We expect to have, in the first year, multiple national games of the week that air in different windows during our season, but we also expect to have a robust streaming partner where we have live games on demand, and shoulder programming that allows you to take a look at our athletes behind the scenes and maybe how we’re growing this league behind the scenes,” founder Stephen Evans said.
While there’s still plenty of runway left, the PVF has received support from a few high-level individuals inside and outside of the sports realm. The Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Joe Burrow and his family became founding partners of PVF back in December. Musician Jason Derulo is partnering with a Nebraska-based businessman Danny White to launch a franchise in Omaha.
Competing for views
By building a league that runs and looks like other pro leagues in the United States, PVF’s endgame is to put itself among the likes of the NFL and MLB, competing for viewership on weekdays and weekends alike.
Fighting with those well-established leagues for views won’t be easy, though.
“The biggest problem is that it’s a really competitive marketplace,” Dr. Forrest Morgeson, an assistant professor of marketing at Michigan State, said. “You’re going to be going up against a lot of bigger, very well-established traditional sports that monopolize the prime viewing times and channels for those sports. It makes it more difficult to break into the market, even when you have an otherwise attractive product to sell.”
PVF won’t just be competing with non-volleyball sports for viewership. There are a few indoor volleyball leagues either established or set to launch. Athletes Unlimited is currently the only one of the leagues that has already been established. League One Volleyball and Volleyball League of America are a pair set to start up in the next couple of years.
Athletes Unlimited is the first pro indoor volleyball league in the United States. However, it looks almost nothing like the traditional American sports league: at the beginning of a season, the organization’s players are drafted into new, temporary teams. There aren’t multiple cities and different fan bases like most pro leagues in the U.S. Plus, volleyball is just one of a host of sports AU puts on.
There isn’t a clear standout in the United States - yet. Again, many of those aforementioned leagues are either still in the works or operate completely unlike the typical American sports league. The options closest to home for most college graduates are found in South America, highlighted by Brazil’s Super League and Argentina’s Serie A1.
For many women, the only option for going pro after college is heading across the pond. There are multiple pro teams in Europe, including the Italian Superlega, the German Volleyball Bundesliga, the Polish PlusLiga and the Russian Volleyball Super League.
“Last year there were 325 women that had a sports visa playing volleyball overseas,” CEO Jen Spicher said. “That’s a lot of ladies that we hope to bring home.”
Pay is the clear reason why many former collegiate volleyball players choose to play overseas, with no viable options stateside. That’s one of the areas in which the Pro Volleyball Federation is looking to separate itself from the other young volleyball leagues over the next few years. The first-year base salaries of players in the league will be similar to that of a first-year WNBA player, according to the PVF.
The base salary for a third-round pick or an undrafted rookie that makes a roster in the WNBA is $60,471.
“Athletes are our product and part of that is providing them with a liveable wage so they can focus on being a professional athlete and their craft, and not having to get a second or third job to make ends meet,” Evans said. “Treating them the right way means a liveable wage. It also means sharing revenue with the players, and we’re the first league ever to do that since day one.”
The growth of the volleyball
As live TV viewership continues to dwindle, women’s sports has been one of the few areas in which there has been consistent growth. Volleyball has certainly been a part of that broadening interest. Collegiate viewership is on the rise and youth participation has grown 8.4% since 2012.
There appears to be a market for more televised or streamed volleyball, although it won’t necessarily be an easy product to establish.
“We’ve seen some of these newer sports come in with lots and lots of financial support behind them, and still really struggle to maintain an audience,” Dr. Morgeson said. “It’s going to be a difficult task, but you are seeing more prevalence of professional women’s sports and more viewership for those, and they’ll [PVF] try to break into that market themselves.”
Volleyball looms especially large in the Big Ten. Wisconsin and Nebraska’s fan bases have led the way. The Badgers hold the regular season attendance record (16,833 fans were in attendance for Wisconsin’s matchup against Florida last year), while the Cornhuskers are looking to shatter that record this season with an outdoor game against Omaha at Memorial Stadium.
Last year’s NCAA championship featured two teams from the conference, Wisconsin and Nebraska. The result was the largest recorded crowd in college volleyball history (18,755 attended the game in Columbus) and the highest viewership since ESPN began airing the event (1.19 million, a 71% increase from the year prior).
This year’s championship game between Texas and Louisville saw a dip in viewership (down to 786,000), but it was still more than the 2019 and 2020 showings of the event.
“There were a lot of things that gave us the confidence to pull the trigger, not the least of which was the skyrocketing viewership of NCAA women’s volleyball,” Whinham said.
Naturally, the PVF’s first announced team sprouted up in Big Ten country. Plus, the Grand Rapids Rise will be led by a former coach in the conference.
But the league won’t survive on collegiate fans alone. By marketing and operating like other American pro sports leagues, the PVF hopes to attract any sports fan looking for new entertainment.
“Certainly, there will be college fans that are also fans of the league and our players and our teams,” Evans said. ”But we’re not only trying to attract their fans, we’re trying to attract the general public and general sports fan who’s looking for entertainment on a Friday night or Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the location of the Pro Volleyball Federation headquarters. This has been corrected.