U.S. women's volleyball is second to none, sitting atop the world rankings. The game is thriving from the youth level up to the Olympics. But every year, the top U.S. women head to international leagues after college.
That's because the rest of the world has something the U.S. does not: dozens of women's pro volleyball leagues that are crucial for players to reach the highest level of their sport.
"We have 400 girls that have to go abroad if they want to continue in the world of volleyball," Katlyn Gao, the CEO of a new pro league called League One Volleyball, told NPR.
"And many of them don't really want to. They want to be closer to home, closer to the communities that they have been brought up in."
The players leave because for most of them, the international leagues are the only way they can hone their skills, earn a living and maybe prepare for a shot at the Olympics.
Gao's new league is meant to create a new option, to give top American players a reason to stay home rather than playing in Italy, Turkey, Japan and other countries with strong leagues.
"What we're building is really a tribe around volleyball," Gao said.
The new league is announcing its launch plan today. And while a bustling pro league is the end goal, LOVB is starting small — literally. It has set up a network of youth clubs in 11 cities, from Atlanta and Chicago to Long Beach, Calif., looking to guide more than 9,000 players and energize communities that could eventually support professional women's teams.
The league aims to keep top players at home
LOVB plans to unveil its professional league in 2022. The athletes and sports executives behind the fledgling league call it a dream — but it's one they want to come true.
"I'm super excited to even be talking about having a league in America," Justine Wong-Orantes, a key player on the U.S. Olympics team, told NPR.
Wong-Orantes hit new heights in her sport this summer, winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics with the U.S. women's squad. But the celebratory homecoming didn't last long: Weeks after returning to the U.S., Wong-Orantes and other top players packed up again, so they could fly overseas and play in the pro leagues that pay their bills and sustain their careers.
"That's what everyone that I've played with has always dreamt of, is playing professional volleyball in the States," she added.
But right now, Wong-Orantes is in Germany, where her season with VC Wiesbaden recently got under way.
Salaries range according to the players and where their teams are.
"In Germany, I think the highest paid player is probably around, I would say, $80,000 or $90,000," Wong-Orantes said.
Salaries are highest for hitters — players who can score at the net — especially in competitive markets like Asia. With many Asian leagues limiting teams to only one foreigner each, top players can earn around $500,000, Wong-Orantes said.
LOVB is pinning its pro hopes on youth clubs
Indoor volleyball is undeniably popular in the U.S., with millions of current and former players and thousands of youth teams. Popular college programs such as the one at the University of Nebraska routinely sell out their arenas.
But even with that support, it's a daunting task to form a professional sports league from scratch. For decades, attempts to form a lasting pro volleyball league failed. Gao says LOVB is taking a different approach.
"We're doing it in a very bottom-up way and not the traditional top-down, 'build it and they'll come' way," Gao said.
She compares the approach to that of many teams in the MLS, which have close ties to youth teams in their home markets. By joining forces with youth clubs and forging community ties, Gao said, "we're going to start with the fan base first."
The league will share coaching expertise, as well as mentorship from elite players — one of the ways athletes could start to see some pay coming in, even before teams are established. If LOVB gains momentum, young players could face a welcome dilemma: whether to play in the U.S. or overseas, or perhaps split time, as many players in the WNBA have done.
"It'll be interesting," Wong-Orantes said. "I think a lot of a lot of girls are definitely kind of enticed to come to the States. It's also perfect, in my opinion, for college girls that are just graduating."
'You can't be what you can't see'
The league is not yet ready to announce how many teams it will have, or where they will play. For now, the focus is on building an organization that can connect world-class athletes directly to young players on teams around the U.S., creating a network of teams that can share expertise and resources.
Along the way, LOVB is monitoring the youth club markets it's tapping into, hoping to see signs that they're ready to host a pro team.
If the plan takes root and clubs capitalize on their success and grow together, Gao believes the path leading from thriving youth clubs to pro teams in the U.S. will open up.
"You can't be what you can't see," she said, referring to the absence of such a path right now.
While the league isn't saying what venues it's looking at for eventual pro matches, Gao says teams won't be left trying to fill 20,000-seat arenas.
"We're going to start in smaller venues that are just as nice and create an amazing feel" for the game, she said.
A sports business expert gives a cautious thumbs up
The new league's focus on youth clubs is on-target, said Ketra Armstrong, a professor of sport management at the University of Michigan. But she says the league also has work to do in detailing its pro aspirations.
"I agree with their approach to really connect with the youth level, to nurture the interest and to nurture the talent and to nurture the consumerism" at the local level, Armstrong said.
But she wants to know more about the league's business model — how it will interact with college volleyball, and how it might cope with financial setbacks. As an example, she refers to the WNBA.
"One of the reasons that it was able to have such longevity was because of the backing of the NBA," said Armstrong, who is also the director of diversity equity and inclusion in Michigan's School of Kinesiology.
"For several years they lost millions of dollars — but the NBA's pockets were big enough to absorb that loss," she said.
If LOVB takes off but U.S. players are forced to split time between domestic and international leagues, Armstrong says that's not necessarily a sign of failure — just a reflection of where things stand. Other nations have simply shown more willingness to put money into women's pro sports leagues, she says.
"They made that investment early on," Armstrong said. "I mean, even with some of the WNBA players, they still go to other countries and play because they make way more money. Other countries have invested in women's sports to a much greater degree than we have here."
The stakes are high, Armstrong says.
"This is the thing," she said. "Women's sports don't always have the same margin of error as men's sports. So launching this thing, they need to do it right. It needs to be solid."
Women are in charge of the new league
The new league is led by women — a notable distinction at a time when female athletes have routinely been mistreated or even abused. While Gao is LOVB's CEO, the president of its pro league is Mary Wittenberg, who is coming off a stint heading the NYC Marathon. Current and former players are also involved, both in running the new league and through an athletes' advisory council.
LOVB — it's pronounced "love," with a silent b — is also unique because unlike many other women's pro leagues, there's no W in its name. Gao says that's intentional: women, she said, are at the center of volleyball.
But that also hints at a potential pitfall: The league will have to succeed without the entourage effect of an already-popular male counterpart — and without a financial safety net like the one that kept the WNBA alive in its earliest years.
It's another reason, Armstrong says, why women's sports don't have much room for error.
It's the 2nd pro volleyball league to be announced this year
LOVB is unveiling its plans just months after another pro women's volleyball league was launched in the U.S. by Athletes Unlimited. But there are stark differences between the two leagues' strategies.
While LOVB wants to build community ties to support teams that are based around the country, Athletes Unlimited uses a highly compressed format that brings all of its players to one city, for what amounts to a six-week tournament. In a nod to fantasy sports, every player earns points — and from one week to the next, the top performers become the captains of their own freshly drafted teams.
The two leagues are taking dramatically different approaches, but their end goals are similar, to build on volleyball's popularity and elevate an elite sport. Looking at the big picture, Armstrong says there's no question that on a cultural level, there's a need for a women's pro league.
"I think women need it, I think women are looking for it," she said, adding that a successful league could bring opportunities for female-oriented businesses and investors.
Referring to LOVB, Armstrong added, "There are ways that they can really have a positive impact if the business plan is strategic, if it's comprehensive, and if it really offers a comprehensive way that this can be sustainable."