The Pro Volleyball Federation for women debuts and draws a record crowd
There've been lots of major sporting events held at the downtown arena in Omaha, Nebraska but it was a historic sports moment January 24th when a new professional volleyball league made its debut.
A crowd of 11,624 showed up at CHI Health Center and set an attendance record for the Pro Volleyball Federation's inaugural match between the Atlanta Vibeand the Omaha Supernovas. It was the largest turnout ever for women's professional volleyball in the United States beating out the previous record of more than 10,000 at a 2016 Olympic qualifier in Lincoln, Nebraska.
This 2024 event featured a down-to-the-wire, dramatic five-setter that ended with the Atlanta Vibe beating the Omaha team, 3-2. Despite the loss, Supernovas coach Shelton Collier was ecstatic about the turnout. There are seven cities in the league and Collier says Omaha, with its heavy concentration of volleyball fans, was the right choice to host the Pro Volleyball Federation's first match.
"I think the other (six) cities are going to have to work hard to get good crowds," said Collier. "This is setting the bar really high."
Giving U.S. volleyball pros a chance to stay home
For years, the top women's indoor volleyball players have competed in professional leagues overseas after their collegiate careers ended. Now, with the rising popularity of the sport, there is a concerted effort to make pro volleyball more mainstream in the U.S. There will soon be three leagues working to do that.
Besides PVF, there's Athletes Unlimited which started in 2021 with 15 matches each season over a stretch of five weeks, and League One Volleyball (LOVB). It will also have a team in Omaha and is scheduled to begin league competition later this fall.
One of the top professional volleyball players who's taken her game outside the continental U.S. is Leah Edmond, an outside hitter for the new Atlanta Vibe. Other top players commonly sign to play in European countries.
Edmond played college volleyball at the University of Kentucky and she played professionally in Puerto Rico in 2021 and '22. She also competed in the Athletes Unlimited league this year before becoming the first player to sign on with the PVF in May. Players in the league make a base salary of $60,000 with bonuses at the end of the season.
During the match against the Supernovas, Edmond was the top scorer with 29 points. Afterwards, she said she's excited both about playing a professional season that will continue through May and about witnessing so much support for the sport.
"To get on the court and see a packed facility, even though it wasn't for us–it was for Omaha–but to see that in kind of a surreal moment of "We're playing professional volleyball in the (United) States," said Edmond.
The spike in volleyball attention
The Pro Volleyball Federation had been in the works for more than a year. The timing for its debut came down to seizing the momentum from the ongoing craze over college volleyball in Nebraska.
For the first time in state history, three teams qualified for the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Tournament last year. There was also much fanfare in August when more than 92,000 screaming fans attended an outdoor college volleyball match at the University of Nebraska. That's when the Cornhuskers took on the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
Volleyball fan Amy Schofield was in the stands: "You can have another volleyball game there, but you can't re-create the first time that you filled that up. It was truly, truly an incredible experience."
That volleyball bug inspired Schofield to attend the PVF's debut match. Her niece, Amy Pichler, joined her.
"It's very exciting to get to be at Opening Night of our first pro volleyball team," said Pichler. "That's awesome."
Pichler wore a red Cornhuskers shirt as she pushed through the arena turnstiles and made her way to the arena's souvenir stand. She said she had urged her aunt to get to the match early.
"We wanted to make sure there wasn't a line, but I also want to pick up some new gear to wear right away," said Pichler. After pulling on a new t-shirt sporting the Supernovas' blue, pink and purple team colors, she and her aunt were well-prepared to root for Omaha's newest professional team.
Hope for the Future
From the very beginning, the question has been: Will the PVF be able to make it over the long haul?
While Supernovas coach Collier, believes Omaha set the tempo for the potential success of the league with its opening night crowd, there's still much to accomplish and prove.
Similar attempts have not been able to last. For example, a startup launched in 1987, Major League Volleyball, folded in the middle of its third season.
Many of the top volleyball players put stock in performing outside of the U.S. and make a living by playing professionally overseas. PVF CEO Jen Spicher believes many are taking a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to the new league.
"I will tell you the biggest challenge that I think our league has faced is the skepticism of the volleyball community and I understand it," said Spicher. "I understand that it has been tried a couple times, but this is different."
It may be different because of the interest of new investors–like pop artist Jason Derulo and former Super Bowl champion quarterback Trent Dilfer. His daughter, Tori Dilfer, finished her college career at the University of Louisville and now plays for the Vibe.
The PVF may be able to avoid the troubles of previous failed attempts if the league's attendance levels continue to exceed or match those of college volleyball. The Nebraska Cornhuskers averaged more than 8,000 fans per game last fall.
The increased spectator counts and television viewership prompted ABC to broadcast the 2023 NCAA championship on a Sunday afternoon–the same time an NFL game aired–with women's volleyball attracting 1.7 million viewers.
It will now be up to the PVF to show what the professional league can do as each of its' teams play 24 matches during the regular season. The league will crown its first volleyball champion after the playoffs in May.
In 2025, three more cities (Dallas, Indianapolis and Kansas City) will join the new Pro Volleyball Federation.
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