February 6, 2008

Big Time Volleyball?

If you are active and interested in the sport of college volleyball, you hear a constant chatter about what/when/how the sport can become big time. By and large, the volleyball masses have realized that professional indoor volleyball is not going to happen in the USA. Beach Volleyball continues to be the only professional avenue for talented players to pursue as a career in the States.

This brings us back to college volleyball - college sports are considered (erroneously) to have a more level playing field than professional sports. With the NCAA as the organizational and governing body, the U.S. government's passing and then enforcement of Title IX, the Presidential Council in NCAA athletics (a group of university/college presidents that supposedly wield power over the NCAA), the various Faculty Senates of higher education which try and influence policy and the various NCAA Student-Athlete committees, all present the theory that college sports are equally important. The NCAA works very hard in its media campaign to forward the image that each sport is embraced - just look at all the commercials aired by the NCAA during the football bowls.

The disappointing reality is that the gap between sports is huge and getting wider each day because those who have the power to do something, will not. Just by reading the USA Today sports page, you can find something that clearly illustrates the disparity between NCAA sports. Guaranteed multi-million dollar salaries for head football coaches (a lesser known figure is that offensive and defensive coordinators are approaching $500,000.00 a year!), basketball locker rooms that look like a NASA Space Shuttle pre-launch room, private jets so football and basketball will not miss any additional classes and will have more time to study - I could not imagine how low their already lowest on-campus grades would be if they had to take a bus or fly commercial! By the way, the NCAA just settled a law suit that will fund the payment of moneys to football and basketball players (nobody else) to offset any expenditures these athlete's have which their full scholarships don't cover.

Where does volleyball fall into the ever widening gap of modern college sports? Just above the middle. Football and Men's Basketball are the two Titans that wage a symbiotic battle for resources which continuously enrich each other. The Remora of this two-some is Women's Basketball; they swim right along and have expertly positioned themselves to whisper "Title IX" into the ear of the athletic administration. It is not by television ratings, fan attendance totals, grade point averages or graduation rates that Women's Basketball enjoys charter flights, 4 star hotels and staff salaries well into 6 figures - it is the 9, as is Title IX.

While Volleyball is NO WHERE near what the top 3 are receiving, we are definitely in a better spot than crew, tennis, cross country, etc. The reality is that we are like a mid-major conference that is in a battle to emerge as the next possible major conference. Remember when the ACC, Big East, WAC and C-USA were all going through membership changes a few years ago? The effort behind these shifts was to attain the status of being next in line after the Big 10, Pac 10, Big 12 and SEC in terms of reputation and profitability via network television packages for football and basketball.

We are going head to head with Men's Baseball, Women's Soccer and Women's Softball to emerge as the 4th sport of the Flagship sports. The current vernacular of NCAA athletics is to anoint a small group of sports as Flagship and a large group of sports as Olympic. These two terms were felt less offensive and less hypocritical than the previously used terms of Revenue and Non-Revenue sports (hypocritical because the majorities of football and basketball programs lose money and lose a lot more money than a non-revenue sport).

On average, Football, Basketball and Women's Basketball are the Flagship sports and everyone else is the Olympic Sports. Where is this designation determined? Ultimately by the sponsoring school. I know from experience that just because a conference designates a sport as a Flagship sport, does not mean that the school will do the same (a bit disappointing as you might expect). But, almost without exception, the Flagship sports of any school and conference will always include Football, Basketball and Women's Basketball.

A mistake which I believe the college volleyball leadership is making concerns who we are trying to pass. First of all, let's not fall into the defeatist trap of thinking that we should only concern ourselves with doing the best that we can as a sport. That is exactly what the Flagship sports NEVER did - a prime example is Women's Basketball; they aggressively and constantly push for better funding, better media support, the status as a Flagship sport without regard to how it affects any other sport than Women's Basketball. I can promise you that when the coaches associations of Football and Men's Basketball are meeting, they are active in their discussions about how to get more for their sports and their coaches, with no regard for the impact upon others.

College Volleyball needs to focus on two issues - Separating ourselves from Women's Soccer and Softball. Currently, I would place us just ahead of Soccer (but just barely) and lagging behind Softball. Much of this could be attributed to the success and media coverage of the respective national teams of each sport, along with the fact that Softball competes at a time of the collegiate school year when Football is not in season and Men's Basketball is finishing out. We need to have a focused professional strategy to separate ourselves from these two sports.

After we have attained some degree of separation, then we can focus on the second issue - Volleyball needs to be beyond aggressive in our efforts to present our sport as the Title IX answer to the imbalance of the Flagship sports. There are 2 male sports and 1 female sport in the perceived make-up of the Flagship sport membership - Women's Volleyball should be going flat out to become the 2nd female sport. The female sport that attains this acknowledgement will enjoy a significant increase in status, while the losers will stay within the middle ground of not really big time.

What we cannot do, as a sport, is what I witnessed during my latest conference coaches meeting - complain about everything, but not be willing to act. For over three hours we went through an agenda of things that are not up to specs with our conference volleyball, yet we did not even try to create proposals to forward to the Athletic Directors to be voted upon as new policy. This mindset of complain and complain some more, without having the courage or convictions to make positive change is all too common within the college volleyball biosphere.

Awhile ago, I was reading a newspaper about the LSU Women's Basketball program and the problems with a current/former head coach. Beyond the assertion of a completely inappropriate relationship between the head coach and a current player, what caught my attention and really floored me, was the fact that the 1st assistant coach was being paid over $100,000.00 per year, plus a car, plus a country club membership, plus guaranteed camp money. This is to coach a Women's Basketball team that was in a good run, but by no means synonymous with long time winning. It only took a split second to realize that each SEC 1st assistant would be getting paid over 100K per year, along with each 1st assistant in the PAC 10, Big 10 and Big 12.

Knowing the structure and pay scales of college sports, it is easy to realize that, with two or maybe three exceptions, in the 4 power school conferences, the 1st assistant coach in Women's Basketball will be making more than the head coach of Women's Volleyball. And since most sports are relative to each other in each conference, basically every 1st assistant Woman’s Basketball coach will be making more than the Women's Volleyball Coach.

Then to take my depressing realization to the full conclusion, on each NCAA Division I campus, in general, there will be 8 to 10 assistant sport coaches who will earn a higher salary than the head coach in Women's Volleyball.

People talk about Big Time College Volleyball and when/what/how do we become a big time sport. To me, the answer is when the head coaches are paid more than the assistants in other sports.

Everything else will fall into line after this. Don't agree? How many sports that pay their coaches well over $100,000.00 have poor budgets and support?