August 28, 2008

Volleyball Hopes For Share of Spotlight

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Kerri Walsh. Misty May-Treanor. You’d have to be living under a rock to not know who these names belong to. Walsh and May-Treanor make up one of the best — if not the best — ever beach volleyball duo. The team capped an impressive Olympic tournament with an unprecedented second-straight gold medal, as well as 108 wins in a row. They haven’t lost a match in over a year.
And while Cornell does not currently have a varsity beach volleyball team, its women’s indoor squad is hoping that all of the attention lavished on volleyball (America’s indoor and outdoor teams won a combined four medals — three gold and one silver) will give their own program a boost this season.
The Olympics bump is a documented phenomenon, said volleyball head coach Dietre Collins-Parker, herself a former professional indoor volleyball athlete. How well the Americans finish has a real effect on the hype surrounding hometown teams — when America wins, volleyball attracts more interest. But when they lose the opposite is true. And although Collins-Parker said she would not classify Cornell’s volleyball team as a total bust in the attendance department —“I’d give it a medium rating,” she said — it has never attained the “premier” sports status enjoyed by men’s basketball, football, hockey and lacrosse. However, despite pulling in fewer fans at matches than some other sports, volleyball has enjoyed very high participation rates at both the high school and collegiate levels.
In 2007 volleyball had the third highest number of female participants with over 400,000 athletes, according to the National Federation of State High Schools (NFHS), trailing only outdoor track and field and basketball.
However everything changes after college if athletes are looking to compete above the amateur level.
“Everyone who plays pro volleyball leaves the United States,” Collins-Parker said. She played professionally on teams in Italy and France. Additionally, Alex Dyer ’07 played in a European exposure tour and earned a spot on Odbojkaski Klub OTP Banka Pula, a team located in Pula, Croatia. Dyer helped the Red win two Ivy League titles and ranks third in Cornell’s record books for career kills.
So while the volleyball competitors in Beijing were treated as big stars and their matches were featured prominently on NBC’s broadcasts, American athletes who return home will again melt away into the world of cable broadcast and ESPN2, something especially true for female volleyball players.
Unlike the WNBA, which has been able to succeed, if not exactly thrive, owing largely to the backing and financial support from the NBA, women’s volleyball has not been able to go mainstream.
This is not for a lack of trying, however, on part of volleyball’s tireless marketers. “Volleyball has constantly changed its game to get on TV,” Collins-Parker said.
Innovations such as rally scoring were developed in part to make matches shorter, something demanded by television executives concerned that volleyball games went on for too long. And “TV totally dictates what is popular,” Collins-Parker said.
Beach volleyball has always been more popular in the U.S, something attributed by some in the indoor volleyball community to the difference in apparel between the two sports.
“I think that [beach volleyball’s popularity] has more to do with what they’re wearing,” Collins-Parker said.
But indoor came up with a solution for that problem, too. At one point in her career, Collins-Parker said that she was required to compete in a tight, one-piece suit — an experience she prefers not to publicize now, she said laughing.
Junior libero Megan Mushovic said that beach volleyball’s appeal has a lot to do with its easy availability and social aspect, and not just the more, well, revealing, uniforms.
Mushovic, who spent her summer in Ithaca along with a couple of teammates, said that the team followed the volleyball action in Beijing as closely as possible.
She said that even if beach volleyball seems to attract the bigger crowds, the spotlight directed at volleyball in general may be bright enough to shine in indoor as well.
“I definitely think it’s possible, if we put the effort into it, we can definitely play off [beach volleyball’s increased attention],” Mushovic said.
The Olympics are something that the team can use as an incentive to pull more people into the sport in general.
Collins-Parker remains hopeful that prospective fans will learn to love the sport as much as she does. Anything that gets the word “volleyball” out there is a good thing, she said.