Brand Strategy

Is volleyball the next big thing in sports sponsorships?

The sport is already huge in some countries across Europe and Asia, and there are signs it’s about to explode in the US next.
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· 5 min read

Outside of the US, volleyball is a pretty big deal.

In Brazil, for example, volleyball is generally considered to be the second-most-popular sport after soccer. It’s “just within the fabric of society,” Finn Taylor, CEO of Volleyball World, a joint organization partnership between volleyball’s international governing body and a private-equity firm, said. In Japan, where the manga Haikyu!! has breathed new life into the sport, national team players are icons on the level of NFL and NBA players in the US, he said.

Cassidy Lichtman, a former pro volleyball player who played on the US national team (as well as in Poland, Switzerland, Azerbaijan, France, and China), said there was at least some sort of fanbase everywhere she played outside of the US.

“We have a Thai player [Nootsara Tomkom] who plays in our league, and she is LeBron James in Thailand,” Lichtman, who’s now the director of volleyball for pro women’s league network Athletes Unlimited, told Marketing Brew. “She is a huge, huge deal.”

That’s not quite the case in the US. While the men’s and women’s national volleyball teams are some of the best in the world, and volleyball is one of the most popular high school sports for girls, it’s largely been inaccessible—both to play and to watch—at the professional level in the states.

That’s starting to change. Women’s leagues in particular have made significant strides in recent months, and though sponsors are still few and far between, there are signs women’s volleyball could soon be fertile ground for brands.

“It’s gone from us having to tell the whole story and convince people that volleyball is for real and there’s a huge audience out there, to the brand representatives being like, ‘I’ve been hearing about volleyball; tell me more about that,’” Lichtman said.

Bump, set, spike

So what gives stateside? Some volleyball execs suggested the lag in popularity could be because there’s no “big brother” league that has helped popularize the sport among viewers, as Stacey Vollman Warwick, head of commercial at League One Volleyball (LOVB), a youth organization that’s introducing a pro league this year, put it.

“It’s one of the only sports that you think of as women first playing it,” Warwick said.

But American volleyball is finding a foothold among some sports fans. Last summer, the University of Nebraska set a record for the largest attendance at a women’s sporting event, filling a stadium with about 92,000 fans.

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This year, a few pro leagues are hoping to duplicate that college-level success. LOVB’s six pro teams are set to start competing in November, and the Pro Volleyball Federation (PVF), a women’s league consisting of seven teams, is already in action. On Jan. 24 in Omaha, more than 11,000 fans showed up for PVF’s inaugural match, the largest turnout for a women’s pro volleyball game in the US at the time. The league broke that newly set record again soon afterward in February, CEO Jen Spicher told us.

Going pro

In-person attendance is only one piece of the puzzle. The Athletes Unlimited league, which aired its full season exclusively on ESPN properties for the first time last year, will have 15 games shown on ESPN linear networks and five on ESPN+ this fall. Linear viewership on ESPN was up about 42% last year compared to before, when the league was only available on national and regional networks, Lichtman said.

PVF, meanwhile, has a deal with CBS Sports that guarantees at least 10 of its matches, plus its semifinals and championship game, will be aired this year. The league also has deals with the over-the-top sports network Stadium and streaming app Bally Live.

LOVB is in the midst of media rights negotiations, according to Warwick. Volleyball World relies on its streaming service, Volleyball TV, plus a partnership with Big Ten Network in the US (and other broadcasters internationally) to “maximize the opportunity for people to watch these matches live and on demand,” Taylor said.

As for league-level sponsors, it’s still early days, but Lichtman said brands have shown more inbound interest in the past year—even more so since the Nebraska game. Last month, LOVB announced a partnership with home gym company Tonal that will provide volleyball-specific workouts for Tonal users, which Warwick said will ideally expose LOVB to a larger audience.

PVF has a number of endemic sports sponsors like Spalding, Franklin Sports, and Ren Athletics, and it is in talks with other potential sponsors, including a beverage company, Spicher said. Much of that interest has been inbound, she added, especially since the league went live.

This year is also an Olympic year, which volleyball execs expect will only bring further interest in the sport.

“The best thing that could happen for volleyball in the United States of America is for Team USA to bring home a gold, to bring home any medal,” Spicher said.

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