Jordan Larson celebrates with teammates at the Olympic Summer Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 20, 2016 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.
Two-time Olympian Jordan Larson first heard whispers about the possibility of a new women’s professional indoor volleyball league last summer.
She was so excited by the idea that she tracked down the founders and offered to help in any way she could. In late April, the new league became a reality. Following a torrent of disappointing news of postponements and cancelations in the sports world, Athletes Unlimited, in partnership with USA Volleyball, announced the launch of its new U.S.-based volleyball league starting in February 2021.
“It’s a cool time to really launch it and create some positivity in a year where there are definitely tough times for sure,” said Larson, who was among the first three athletes to sign with the upstart league.
Larson and her U.S. teammates have longed dreamed of having the option to play professionally without having to leave the country. Last fall, 13 members of the women’s national team went to play in the Italian league, three headed to Japan, four went to the German Bundesliga and others spread out to France, Turkey, Switzerland, Russia, Brazil and China, where Larson played. In total, USA Volleyball processed a record 501 international transfer certificates (380 women and 121 men) allowing U.S. athletes to compete in overseas professional leagues in 2019-20.
Now, some of those women will have the opportunity to play professionally on home soil for the first time ever, in a structure that is unique to Athletes Unlimited.
Instead of being based in different cities, all four teams will play in one yet-to-be-announced city. There will be no owners or general managers. Furthermore, the teams will change each week. Players will earn points based on team wins and individual performances to establish a leaderboard, and the top four athletes in the standings each week will serve as team captains and be able to choose their own teams.
Athletes Unlimited also plans to launch a professional women’s softball league in August using the same concept.
“Obviously my initial reaction was like, ‘This is different, right?’” said Larson, an outside hitter who played at Nebraska and won Olympic medals with Team USA in 2012 and 2016. “It’s not the type of volleyball we’re used to, but I think that’s a good thing. A lot of times they tried in the past to start a league and hadn’t had a lot of momentum. This is unique and new and I think we’re finding out more that fans are attracted more to individuals and less to teams. This could bring the ability to follow a player they love and see who moves through the ranks and who’s winning, and that creates a unique fan experience. I hope it will bring more people to watch.”
Karch Kiraly, a legend in the sport from his playing days and now the women’s national team coach, is also serving on the Athletes Unlimited advisory board, a group that includes U.S. women’s soccer star and two-time Olympian Abby Wambach and four-time women’s ice hockey Olympic medalist Angela Ruggiero, among others.
Kiraly is an old-school kind of guy, he said, so the concept of highlighting individuals in the quintessential team sport is something he’s not completely sure about. His skepticism stems from the ability of a star player to deliver standout performances over time when her teammates are always changing.
“But I could be wrong about that, and in fact I hope I’m wrong about that,” he said, noting that he was also skeptical about rally scoring when it was first introduced. “I think they’re smart to think differently because lots of people have tried this before, so if their thinking is to try the same old thing chances are we’ll get the same old result. I think it’s wise to look at very different models and start to get creative and so I’m cheering them on.”
The last attempt at starting a women’s professional indoor volleyball league was in 2002, but the U.S. Professional Volleyball League lasted just that one season.
With the timing of this league, players could still play in some overseas leagues if they so choose, Larson said, but those she’s talked to are all excited about the opportunity to stay home.
“I think people are curious and want to know what’s going on and learn more about this opportunity for women’s sports to keep going,” she said. “I think people are really encouraged about that, and what they’re trying to do with softball and volleyball, I think the product they’re putting out could be really cool.”
Along with Larson, two-time Olympian Foluke Akinradewo and national team member Molly McCage, both middle blockers, have also signed on with the new league.
One interesting twist with the league starting in 2021, Kiraly said, is that it will be a high stakes year with the Olympic Games Tokyo being postponed from this summer. The league kick off with players in preparation for the Games, and fans will get to see some of the women who will be representing the U.S. several months later in Tokyo.
He’s looking forward to seeing the result.
“We’ve had our hopes up for a long time that somebody can find a winning and sustainable formula for running a professional league in this country,” he said. “Last year there were 500 Americans playing professional volleyball in 40 countries around the world and not one of them was the U.S., and that’s the norm. We’re cheering them on at Athletes Unlimited and hope they have great success because we’d love to see an American pro league exist so more people who play in college might have the option to play beyond, and we also have high hopes of playing at a nice level right out of the chute.”