Therefore, we have contacted Chris McGown, the Director of Sport for the new women’s professional league in the United States. The league has been supported by Athletes Unlimited and a day ago they had an opening ceremony, featuring the players that will compete in this league.
There are a lot of interesting things about this league, there are some inventions in volleyball and we are looking forward to it.
When and how was the idea of reviving the U.S. Women’s Pro League born?
“Two founders of our league are Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros. They approached the league from a perspective of wanting to be involved in professional athletics but knowing that the business opportunities existed in women’s sports, that where there was a big following in the United States, but that the professional league either hadn’t received the attention that it needed or just hadn’t. So, they met, John Patricof has a background in sports. He was part of the Major League Soccer Organization in New York City for a time. They both have a business background, they’re certainly sports fans and certainly fans of athletics, but they looked at volleyball in particular as an opportunity in the United States that just wasn’t being explored. And they said, hey, here’s a business opportunity for a league where nobody else is really doing anything in volleyball. In cases like this, it’s because they have a daughter that plays volleyball or they know somebody that plays volleyball and they wanted to and when the person has an interest that is very personal to them and that’s why they get involved in volleyball. In this case, they said we don’t have kids that play volleyball. We don’t know anything about the sport necessarily other than it looks like a great business opportunity. And this is a massive sport worldwide. It’s huge here in the United States. And it just seemed like, why isn’t anybody else doing something like this? It made sense for them,” says Chris McGown in an interview with WorldofVolley.
How difficult was it to complete such a project at the time of the coronavirus, which brought with it a financial crisis in many fields?
“Yeah, it’s been incredibly difficult, as you can imagine, just there have been so many hurdles that we’ve had to jump. And I’ve been really impressed with the commitment of John and Jonathan. And everyone in the organization has said, hey, no matter what, we’re going to see this through. And they didn’t let all of the difficulties stop the project. And it’s been incredible to see everybody how hard they’ve worked and how much commitment. We just talked about it, how we just haven’t taken “no” for an answer. For example, can we do this? No. And OK, well, we’ll find a way around it. Is this city going to work? No. OK, we’ll find another city. Well, this facility work? No. OK, we’ll find another facility. Just everything about it. Every time there’s been a “no” or a while that we run into, we’ve gone over the wall or around the wall or through the wall. We just we have everybody’s worked really hard. But it’s certainly been a big challenge. And it’s, I think, evidence of the commitment of our investors that they’ve continued to, again, invest in the league and the athletes in the project. And it’s created for sure additional expense and difficulty trying to deal with all of the requirements that coronaviruses presented.”
A PROCESS OF SIGNING THE VOLLEYBALL STARS
How did the process of negotiation with the American players go, given that they are used to playing abroad?
“The experience here was refreshingly easy for them. Once they decided that this was the league they wanted to play in, it was an easy choice. Not everybody wants to play in this league and not everybody that wants to play in this league is a good fit for this league. And so, once you find an athlete, that’s the right fit, that is at the right point in his career with the right level of talent that was something that the league wants. The fit is established and the two parties agree that they’d like to get on to the I think the negotiation and that whole process was much easier, obviously, for players in the United States than maybe in Europe, because everything’s a little bit more familiar. Everything is a little bit more known. There aren’t the same uncertainties about living arrangements, about guarantees of contracts, about transportation, about meals. Just all of that typically has to be negotiated and written into contracts and just there’s, am I going to get paid? There are all of these questions that don’t exist with our league. And for the athletes, there’s just much more certainty. The things that have to be negotiated, almost all of it goes away and it comes down to some very simple conversations. What’s the hard part was, deciding that it was a good fit for both parties. We wanted the athlete. The athlete wanted to be here. And then once that happened, it was remarkably smooth and very easy from my perspective, from the perspective of trying to sign players. It was really easy for us.”
The list of both American and foreign players, I would say it’s impressive. Are you satisfied with the names you managed to gather to play in this league?
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised. It’s remarkable the level of talent that we’ve been able to attract. And I think part of it is the circumstances surrounding coronavirus and I think we got lucky a little bit with that, that a lot of good U.S. players chose to stay in the USA and are playing here maybe as opposed to going somewhere else. So, we got a little bit lucky from that perspective. But I just think the other thing is the athletes want this to succeed. They want to be here. They want to play. They want to be a part of it. It’s a big deal here in the United States and the volleyball community. And there’s this huge, huge enthusiasm from the larger volleyball population that wants this to be successful and wants the quality of volleyball to be great and wants the athletes to have a great experience. I think, for me personally, I’ve been really excited. And, Sheila, said it really well. There’s just something special about the sporting culture in the United States. We value sport and athletics and competition very highly. And the greater, American population likes to be involved in sports and likes to watch. I am definitely going to get behind it. I think that’s another thing that attracted some of the foreign athletes, was the opportunity to play in the United States in that athletic and sporting environment.”
The league system is not the one we used to. Because there will be no teams that are established and play with the roster every game. Can you explain a bit more about this competition system itself?
“I think the first thing to be aware of is just going back to why that would be in the first place. And John and Jonathan, the founders, in their thinking about it, decided if we’re going to start a new league quite often, if you’re trying to create a team, will the fan base and support for a team usually mean that the team has been there for a long time or has some history and familiarity, the team itself to have to a group of fans. And that wasn’t going to be the case. We were going to play in one location and so there wasn’t going to be an existing or established fan base. It wasn’t going to be a city-based team. And so, what they have come to realize is in a lot of sports, especially in sports, where players change teams. LeBron James played for Cleveland, that he played for Miami, then he played for Cleveland and he played Los Angeles. Athletes go around and it’s the same with volleyball players, of course, that they play for different teams. But they realize that fans start to become attached to players as individuals, maybe more so than fans of a team. In this case, that was kind of the objective is to allow fans to really focus on an individual or become fans of an individual and have a league that supported that idea. And so that’s the notion behind this kind of team rotation, is that you’re cheering for an individual. And then there’s the added excitement of every week, this new draft and who gets picked and what are the teams look like? And that’s turned into this really kind of, a unique and interesting and exciting feature of the league. It’s every week, the teams are mixed up a little bit. Yeah, you get to see the individuals playing with somebody else and that environment.”
What are your expectations for this season of the Woman’s Women’s League? But what are your general expectations?
“One of the challenges of the system, especially when you mix teams is that you don’t have a group that works together over the course of a season that trains together that can kind of take advantage of the individual strengths of their players and kind of hide the weaknesses of their individual players, adjust their systems to some degree to the unique talents of the players. The team probably, that’s one of the challenges, is getting them to play at the highest level possible. From a coaching staff perspective, that’s one of the things that we’ll try and do, is standardize the systems, make things as simple, as easy as possible for the players to be great. But I would expect that. The other kind of interesting thing that we’re not quite sure how it’s going to work is just this dynamic of the players being in charge. And ultimately, that’s one of the other big elements of the league, is that the players decide everything. They decide their uniform type and their uniform colors and the type of surface they wanted to play and they choose which ball they’re going to play with. They choose the rules. They choose the coaching staff. They choose their practice times. They choose when and how they want to lift weights. And, what kind of technical training they’ll get and what kind of food they’ll eat. Everything is left to the athletes to the players. And we as a staff are kind of just a resource that they can use. The expectation for the season is that that will be very interesting. And at times there will be some really tough decisions and some hard choices that the athletes will have to make about each other and about what’s happening. But I think the level of volleyball will be very high and I think the game format will be really exciting. I think volleyball, the sport the piece will be really good. But this whole dynamic around, just what does it mean when the athletes are in charge of their experience? What does that look like? That’ll be really interesting.”
Are you going to have something like a playoff for some best teams or just some round-robin system?
“The format is obviously for teams. There are forty-four total athletes, four teams of eleven players and they play a round-robin each weekend. Saturday, Sunday, Monday, team A plays team B, C and D. After that weekend the leaderboard or the ranking of players comes out and the top four players become the new captains and then they pick the teams for the next weekend and then they’ll train for a few days and then play again Saturday, Sunday, Monday, the next weekend, top four players. There are five weekends of that format of round-robin competition with the teams. And after the fifth weekend is done, the top player on the leaderboard will be the champion of the league. That’s really what they’re fighting for, is to move up this individual player leaderboard from week to week.”
What is the future of the U.S. Women’s Pro League and is it planned to continue with this project in the coming years?
“We’re hoping that it’s, as you can imagine, wildly successful and that it attracts and continues to attract, corporate partners and media partners so that we can continue to broadcast it. We’ve got some great partners already planned for the USA, Fox Sports on CBS Sports or two big domestic SportsNet networks here in the USA and they’ll broadcast about two-thirds of the matches domestically. And then we’ve reserved about one-third of the matches to go on streaming networks worldwide. We’re hoping that the league, the format and the interest is the format is really interesting to fans and that the interest in the league continues to grow, that we continue to attract good athletes, and that the quality of volleyball stays very high. Because I think in the end, that’s the most important piece. The scoring, the format, the players switching teams is all very interesting. But you have to have good volleyball and you need good players to have good volleyball. We need to keep working, I think, to make sure that we continue to attract good players. That’s the other piece that has been incredibly impressive for me is the long-term financial commitment that the founders and the investors have made in the league. And they have the plan is for the league to keep going and keep growing. And as you go into some distant future.”
How, for example, will there be a chance for the libero to become, for example, the champion of the league?
“Yes. That was one of the big challenges when we started working on the scoring system, was kind of took a step back and said, well, what do we want this scoring system to represent? And the three big principles, the three big ideas were, we wanted it to be an accurate assessment of a team and a player’s impact. We wanted the system to be simple as possible both for the players and for the fans to understand and to follow. We wanted there to be a level of equality or parity across positions. If you start looking at an impact that a player has on a match, how much the players influence the outcome of the match, you will see that certain positions are more influential than other positions. What we were striving and trying to do was a balance in equality. Outside hitter and opposites have a lot more opportunities because of attacking to influence the outcome of the match compared to liberos for example. We knew when we started trying to create more opportunities in equality for middles and liberos that we were departing from accuracy a little bit. We had to balance those two things and what we came up with was some system that made a good job bringing up middles and liberos, bringing up their opportunities without departing too far from an accurate assessment. We had a lot of people involved in volleyball, coaches, statisticians, players, that helped us with that system and we all came to a consensus where we said it feels through the sport but at the same time provides a good opportunity for these other positions. The liberos and the middles will have to the player really, really well and if they do, they will have a huge opportunity to rank well,” says Chris McGown, who is besides this position in the league an experienced volleyball coach.
The league will start on February 27 and will last until March 29. Check out the schedule of this competition here.