In the 1960’s and 1970’s professional sport in the United States bore little resemblance to what we have become used to. The famous leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL),while fully professional, were relatively small and had to constantly fighting for their survival. Individual franchises were even less stable and players were paid so little that they often had to work ‘real’ jobs in the off season. In that climate the costs to enter professional sport as an owner were quite low, even if the risk was high. Essentially, any reasonably well off business man with some passion for sport and a few friends could start up a league and / or a franchise, and many did. Leagues such as the USFL (American Football), ABA (basketball) and WHA (ice hockey) tried to challenge the status quo and managed to last a few years before collapsing and being absorbed by their more established rivals.
With this backdrop a few wealthy men led by Berry Gordy, the Motown Records president, decided that volleyball was the next big sport and established the International Volleyball Association, as a professional volleyball league which lasted from 1975 to 1980. The first big attraction in the league was NBA great Wilt Chamberlain who some years before had taken up beach volleyball while rehabilitating a knee injury. Other players were attracted from all over the world, including Olympic Champion Ed Skorek and World Champion Stan Gosciniak from Poland and Bebeto from Brazil, who would later coach Brazil and Italy to the World Championships and Olympic medals, as well as all the best American players of the time. At the time volleyball was considered to be a strictly amateur sport, even though players throughout western Europe were paid to play, and this was the first official ‘professional’ league to exist. As a reward for participation, all players were immediately banned from international competition by the FIVB and many had to be officially reinstated as ‘amateurs’ in later years before they were allowed to participate in international competition.
To make the league more attractive the owners put in place a few rule changes. A coloured ball was used. Names were printed on the backs of playing shirts. Rotation was abandoned, so that there were frontrow and backrow specialists. And most importantly, men and women played together; each team had to have two women on the court at all times. The league was marketed in classic American 70’s style. The most famous promotional activity was giving a six pack of beer to every spiker who hit one of the female defenders in the face (see page 2 of this Sports Illustrated article). As with other upstart leagues, its existence was short and volatile, with franchises blinking in and out of various cities and indeed existence. But there were many positives. One ex player to whom I spoke about it, raved about the level of competition (‘It was the toughest volleyball I ever played), as well as the overall experience, and pointed out that many of those initial rule changes have since been adopted by the FIVB in some form or another.
I’d often wondered what those games were like. As of today, I no longer have to wonder. I stumbled across a few youtube clips from the playoffs of the final full season the league played, in 1979. They are pretty cool.