It would be hard to describe USA men’s volleyball in Tokyo as anything but a disaster. With both beach teams being eliminated in the Round of 16, and the indoor team failing to qualify for the quarterfinals after a 2-3 record in pool play, there is a crisis on that side of the sport.
But the women’s side of the sport is as strong as ever, and tonight could be validation for the female half of American game. And what it shows is USA Volleyball needs to invest strongly in the grass roots side of the game for both genders to start winning.
On Thursday night, April Ross and Alix Klineman will play in the gold medal match against Australia, and immediately afterward at midnight, the USA women’s indoor team faces Serbia in the Olympic semifinals. There are hundreds of thousands of young women that will see these phenomenal athletes compete on the biggest of platforms, and decide volleyball is the sport for them. That the “A-Team” is who they want to be one day. And they’ll get Mom and Dad to take them to a gym or a beach, and many of them will fall in love with the sport.
That’s important because for all the success America has had internationally in the women’s game, they’ve still never won an Olympic indoor gold medal. But you build your player pool on nights like this, and we’ll likely hear stories from women at the 2036 Olympics about what watching these matches meant to the career they chose.
You can point to plenty of reasons for the deficiencies in the men’s game: The lack of a quality professional league domestically, the AVP Tour forcing independent contractor players to forgo plying their trade openly, or that the college game is broken in many ways. There are just 23 NCAA Division I men’s teams remaining, of which each school only has 4.5 scholarships to split between all players.
Now add to those obstacles that there will be no young, athletic and vertically-blessed American men watching their fellow citizens compete for gold yet again. It’s a big problem.
Thanks to varying forces and Title IX to some extent, women’s volleyball is the second-most popular sport in NCAA Division I behind basketball, with over 330 schools playing at the highest level. While it’s usually not a revenue driver, it gives plenty of opportunities for talented players to be identified and rise through the ranks.
The most successful American volleyball player of all time is Karch Kiraly, who is also the coach of the women’s indoor national team. Volleyball might be the only sport you see men leaving jobs in the men’s game for the women’s game, and this happens at the college level all the time.
The beach game is growing as well with over 50 D-1 schools offering the sport each spring, but there’s no NCAA men’s beach volleyball. And with former gold medalists and 2021 Olympians like Phil Dalhausser now retiring, developing elite players both on the sand and the court needs to become a priority for USA Volleyball. Because while it’s a great story to only play club volleyball at a degree farm for Hilton night managers scholastically and then become one of the best in the world, that’s not a realistic path for long-term successful player development.
The other piece is how to grow and democratize the game, as most of the club participants at the junior level need to come from homes with money. There are plenty of tall and talented men and women that can’t afford the gym time, coaching, and travel to play the AAU circuit that gets you noticed by college teams with scholarships. Even golf has their First Tee program, but there’s no path forward in juniors without cash. And that has to change.
It’s now two straight Summer Games both American men’s beach teams (a country gets a maximum of two slots) have failed to even reach the semifinals, and the men overall have just one medal from the last three Olympiads, a bronze from the indoor team in 2016. Yes they were shut out in London in 2012, but at least the 2012 team got out of pool play.
The men’s game needs to learn something from the women’s, and investing at the youth levels is probably the best place to start. As US Soccer has shown you can build a great national team even with your best going abroad to compete professionally at a high level. But you also need to build a platform so they want to play your game in the first place.
Tonight a generation of talented young girls will fall in love with volleyball. But it might be at least three more years before young boys will do the same, and the athletic ones already have many more options such as football available.
Let’s hope there’s a plan to solve this before Paris in 2024.