With the school year starting and the second half of the college men’s volleyball off-season here, Off the Block in a new series is examining the successes and challenges currently facing the sport.
Off the Block during the summer conducted a series of interviews with various leaders in the volleyball community to discuss the current state of college men’s volleyball.
Check out Off the Block’s interview with AVCA executive director Kathy DeBoer as she discusses the various levels of men’s volleyball growth, the recent controversy surrounding the NCAA Tournament and the biggest challenges facing the sport in the upcoming years.
Off the Block: From your standpoint, when you look at the current landscape of college men’s volleyball what are your initial thoughts?
Kathy DeBoer: I think the easiest way to describe it is I call it a tale of two sectors. If you look at the Division II, Division III on the NCAA side and the NAIA in the last five years the numbers of college programs has expanded by 32 percent — almost a third. And that’s from 2009 to 2013. The only sport that is growing at the same rate in those sectors is men’s lacrosse on the men’s side. That part of the men’s college landscape is in a good shape. If you look at Division I, we’ve had between 21 and 23 [teams] for over 25 years. We were at 23 this year but with losing the University at Pacific we’ll be at 22 next year. That sector has been flat. No movement in it what so ever.
OTB: At the Division I level, why do you feel it has been flat and no growth?
KD: We all work in volleyball so it’s easy to look at it just from a volleyball perspective. I think if we do that then it starts to feel personal. If you look at the Division I sector overall you’ll see the same trend. To outsiders it’s counter-intuitive that you’ve got this sector with the most money that is actually decreasing in the number of participation opportunities that they are offering. It’s Division I that’s dropping sports on both the men’s and women’s sides at a higher rate than the other division. The men are getting dropped at a higher rate than the women, but women’s programs are also being dropped at Division I. There are a couple reasons that we see. Division I seems to be the group of gold-plated opportunities. The costs associated with offering full participation in Division I are just very, very high. Where as I think 15-20 years ago you saw a lot of Division I athletics departments with tiered formulas, and they would actually say that volleyball is a second-tier, third-tier or first-tier sport. If you were in the second or third tier you didn’t have full-time coaches, and you weren’t fully funded in terms of scholarships and those kind of things. It seems that the preferred model for Division I now is to look at what programs you can compete in and what programs you have to have because of the conference you are in. And then look how many you are required to have by the NCAA and pair down your offerings. Put more money into the programs that you have.
OTB: Looking at Division II and Division III in contrast why has there been this boom of schools adding college men’s volleyball teams?
KD: You have a couple of things that are again demographically related. The good news is they are adding men’s volleyball. They are also adding men’s wrestling. They’re adding lacrosse. There is a boom and growth right now. There have been about 25 football programs added right now outside of Division I in the last 10 years. This is happening throughout this sector. It is driven by enrollment. There are way more small private schools than there are large public universities — and by that I mean schools with 1,500 or less. The enrollment demographics in that sector in a period over the last 25 years have started to skew more female so a lot of the small private colleges have 65 percent female undergraduates. The admissions department and the college community generally wants to attract more male students. One of the ways that’s kind of a sure-fire way to attract more male students is to offer them an opportunity to play the sport that they love. We’ve seen an up-tick on the high school level for participating opportunities. Club is growing. Again not growing as fast as we would want but it continues to tick-up and so volleyball becomes a good sport for attracting male students to your college or university.
OTB: Beyond adding more teams, is there anything you’d like to see changed in college men’s volleyball whether it’s a rule change or something bigger?
KD: To be honest, I have the most fun in the spring when I get to go to those championships. The men’s Division III championships is one of the most enjoyable places to be in that weekend in April. I think the sport is in pretty good shape at the collegiate level. I would certainly listen to the voices of coaches about changes, but I’m not hearing a lot of press for change.
OTB: Along with attending Division III tournament, we were both in attendance at the Division I-II semifinals at Loyola in May. What was your assessment of the environment and the level of play at those matches?
KD: We were trying to think over the course of those couple days about the last time any volleyball championship, at any level men’s or women’s, that we had two semifinal matches that were that competitive. Thursday night was an amazing night because of that. Both matches just went down to the wire. Just so competitive. It was amazing. It’s only serendipity when you can have an event on the campus of a team that is competing because those bids are given out years ahead of time. It’s luck or fate or whatever you believe in, but it adds tremendously to the environment when the home team is in the mix. Even if it’s a full building at a neutral site it’s a different atmosphere than when there is a home team in it. Lots and lots of fans, we see this in all sports, at neutral sites they are there because it’s the championship. They’re not necessarily there because their particular team is in the championship. Having Loyola win it at Loyola is the same kind of environment we had a couple of years ago at Penn State. We’ve had that environment at USC a couple of years ago. It really adds a dimension that is unique.
OTB: Looking at it geographically, two of the last four years a non-West Coast team has won the NCAA championship. Do you feel that’s a good thing in the bigger picture for the sport of men’s volleyball that you’re seeing national champions happen outside of California?
KD: Yes. I run a coaches association so I realize that lots of competitiveness gives coaches ulcers. I am sensitive to the health of the people in my membership. But yet, nationwide competitiveness in any sport makes it more compelling for fans and people on the outside when you just don’t know from one day to the next who’s going to win. We all just finished watching a month of the World Cup, and one of the most exciting and frustrating things about that sport is you just have no idea who is going to win. Now, I don’t want us to go in that direction. I like that we have so much minute-to-minute scoring and enthusiasm that happens in our matches. But obviously at the highest levels here in men’s Division I-II this is a very competitive landscape. There are seven to eight teams that can win it. There are not many sports that can go that deep.
OTB: In talking about the NCAA Tournament, as you know there was a controversy this spring with the at-large bid selection process and whether Lewis or Pepperdine deserved it. A result of this was some coaches at conference meetings suggested that the AVCA should work with the NCAA to reform some of the criteria and selection process. Is this an area of reform the AVCA wants to move into and reviewing the criteria for the at-large bid?
KD: It wouldn’t make any difference if we wanted to or not. The NCAA holds very closely and tightly their proprietary responsibility to choose the teams for the championship. Every single bracket — men’s side and women’s side in whatever division — has controversy in it, has a team that felt it was seeded improperly or that should have gotten in and that didn’t get in. I don’t ever hear from someone that didn’t think they were going to get in and got in. I’m not trying to advocate any responsibility on the part of the AVCA, but I have been doing this job long enough to know that reaching out to the NCAA and saying “the AVCA would like to help you do a better job making the selections” will get a, “hey thanks, we’ll call you, don’t call us.” In their defense, I do know for a fact and appreciate there is nothing flippant or programmed or under-the-table or anything else about the way the NCAA does their selection. You don’t have to agree with the result, but it’s not a process that has a lot of secrets in it. You may disagree with the decision that they come away with, but they work at it pretty hard to come out with the results that they come out with. It’s not, oh well we don’t know what to do, let’s just give it to so-and-so.
OTB: Looking at volleyball as whole, one of the interesting things we’re seeing is a lot of Division I schools adding sand volleyball. Do you feel that these Division I schools are opting to add sand volleyball instead of men’s volleyball primarily because of Title IX funding or do you feel there are more reasons why this is the trend?
KD: It’s interesting because we’ve almost gone full circle in this conversation. The addition of sports in colleges today — I don’t know if this was always true, but today — has a lot to do with finances. As we talked about earlier in the conversation, why are we seeing men’s volleyball grow at the small private schools? Because they want male enrollment and male tuition playing students. I had an AD say to me that was at a Division III school, “for an investment of $40,000, I can bring 12 to 15 males to my campus. That’s a good investment for me.” So now you’re question was about beach volleyball and why it’s growing, where it’s growing. Well if you’re an AD and you are looking at an athletics department that’s under-water in terms of Title IX, and most of the time that happens because you’ve got a football team. So you’re looking at a federal regulation that says you need to be increasing the opportunities for women. And you can add a sand volleyball team where you can start the program with a lot of cross-over athletes and you may be able to start it with cross-over staff. You can do it for two or three scholarships on the early days because you’ve already got a player pool that’s interested in at least for a couple of years playing both sports. In sand volleyball you’ve got the same deal that you’ve got in men’s volleyball. You’ve got a lot more kids wanting to play than there are roster spots available, and so now recruiting becomes a whole lot easier because people want to play at a varsity program. So for exactly the same reasons that men’s volleyball is a good investment for small private colleges, women’s sand volleyball is a good investment for schools that are under-water with Title IX.
OTB: We’ve talked a lot about the present, but where do you think the future of college men’s volleyball is 10 to 20 years from now?
KD: It’s something that we spend a lot of time talking about and a lot of time thinking about. I think the next three to five years are going to be very, very critical. I wish I had a more a confident feel about where Division I is going. This Division I restructuring circling back to some of our early parts of our conversation means the cost of funding an athlete is going to go up. The conversation by the five major conferences is one, you give us autonomy on these things or else. Two, we are going to be putting more money into the athletes that we currently have so we’re going to be going to full cost of attendance. At a lot of schools that’s somewhere of an increase between $2,000 to $6,000. We’re going to be going to the highest level of meal plan that’s available. To a lot of colleges and universities that’s a $1,000 a kid increase. So that’s going to cost them a couple of million. We’re going to programs that folks are going to be able to claim insurance coverage beyond the time that they finished playing. There is going to be a cost associated with that. There are those that are saying we are going to guarantee you a scholarship even after your four years of eligibility are up, and we are going to extend that for five, six or seven years however long it takes you to graduate. All of these things have a cost associated with them. The Big Five who have seen these huge increases in rights fees that are driving all the lawsuits and that are driving this conversation, some of those schools have the money to pay for these increases. What’s going to happen with the rest of Division I, which is 300 schools, and we are talking about 60 to 65 that have the resources to play for these increases. The other ones are going to have to decide what are we going to do. Are they going to try to stay up in men’s basketball and football? And if you do it in those two sports again because this is an amateur activity involved in a college it’s subject to federal law. You are going to have to do it for a bunch of women’s sports to try to keep your numbers equitable. I’m fairly concerned that we could see contraction in Division I of sports opportunities. This will impact both men’s and women’s volleyball. We are foolish to think this is only going to impact men’s volleyball. It’s going to impact women’s volleyball also in places where women’s volleyball isn’t as popular or as successful as other sports. So I’m worried about a contraction of Division I opportunities. It will impact us in volleyball for sure.
OTB: Before we let you go, is there anything else you’d like to add?
KD: I don’t want to end this on a negative note. Really the state of our sport on both the men’s and women’s side if we can look at it from a big picture standpoint is really very positive. The growth we are seeing in youth play is good. It’s better on the girls side than it is the boys side, but we are still seeing growth on the boys side. The addition of opportunities with sand volleyball collegiately will fuel even more growth in the junior sectors for our sport. That means more facilities, and more facilities on campuses means more camps and opportunities for clubs and other kids to learn how to play our sport. The television growth and the number of stations now that our networks are associated with conferences means that there is a huge amount of air time in the fall and spring. Late-spring mostly because of basketball, but in the fall there is lots of opportunities for volleyball to be on television. We kind of feel collectively we need to increase the quality of the broadcast, and we are doing some things to address that. It’s gone up 300 to 400 percent in the amount of volleyball on television so the amount of exposure that gives to our sport. We have some reasons to be very positive. There are some storm clouds on the horizon but we can feel pretty good about where we are.