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Psst, Los Angeles Has Already Won Title : This Team Is the Starlites, the Champions of Major League Volleyball

Times Staff Writer

A professional sports league held its championship game last week, but most sports fans had no idea it was going on.

Even so, after only its first year of operation, Major League Volleyball was being hailed as “the future of professional sports leagues” by its commissioner, Steve Arnold. He said the women’s volleyball league will set the standard in pro sports for years to come.

Maybe Arnold and the rest of the league should first concentrate on being around next year, but give the league credit. It made it through its initial season, and not very many people thought it would.

The title match pitted the league’s two best teams, the Los Angeles Starlites, coached by Pat Zartman, and the San Francisco-San Jose Golddiggers. The Starlites, who played their home matches at Cal State Long Beach, won the regular-season title, beating out five other teams with a 19-3 record. The Golddiggers were second with a 15-7 mark.

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In the title match at the Civic Auditorium in San Jose, a sellout crowd of 2,148 saw the Starlites beat the Golddiggers, 15-8, 14-16, 10-15, 15-10, 17-15.

OK, so it wasn’t big news and maybe Major League Volleyball is not the solution to any of the world’s problems. Still, this league was different. Consider:

--The six teams were not individually owned. Instead, one California corporation oversaw the whole operation.

--A standard player contract really was standard. Everybody made the same base salary, although there were incentive bonuses based on statistics.

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--There was an understanding with the ruling amateur body in this country, the United States Volleyball Assn., that the players would retain amateur status.

Those concepts, plus the fact that volleyball interest appears to be growing in America, lead those involved with MLV to believe that the league will not only survive, but flourish.

“From all indications I’ve seen, things will be just fine for next year,” Zartman said. “We’re expanding, possibly to 10 or 12 teams, and the salaries will increase substantially.”

But what’s to make the public believe there will be Major League Volleyball next year?

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“One of the highest television ratings for the 1984 Olympics belonged to women’s volleyball,” said Les Patrick, one of the founders of the league and the general manager of the Starlites. “The whole idea of the league came out of those ratings.

“And the fact that the women’s game is more exciting than the men’s helps. With the women, the game is truly a game of volleying. In the men’s game, it’s strictly power. The women stress finesse, as well as power.

“Now that so many more women are playing the game, it makes sense to start a league.”

THE BEGINNING

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The U.S. volleyball teams had great success in the ’84 Olympics. The men won the gold medal, the women the silver. The TV ratings were sensational, with women’s volleyball, on ABC, never pulling less than a 35 share, outdistancing men’s basketball, boxing and even track and field. Interest in volleyball skyrocketed after the Games.

In early 1985, a small group of people with volleyball contacts met to explore the possibility of starting a women’s pro league. Patrick was one of those at the meeting, which included people with various backgrounds in pro sports.

Patrick, for instance, comes from the famous hockey family of Patricks. He has served as business manager of the L.A. Kings, general manager of a California Angel minor league team and marketing director of the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League.

Most of those present at the meeting thought they could make the new league work because they learned from the mistakes of past leagues, like the American Basketball Assn., World Hockey Assn., World Football League and World Team Tennis.

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“We also thought it would work because the women’s game compares well to the men’s game,” said Arnold, a sports attorney who has represented more than 800 pro athletes. “In basketball, Cheryl Miller is great, but she doesn’t compare to Michael Jordan.

“We knew there’d be some problems in the beginning, though, and there have been.”

As in all new sports leagues, the main problem was money.

There weren’t enough potential owners to form a new league, so Robert Batinovich offered to own all the teams. Batinovich is the president of a real estate investment firm in Northern California. A past chairman of the California Public Utilities Commission, Batinovich helped gather a small group of investors who share equally in the income and expenses from each team and from league operations.

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The eight investors--just one of whom is a woman--put up between $25,000 and $250,000 each for a two-year commitment.

Each team is operated as a division of the corporation, which will award almost $500,000 in prize money to the players in the first season alone.

Once a two-year investment commitment was secured, league offices were staffed and general managers were picked in the six league cities, which had been selected for their television demographics and volleyball interest.

Along with the Starlites and Golddiggers, there were teams in Dallas, Minnesota, Chicago and New York.

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After working out a two-year television deal with ESPN, the league, two years in preparation, finally began play in late February.

That’s when some of the problems, which had been there all along, finally materialized.

THE UPS . . . AND DOWNS

Getting the word out that there was a pro women’s volleyball league wasn’t easy. And it still isn’t. A lot of people didn’t know about the league, and attendance was low.

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The largest markets, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, had the worst attendance. Minnesota, which finished in last place--the Monarchs were 4-18--led the league in attendance, averaging 2,000 fans a game.

The Starlites averaged 800 at Cal State Long Beach.

“This league is no different than the NFL, NBA or NHL--you can’t survive on attendance alone,” said Lee Meade, former general manager of the Monarchs and now director of operations for the league. “You have to market the league. You need TV. You need corporate sponsors. So building the attendance is not our major concern. Selling the concept is.”

As a one-time sports editor for the Denver Post, Meade understands the importance of press coverage for a new league. And MLV didn’t get that press coverage.

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The league wanted to rely on the press to get the word out, because there just wasn’t enough money to successfully market it. Patrick, whose operating budget for this year was $180,000--"You can’t get a second-string shortstop in baseball for that,” he said--pointed out that one ad in The Times would erase his entire advertising budget.

Also, no major corporate sponsor stepped forward. Companies such as Asics Tiger shoes and Mizuno volleyball equipment helped. "(But) we need a McDonald’s or Coke to come along,” and supply money, Patrick said.

“I’m surprised and disappointed that no major company has come along to sponsor us,” Arnold said. “One of the problems is a major company is reluctant to begin with a new league like ours. To be honest, I would have thought someone would have had the foresight to help.”

Despite those problems, there are indications the league can survive. There are some very talented players, including some former Olympians. The Starlites had the most talented team, featuring three stars from the silver-medal team of ’84--Debbie Green, Rita Crockett and Jeanne Beauprey.

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Other Olympians in the league included Laurie Corbelli of San Francisco-San Jose, and Patty Dowdell of Dallas. There also were All-Americans, national team members, even a scattering of stars from other countries.

“And these girls play very good volleyball,” said Zartman, who coached the U.S. national team in 1974. “I’m impressed. This is a very good product for a first-year venture.

“It’s fun to be a pioneer. If the league does succeed, the girls can say they helped make it happen.”

ESPN will also be able to make that claim.

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The all-sports cable network took a chance and signed a two-year deal with MLV. The network showed tape-delayed telecasts of games, about one a week. The championship game was shown live.

The ratings were higher than expected.

“Volleyball is just starting to develop an audience level, and it’s a real good game for TV,” said Jon Steinlaus, director of advertising sales for ESPN’s Eastern region. “It’s a legitimate sport, compared to wrestling and roller derby, but it’s really too early to tell (how successful it will be).”

One thing the league has in its favor is there is no competition from existing leagues. The only other pro league is the National Professional Beach Volleyball tour, which began in 1986 with a total purse of $400,000. But no one involved with MLV sees beach volleyball as a threat.

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That all the players in MLV make the same base salary seems noble enough, but is it a realistic concept in the current world of high-priced athletics?

Players make $75 a game, plus $50 if the team wins. With money based on statistics, championship play, future all-star games, etc., Arnold said that players are targeted to earn between $5,500 and $10,000 a year, with the prospect of six-figure salaries somewhere down the road.

“The players will just have to be patient,” Crockett said. “They’re not going to get rich in the first two years.”

The standard contract has pluses on both sides, but it will probably benefit the owners of the league more than the players.

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Said Arnold: “When a contract is negotiated in advance, you never know until the end of the season if you got a good deal. With our system, no one can come up to me and say they didn’t get what they deserved. The bonus incentives are definitions of your areas of ability. This is the future of pro sports. Why it hasn’t been done before, God knows.”

Another plus is the professional-amateur relationship. If, for instance, a player wants to leave a team to pursue international play, or try out for the Olympic team, she has that right. She can then return to the league when she wishes. This also works the other way. A player can leave the national team and join the league without worry.

“That’s a very important incentive,” Zartman said.

THE FUTURE

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If the league is financially healthy enough to continue next year, there will be some additional changes.

“Right now, there are some problems, like no local ownership,” Arnold said. “Next year, however, there will be some sort of a local ownership interest in each team. There will be a local involvement. I won’t call it ownership. There will be local business people with a financial involvement, but basically, each team will still be part of the whole.”

And because there has been interest from “about 20 individuals who want to own a team,” Meade said, the league plans to expand.

Most likely, Arnold said, four teams will enter the league in 1988, bringing the number of teams to 10. Leading candidates for teams are Denver, St. Louis, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and another team in California.

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The next goal, after expansion, is to get that one big sponsor.

“I’m counting on the league to still be here next year, and, if we get a Coke or a 7-Up, we will be,” Patrick said. “I’ve put four years of my life into this thing. We knew we wouldn’t make money in 1987. And we haven’t. Now, we just need to get a biggie (sponsor). Once we do, we’re there, we’ve made it.”

But is that true? Will one major sponsor, even two, assure the league of its existence?

“There’s so much that still has to be done,” said Heather Hafner, a former Cal State Northridge All-American who was cut by the Dallas Belles earlier this season. “They’re trying to present this league as professional, but it’s tough. A lot of people think volleyball players are just beach bums.”

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Hafner isn’t the only one with doubts about the league’s future.

One of the only reporters in the country who regularly covers the league is also beginning to wonder.

“There is a small, hard-core group of followers down here, but is that enough?” asked Bruce Castlebury, who covers the Belles for the Dallas Morning News.

“It started out well, but the attendance has been dropping. Right now, I see no indication of a second season. I’m not that optimistic because the other teams aren’t drawing well, either, except for Minnesota (which plays in Minneapolis).”

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