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In Volleyball League, the Caliber Is All-World

It’s a World League world, now that the United States has discovered something it can export, but before going any further, Ken Grosse wants to make one thing clear.

This is the first World League,” Grosse declares. “This is really the only true World League. If Italy comes to play the U.S. in our league, they don’t bring a bunch of transplanted Americans who are second-stringers in the States. They bring the best players from Italy.”

Ken Grosse speaks for World League Volleyball, which is not to be confused with the World League of Football, which they often are.

For future reference, World League Volleyball has:

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--No spike-cams.

--No on-the-court mikes, although the U.S. entry could benefit from a few on-the-court Steves and Karches. Steve Timmons and Karch Kiraly, the Ruth and Gehrig of American men’s volleyball, don’t play the World League, which helps explain the Americans’ 1-11 finish in the 1990 World League. To find Timmons and Kiraly now, you need a Eurocam. Both are pulling in $100,000 a month while playing the set-and-smash-crazed Italian circuit.

--No nicknames devised by the creative department at D.C. Comics. If you play for America, you’re an American, not a Surge. If you play for Canada, you’re a Canadian, not a Machine.

--No gimmicks, other than a purse of $2 million. The gimmick is to attract players, not fans. In the volleyball asylums of Italy, Japan and Brazil, fan interest comes built-in. In the States, fan interest doesn’t come until the top players do. Thus, the World League doubled its prize money between 1990 and 1991, hopeful that Team USA could lure back a few expatriates in the process.

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Tonight, World League Volleyball begins its second season--with the United States hosting Japan at UC Irvine--not bad as far as professional volleyball leagues go. The International Volleyball Assn. quickly crashed and burned despite the presence of a moonlighting Wilt Chamberlain, not quite the Bo Jackson of his time. More recently, Major League Volleyball folded after two-plus seasons. Cause of death: Force-feeding a cultish sport (women’s volleyball) into the mainstream American marketplace (New York, Chicago, Los Angeles).

“The IVA was a long time ago,” says Grosse, director of the USA volleyball program. “I don’t think the sport was big enough back then. They had some good ideas, they just didn’t have the base of fans.

“The women’s pro league got too big too fast. They thought they had to be like football or baseball and put teams in the biggest cities.”

The World League puts 10 teams in 10 countries. The U.S. team will play its home matches in Southern California--four in Irvine, four in San Diego--which is another concession for the players over the fans.

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“We could play in Dallas or Minneapolis and sell it out,” Grosse says. “There, volleyball is more of a unique attraction. Minneapolis had the largest crowd in the history of American volleyball--15,000 at the Met Center for USA-Cuba in 1988.

“Orange County and San Diego are soft markets as far as fans go. There are a million volleyball players here, but most of them don’t come indoors to watch it. We’re playing here because most of our players live here. If we played in Dallas or Minneapolis, a home match would almost be a road match for our guys.”

The road, as it is, is tough enough.

“I have to laugh when I hear the Padres complain, ‘Awwww, we have to go on the road again,’ ” Grosse says. “When we go on the road, our trips are two to three weeks at a time, to the Soviet Union and to Cuba. And we’re not staying in Hyatts, either.”

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The World League is the brainchild of Ruben Acosta, president of the International Volleyball Federation, who wanted a higher profile for his sport during non-Olympic years. He also wanted to address the American problem: flag-waving hysterics and gold-medal fever in ’84 and ’88, out to lunch in-between.

“In the past,” Grosse says, “international volleyball in America meant a lot of exhibitions and one-shot tour stops. There was nothing for the American fan to grab onto. No standings. No statistics. Typically, we’d play one match against Japan and your first question to me afterward would be, ‘What does it mean?’

“This league has 10 of the top teams from around the world, playing for $2 million. That’s something fans here can identify with.”

That may be all, too. The nucleus of the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, Grosse concedes, is currently stationed in Europe. “We have Scott Fortune and Bryan Ivie and beyond that, it’s just speculation,” Grosse says. Balance of the Squad could serve as the working nickname for the World League group.

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The United States is seeded in the over-stacked Pool B, which also includes defending champion Italy, the Soviet Union (third in the 1990 world championships), Japan and Korea. Pool A consists of Brazil, Canada, Cuba, France and Holland. After a 16-match regular season, the top two finishers in both pools advance to the World League championships in Milan, July 26-28, where the winner will divide $500,000.

Like the WLAF, the WLV has a television contract.

Unlike the WLAF, the WLV will be televised in the States on SportsChannel, delayed--not ABC, live.

“Obviously, we don’t have the NFL’s marketing strategy,” Grosse says.

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They also lack the NFL’s advantage in acting as lord, master and missionary in its World League enterprise.

“They’re exporting an American sport overseas for the first time,” Grosse says. "(Volleyball) is also an American sport, and yet it’s not as well-heeled here, in terms of spectators and money, as it is in other countries.

“In Japan, volleyball is the No. 2 sport behind baseball. In Italy and Brazil, volleyball is No. 2 behind soccer.”

And in America, volleyball is a day on the beach alongside a couple of six-packs.

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Come on in and get out of the fresh air?

You know, that spike-cam doesn’t sound like a bad idea.


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