Thursday December 7, 2023

At Pro Level, ‘Largest Untapped Opportunity’

  • The first indoor women's volleyball season, held by Athletes Unlimited, "exceeded expectations" in both engagement and viewership.
  • Matches were broadcast in more than 100 countries, and the league garnered a flashy set of corporate partners.
Photo: Julia Kostopoulos/Design: Alex Brooks
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The numbers for both women’s volleyball participation and growth made Patricof confident that there’d be a major appetite for a professional league. 

Indoor women’s professional volleyball is “like a sleeping giant,” Patricof said. It was “probably the largest untapped opportunity in pro sports in this country.”

Between February and March, Athletes Unlimited hosted its inaugural women’s volleyball season. Patricof said it “exceeded our expectations” in terms of engagement and viewership.

How It Worked

Athletes Unlimited was the only indoor professional women’s league in the United States. Played over five weeks in Dallas, it featured a unique format: Instead of set teams, the top four players redrafted completely new teams each week. An individual scoring system crowned one player champion.

This year, it was USA National Team member Jordan Larson — who, by the way, boasts more than 85,000 Instagram followers.

TV Deals and Sponsors

Even as a league in its infancy, the Athletes Unlimited volleyball season demonstrated global interest. 

It was broadcast on networks like Fox Sports and CBS Sports Net in the United States, as well as around the world. Streams appeared on platforms like Facebook and Twitch.

And while there aren’t previous seasons to compare viewership numbers, Patricof said that “a number of” regional broadcasts were “exceeding their contractual commitments.” Regional broadcasters included NESN, MSG Network, and regional Fox channels.

Beyond the U.S. market, more than 100 countries picked up games in regions from South America to Eastern Europe. “To have a startup league that, in Year 1, had such global scale through TV is just a big deal,” Patricof said. “That broad distribution shows a big part of the establishment, and shows the demand that’s out there.”

In addition, the partnership lineup sported top brands like Gatorade, Nike, and GEICO.

What’s Next

Because of the initial success, the league will be back next year — a plan that continues to illustrate the popularity of women’s volleyball from the grassroots level up.

“Having a robust pro league hopefully will overall help grow and reinforce the ecosystem for the sport,” Patricof said.

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