I visited the re-match between Sm’Aesch-Pfeffingen (SUI) and VC Oudegem (BEL). The Belgian club had won the first match 3-1, but even before the start you could sense that everyone at the Sm’Aesch crew was determined to win. After a concentrated play and a brilliant 3-0, the match entered the Golden Set. Oudegem started strong, but as Sm’Aesch gathered a small lead, the Belgians lost confidence and Sm’Aesch took a sweet victory. Sm’Aesch played without their regular setter, Taylor Tashima, who suffers from a concussion. The 16 year-old Annalea Maeder replaced her well and became the secret hero of the match.
I followed the entire Swiss Volleyball season as a photographer. The result was a 13th title for Voléro Zürich. Business as usual? Not really. Different from previous years, Voléro lost against three other clubs during the regular season, and in the final Sm’Aesch-Pfeffingen literally pushed the champion to the limits.
This blog reflects the season from my point of view. I base my thoughts on my current knowledge. Admittedly, a lot more was going on. So please forgive me my maybe biased view.
Volleyball is a micro cosmos. It lives in a bubble. Match reports use to appear just in the local media, or they are published by private persons/institutions on social media. Professional national media just appear at two events: the Cup Final and the Championship Final.
Does the sport deserve this? The immediate response is no. Volleyball is fast and exciting, and the Swiss level is very good: The better teams easily survived the first rounds of the European competitions. Most of them reached the quarterfinals. This is really, really good.
However, there is a second thought. Maybe Volleyball deserves the low attention. So what’s going wrong? Before I answer this, let me enumerate some facts.
The distribution of the money is strongly skewed. There is no level playing field. The leader, Voléro, has a huge budget, equal to the very best clubs in the world. Moreover, a handful of clubs has sound support by local sponsors and a few hundred regular spectators. For the rest, survival is everything. One club, Köniz, even died during the season 2017/18.
As a result, the competition used to be boring. With Voléro as guaranteed champion (as mentioned, 2017/18 was different), a few other teams just tried to become second. Just very few matches were interesting for this second-tier group, since all the weaker clubs were much too weak.
The best National League B teams have little ambitions to promote to the National League A. Rather, two years in a row, former NLA teams decided to relegate voluntarily. If the trend continues, the NLA is threatened by a card-house crash.
The crash happens even from two sides. Voléro recently announced to merge with a French club and withdraw the team from Switzerland. The reason is understandable: with the ambitions at the World class level, the Swiss league is too weak. Voléro’s superstars faced no challenge in the league, and weren’t prepared to compete under pressure in international matches.
There is no professional roof for the league. Rather the clubs meet and negotiate how the season should be played. The national association, Swiss Volley, keeps the central management to a minimum. A lot of important decisions are delegated to the clubs’ assembly.
Voléro occasionally made gifts to both some of the clubs and Swiss Volley. The leading agent fed the principal and the followers. It pumped so much money into the sport that Switzerland even co-hosted the European Championships back in 2013. I’ll come back to the consequences.
News is turned into propaganda. Quite understandable, private information management via social networks emphasizes positive news, but has a certain tendency to suppress negative news. The public often doesn’t get the full background of what is going on. There is a boomerang effect, though. When things develop bad, social media commentators use to blame Swiss Volley while missing the full background (some blame Voléro instead).
The card house effect seems to be the major short-run problem. For 2018/19 there are two empty NLA slots. So far there has been no announcement who will promote, despite of the end of the NLB season. Does this mean the NLA will have just eight clubs in 2018/19?
With less clubs, there are less games. Less games mean less visibility for the home spectators and the sponsors. This means less income and less attraction. A downward spiral.
Another hot issue in the past season was the commitment to have two Swiss educated players on the court. This rule, called LAS rule, has been very much under debate since its origin. Some clubs see it as an obstacle to excellence. Lugano, Voléro, Köniz, and Sm’Aesch even sued Swiss Volley in the past. In this season Voléro was under pressure losing one of the best-of-five final games. To save their neck in set 4 of game 2, they played without Swiss players. A clear violation of the LAS rule. Voléro preferred to pay the fine: 20’000 Swiss francs. The president even showed a middle finger to the protesting Sm’Aesch fans. Another fine: ridicolous 300 Francs. The background is that the sanctions had been defined by the clubs themselves in the course of a negotiated settlement. And 20’000 francs don’t mean much to Voléro.
The scandal highlights the basic weakness of the system. A strong principal is missing who has just one goal: the image of the league. A better image would attract external league sponsors and make it possible to subsidize the weaker clubs. Good governance and freedom from scandals would be another concern. Moreover, the new principal should gradually modify the licensing agreements, including an obligation to invest in more attractive gyms. Currently, the clubs play in school gyms. Spectators, TV cameras, and photographers have wall bars as background. Where is a sponsor that would like to support this?
A franchisor-franchisee system could be the solution: The principal would be a firm with own legal identity, but owned by the Association. It would act as franchisor and the clubs as franchisees. North American professional leagues or the major European football leagues are leading examples. And maybe some famous franchise firms will be attracted as sponsors: the Swiss McDonalds Volley League? How does this sound? Just kidding.
*** UPDATE *** Meanwhile Swiss Volley announced that the second from the NLB championship, Geneva, will promote to the NLA, but the first, Lucerne, won’t. Moreover, the Liechtenstein based club Galina Schaan withdrew. So the league will have eight clubs in 2018/19. ***