End of the Volley Season

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.

Volleyball NLA 2017/18 Final Frauen Spiel 4 Sm'Aesch Pfeffingen vs Volero Zuerich
Madlaina Matter (Sm’Aesch #6) gave the Voléro super stars a hard time. After the disappearance of Voléro, Sm’Aesch Pfeffingen is the designated new front-runner of the league

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.

Voléro Zurich withdraws from Switzerland and will play in France. Laura Unternährer (l) will move with Voléro. Gabi Schottroff (r) will play for Sm’Aesch Pfeffingen.

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.


Volleyball, NLA 2017/18, Spiel 2 um Platz 3: TS Volley Duedingen vs Kanti Schaffhausen
Volley Düdingen is one of the second-tier clubs with a strong local support. The entire town loves their “Powercats”.
  • 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.
Volleyball NLA 2018-19, Qualifikationsrunde, TS Volley Duedingen vs VC Kanti Schaffhausen
Kanti Schaffhausen: another club that has a lot of local support
  • 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.
Neuchatel University Club (NUC) made it to the cup final. Their spectators are like a wall behind the team
  • 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?

Volleyball NLA 2017/18 Final Frauen Spiel 4 Sm'Aesch Pfeffingen vs Volero Zuerich
The money man behind Voléro. Stav Jacobi has enough of the Swiss league and moves to France.

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.

Volleyball CH: NLA Edelline Kšniz vs TS Volley Duedingen
Played for two clubs in the same season: After Volley Köniz crashed, their top scorer Nette Pait was immediately transferred to Lugano. This happened outside of the transfer window. Another strange detail of the season.

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.

Volleyball NLA 2017/18 Final Frauen Spiel 4 Sm'Aesch Pfeffingen vs Volero Zuerich
Good bye Voléro: It was nice … most of the time.

*** 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. ***

“The team did everything to make it easy for me”

Volley Düdingen’s topscorer Danielle Harbin talks about her life as a pro in Switzerland

Volley Düdingen’s outside hitter Danielle Harbin will remember her first professional year for the rest of her life. After 15 matches she leads the Swiss top scorer ranking with 292 points – almost 20 points per match. Together with her team, the Düdingen Powercats, she also rallied through the first round of the CEV European Cup, contributing 20 spikes, 3 aces, and 3 block points to the success.

“I didn’t expect this” she tells me. “I never was a top scorer before.”

NLA TS Volley Duedingen vs VFM
Danielle Harbin with roomie and setter Zora Widmer during the match between TS Volley Duedingen and VFM; December, 16 2017 in Duedingen (Sportzentrum Leimacker), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

From the deep south of the US to the provinces of Switzerland

We meet and talk after the Powercats have just swept the third of the previous championship, VFM, out of the gym. Danielle is relaxed and takes her time. No superstar behavior. My interest is less in the usual after-game bla bla. Rather, I would like to know more about Danielle’s background. In particular, how did the young college player make the transition from the deep South of the United States to a small town in the provinces of Switzerland?

Growing up in Mobile Alabama, Danielle started playing basketball and volleyball. “I always wanted to be a professional volleyball player”, Danielle starts explaining. “One of our coaches at the Arkansas Razorbacks was a pro.” The coach approached a well trusted agent who set up Danielle’s profile. “The most important thing was to define my position, as I have also played on other positions before.” The file must have been convincing: Only a few weeks after it was published, Danielle received an email. It was already the ultimate offer – written by an unknown team in an unknown town in Switzerland – the Düdingen Powercats.

NLA TS Volley Duedingen vs VFM
The first of three steps until she hits hard. Danielle Harbin during the match TS Volley Duedingen vs VFM on December, 16 2017 in Duedingen (Sportzentrum Leimacker), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

One team member was crucial

Excitement and nervousness were great. Wow, Switzerland, was the first thought. The agent didn’t give much, but very relevant information. “It is a good offer. We can wait, as there will be more offers, but it is not likely that there will be many better offers.” The crucial information was that there is another American on the team, managed by the same agent, namely, Sabel Moffet. “With Sabel on the same team, things will be easy” was the promise.

“We have a good reputation on the US market”, explains club president Christian Marbach. “Mutual trust between our agents and us is crucial.”

Before the big adventure started for Danielle, there was another adventure ahead, though: She represented the USA at the University Games in Taipeh, Taiwan, in August. From the Games, Danielle travelled back home, then, after only two days, she headed to Switzerland.

Volleyball NLA: TS Volley Duedingen vs Volero Zuerich
Danielle HARBIN (TS Volley Duedingen #3) during the match TS Volley Duedingen vs Volero Zuerich Nov 19, 2017 in Duedingen (Sportzentrum Leimacker), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

Team around the clock

“We do a lot for the players, especially on the first days” Christian explains. “Two contact persons welcome the players. They offer help in case of any problem.”

“I arrived at Düdingen exactly on my birthday” Danielle remembers. So what was the first impression of the town, I ask her. “Cute!” is the immediate response. Düdingen reminds her of her home. A small town and volleyball important. The Powercats are visible everywhere in Düdingen. “People recognize me on the street. The Powercats mean something for them.”

“The team did everything to make it easy for me,” Danielle continues. She lives in an apartment with two other players, libera Thays Deprati and setter Zora Widmer. Even in their free time, the players stick together. Sabel plays the integrating role. She finds a lot of activities, or – in other words – she implicitly keeps the agent’s promises. The team and life: these two expressions appear identical for Danielle.

“In fact, the chemistry is right”, adds Christian. Having players with team spirit, like Sabel or captain Kristel Marbach, is ideal. “As a result, the team has a strong will. I am really proud of this team.”

Volleyball NLA: TS Volley Duedingen vs Volero Zuerich
Maybe Danielle’s best game so far: the 3-2 against Volero Zürich. For her excellent spikes just at the right time, Danielle received the MVP award. Nov 19, 2017 in Duedingen (Sportzentrum Leimacker), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

Train – eat – sleep – repeat

I ask Danielle how life has changed. The answer is surprising at first sight, but absolutely plausible after a second thought. Despite of the completely different surroundings, things didn’t really change,. “I have more training”, Danielle replies after some thinking, “now twice a day”. So for most of the time she lives in the train – eat – sleep – repeat mode. The usual life of a professional athlete. “I don’t miss anything here”, she tells me, “my family, of course, but nothing else.”

She won’t miss the family for long. After the final match of the year against Cheseaux, she will re-unite with the family and celebrate Christmas.

Volleyball CH: NLA Edelline Köniz vs TS Volley Duedingen
If its this far, there is little the opponent can do: Edelline Köniz vs TS Volley Duedingen on Dec 09, 2017 in Koeniz (Sporthalle Weissenstein), Schweiz, Photo Credit: Ulf Schiller 2017

(by the way: The season re-opener will be on Jan 6, 2018, 17:15 versus Galina)