On Indian television screens, volleyball was one of the most-watched sports during the Tokyo Olympics. This despite there being no Indian presence in the event. It is a surprising twist but one that perhaps shouldn’t be given how we all get exposed to the sport pretty early in school. The requirements from the sport are not many – a net, a ball and a small area suffice. The rules too are pretty basic.
Still, the viewership numbers showed that there was a willing audience and it was only a matter of time before a professional league sprouted to take advantage of that.
It has been tried before and with a fair degree of success too. Season 1 of the Pro Volley League played to houseful venues and had a splendid atmosphere. In India, the league was broadcast on Sony Ten 3 and Sony Six with Sony Liv as the digital partner and garnered a viewership of 22 million viewers. Numbers that were not altogether bad given that it was the first season.
However, the first season came to an end in not ideal circumstances. It was held in February 2019 but Volleyball Federation of India and Baseline Ventures who had signed a ten-year contract to conduct the league went into dispute. The matter went to court where it was ruled that the VFI had wrongfully terminated the contract.
So, the league is back in business and this time, they are hoping to go one step further — not just as a financially-viable league but also in terms of what it could mean for the game in India.
Mohan Ukkrapandian will be leading Chennai Blitz in the Prime Volleyball League 2022 edition. The 35-year-old setter has been around for a long time. He made his state debut in 2006 and then made his international debut in Asian Central Zone in 2007. He has played 180 matches for India.
He recognises just why this league is vital for India’s youngsters. The biggest thing going for the league is the opportunity it affords Indian youngsters to get some exposure to foreign talent and tactics.
“We are making good progress now,” said Mohan. “Through the PVL, we are getting some good exposure and getting the opportunity to play with players who have played in the Olympics (like David Lee). So we are soaking in the experience from the foreign players and soaking it in.”
Mohan added: “The league is also a good platform for youngsters because they can show their potential. For some players coming from smaller towns, like we have a youngster named Jobin Verghese from Kerala, he has very good potential but before he came to the Chennai team we didn’t quite know how he will play but now, having seen him in practice over the last 15-20 days, we know what he is truly capable of producing. Similarly, every team has youngsters and this is a stage for them to shine and try and make it to the Indian team.”
Mohan also realises bringing the event to the TV screens is vital in this day and age. Just reading about an event isn’t enough. If you truly want to see the profile of a sport rise, it has to be shown live.
“Through the live matches, viewers can realise how the spike is going, the pace of the spike, the understanding on how players are positioning themselves,” said Mohan. “In the last season, I remember getting calls from Tamil Nadu asking me how and why I was doing certain things; the youngsters who were starting their careers would send messages on social media… wanting to break down the technique or understand why I did certain things. It only happened because they could watch me and see that there is something different.”
Mohan added: “Last league in 2019, we had a very good response from the audience. So many of them had seen me earlier but they did not know I play for the state or country but now they suddenly, recognised me. This is important to players too.”
The presence of foreigners (David Lee and Fernando) who have the experience of the next level of the game is vital because volleyball at the international level is all about understanding game patterns. Playing with them will allow the understanding of those patterns to permeate to the lower levels of the sport too.
“The more you know, the better you can adapt,” said Mohan. “Their game patterns are different but as I said it is all about us absorbing and learning from each other to find what is best for our team. So how they are handling the pressure situation or their reaction in crucial times or the manner in which they approach the game… there is much to learn from them. The sharing is important and not just in our team but also when we go back to our state teams.”
Watch RuPayPrime Volleyball League 2022 LIVE on SONY TEN 1 (English), SONY TEN 3 (Hindi) channels