When the organisers of Pro Volleyball League reached out to David Lee for participation in the league, the Olympic gold-medallist readily agreed. A week later, he landed in India to shoot a promo along with top Indian players and badminton star PV Sindhu. The same promo which is now shown repeatedly by the official broadcaster of the league.

Since then, things have moved rather quickly for the latest entrant into India’s list of sporting leagues. The auction is done and dusted with, the players have been asked to report in Kochi in the last week of January and even the 12 foreign players have been finalised. The six franchises will compete for 21 days beginning February 2 with Kochi Blue Spikers taking on U Mumba Volley in the first match in Kochi with the schedule being announced on Thursday.

An initiative of Baseline Ventures and the Volleyball Federation of India, the league has made an impressive start off the court.

Read more: Meet Ranjit Singh, the costliest pick of Pro Volleyball league who took up the sport for an Army job

Baseline Ventures co-founder Tuhin Mishra, in an interaction with Scroll.in, said the league was akin to a “movie release” and the challenge will be to make this small-budget “movie” a hit.

“Whether something will work or not, only time will tell,” Mishra said. “For PVL, we did our research and market survey about the popularity of the sport. It has a legacy of its own and even in India it is popular across the country.”

It was during this survey that Mishra says realised that, apart from being second-most played sport around the world, the sport was popular at grassroots level, including schools and colleges, in almost every Indian state.

“Matches conducted in interiors of Rajasthan, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and even Punjab would see a crowd close to 20000-25000 without any marketing. We went there to get pictures and not believe hearsay,” he added.

Second time lucky?

But that was true seven years ago as well. Back in 2011, the Pro Volley League was organised by the Volleyball Federation of India, but it failed to take off.

“You couldn’t call it a professional league,” said Ranjit, the costliest player of PVL 2019. “It was a type of experiment by the federation, which did not take off after the first season. We were paid Rs 1 lakh for our third-position finish. The winners got Rs 2 lakh.”

Unlike the current league, there was not much marketing done regarding the Pro Volley League, and the players were not picked from an auction. The federation made six teams from a pool of top-level India players, paying them in the range of Rs 10,000 to Rs 20,000.

It was after 2011 that India saw a host of new sports leagues develop, including those in kabaddi, badminton and football. Those leagues became a lot more successful than the VFI’s “experiment”.

“It was a learning lesson for the federation, I think,” said Ranjit. “They came to know how to professionally conduct a professional league after kabaddi and others began.”

But before further progress could be made, the sport suffered because of the federation’s internal politics. The international federation of the sport FIVB had provisionally suspended VFI in December 2016 after a dispute between its then president Chaudhary Avadhesh Kumar and secretary-general Ramavtar Singh Jakhar.

While Jakhar claimed that the elections and got the approval of the Delhi High Court, the rival group alleged that rules were not followed while conducting elections. The FIVB lifted the suspension in May last year after the Government of India recognised the elections and the federation, which gives Mishra new hope.

“For most part we were also not sure [about the federation’s status],” said Mishra. “We only signed the contract with VFI in February 2018. But once that was done, we approached the foreign players, got the international volleyball federation’s confidence, chalked out the talent pool in India.”

A wait-and-watch approach

The first season of PVL has only two venues – Kochi and Chennai – and no franchise is based out of north India. The reason for this, according to Mishra, was the organisers did not want to make any hard rules for the first season.

“We never wanted to control the franchises,” Mishra says. “Kerala has the popularity [in volleyball], so they were preferred. But from the second season onwards, there will be teams from north of India.”

Currently, the six teams are based out of different cities and are named Ahmedabad Defenders, Calicut Heroes, Chennai Spartans, U Mumba Volley, Black Hawks Hyderabad, and Kochi Blue Spikers.

“It’s a learning process for us but even with these six teams, the popularity will be huge,” said Mishra. “India are playing at the highest quality. We saw many tournaments and were convinced about volleyball. It is a great sport for television. Volleyball is one of the few team sports left which can be monetised in India.”

Mishra would know that it’s still early days and going overboard will not serve any purpose. “We have the print ads and heavy digital content. We know the audience but we cannot reach everyone in India and neither do we aim to. We are trying to reach the volleyball hotbeds and the television audience for now,” he said.

The organisers have not hesitated to change a few aspects of the game. The matches will be played in the best-of-three format instead of the general best-of-five. The PVL will also have a trump point, where a team can claim two points instead of the regular one. They can call it before the serve and will be allowed to do that only once in the match.

There will be additions to the league in the coming seasons as well, with Baseline and VFI agreeing to increase the number of teams to eight. There’s even a women’s league in the offing.

“It has to be slow and steady,” said Mishra. “We will have an all-star women’s game on the final day with top Indian women players and four international stars. Currently, the pool of women players in India isn’t big enough to start a league now.”

For players, the league provides an opportunity to perform at an international level. The winners of PVL will play the Asian Clubs Cup, from where the two finalists get a chance to play the World Cup.

“We never wanted a league for the foreign players,” said Mishra. “We will never increase the number of international players to more than two in the roster per team. We have quality Indian players and more will come. It will only grow from here.”