PVL 2.0 hopes to breathe life back into Indian volleyball


Baseline Ventures, promoters of the now defunct Pro Volleyball League, announced earlier this month that they would be starting up a new league. Christened the Prime Volleyball League, it will have five of the six franchises that made up the original PVL, with one major difference - the Volleyball Federation of India (VFI) is not involved anymore. In response to that the VFI, on the same day, announced that they would be conducting a new league early next year.

We attempt to breakdown the key developments:

Who will take part in the Prime Volleyball League?

Chennai Blitz, Calicut Heroes, Ahmedabad Defenders, Hyderabad Black Hawks, and the Kochi Blue Spikers -- will be back, along with a new entrant, the Bengaluru Torpedoes. Baseline Ventures will remain the organiser. "The team owners are also stakeholders in the league along with Baseline," says Joy Bhattacharjya, CEO of the league. "Everyone puts in money... It's very democratic. Tomorrow, if they don't think I am doing a good job, they are perfectly at liberty to get rid of me. That accountability and professionalism has to be there. Even when an owner is spending money, he can see [where it's going]. Our accounts are transparent," he says.

"That's the idea," he says. "How do I give investors a five to seven-year window where they can say let's try and build this product and see... after that if it doesn't work, it doesn't work."

It's probably instructional that he calls it a 'product'. Looking at it from a marketability point of view is what the Pro Kabaddi League got right, and it had helped the PVL back in 2019. They had sellout crowds in Kerala, and in the final at Chennai. Their broadcasters Sony were impressed enough to come back on board for this current iteration.

It's a model that worked, and the league knows where it can be improved upon. For instance, he says, "One of the pluses we have this time is that Sony, unlike last time, have South Indian feeds so there will be Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam commentary. And we are also trying for Kannada."

What about the VFI-backed new league?

"If they could do it, they would [already] have done it," says Bhattacharjya, before adding, "if they do conduct it, good! Am I worried about another volleyball league? I am not! Let the volleyball players get a chance. We have enough talent, enough players." There is also, he says, the matter of the 5 plus Crores** they are owed by the Federation thanks to the court judgement.

But what if the Federation gets in the way of players appearing for the national team?

It's a concern Bhattacharjya dismisses. "Legally there's no way you can stop anyone from playing anything. In fact, Mr. Jhakkar [Ramavtar Jhakkar, secy. gen. VFI] himself at the Competition Council of India said that we cannot stop anyone from running a league," he says.

He also speaks of other factors, like the increased visibility the league brings, and the pressure that puts on national selectors. He uses the examples of other successful franchisee-based leagues in India to bolster his argument. "Today, if the federation says yes or no, the players will go and play [the PKL], that's the truth," he says.

"Secondly," he says. "How often does the Indian team play?"

He also points out the financial situation of today's players. "This current Indian team [had] travelled to Japan [for the Asian Championships], paying their own money."

"If they could have done a league, and done it successfully... [PVL would not need to]." "The players are calling us every day," he says. "When I went to the Nationals in 2018, the players were given rice and rasam and sambhar in the afternoon! In the 2019 league, we put them up in a good hotel and gave them [balanced meals - pre-game, recovery, etc.]."

What does the fraternity feel about this?

PV Ramana, ex-volleyball star and Asian Games bronze medallist (and father to PV Sindhu), is completely on board with the idea. "They had done a great job [original PVL], and the tournament [had been] successful. The court judgement [Baseline v VFI] is in favour of the players," he says.

He too feels players would choose to play in the league. "If you look at the top players now, they are all employed [at different government organisations], they are not at the mercy of the federation. It's just a matter of applying for a month's leave and making a substantial amount of money in the league, he says.

The financial aspect is key, he suggests. "When you play for the country, you don't make any money till you win a medal in the Olympics or Asian Games or CWG." Decrying the current state of the sport, he questioned the likelihood of that happening any time soon, while also mentioning that players have to pay out of their own pocket to play for India.

"Look at where PKL has taken Kabaddi," he says. "Everybody is watching, talking about them. Players are earning big money now. Any sportsperson, when they play, they should feel they are earning something. I have played, what have I earned? Nothing. Those days we have won medals, ours was the last Asian Games medal [in volleyball], but still we had to adjust our lives with our jobs and our government salary."

"The former players in the federation should think about [their past], 'how we've come, how we've worked hard', 'what were the struggles we had'", he says. It's something that perplexes him. "They should all sit down and work together for the sport!"

The PVL, he says, will benefit the sport as a whole, with foreign players and coaches coming in, and said that it would serve as an inspiration for youngsters looking to pick up the sport. It's part of the process, he feels, that would help make volleyball a viable career option.

So, what now?

Bhattacharjya plans to conduct an auction (PKL, IPL style) for the players within the next two months. "There's a good bank of players, who we already know. They can register on the site. The teams can recommend certain players and add them to their wishlist."

There are plans to expand, as well, "We don't want to cross eight [teams] in the first three years. There are at least two teams we have turned away because they were coming from the same area, and we didn't want to add too many from the same region. But we are having serious conversations with a couple of teams." The idea, he says, is that they will firm up in regions where they know this has worked before taking it across the nation, especially with the quality of players in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh ("an undiscovered gem"), and Assam.

The auction is a significant first step upon whose success the rest of the plan depends. Once the league does take off, there's the matter of live crowds as well -- the Durand Cup is allowing spectators in currently, but the future remains uncertain. That's a bridge that can be crossed when arrived at, feels Bhattacharjya.

Volleyball in India has had its fair share of controversies over the years -- think of 2016, when two factions of the VFI announced two different leagues on the same day -- and has been on a steady downward slide for quite some time now. Can the Prime Volleyball League make the difference?

**UPDATE AS ON 29 OCTOBER 2021 -- After VFI failed to pay court ordered fee, the dues payable to Baseline ventures have now added up to Rs. 6 Crore due to non-compliance. VFI' stay application was also dismissed by the Madras High Court. The allegations by VFI against Baseline pertaining to the breach of contract were dismissed & it was categorically stated that the termination was not justified. The Court also dismissed the counter claim of Rs. 14.93 crores made by the VFI against Baseline Ventures.