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After years of suffering, Indian volleyball finds glimmer of hope in glitzy Pro Volleyball

Mumbai: Tuhin Mishra is no stranger to the vagaries of sport in India. In 2016, the MD and co-founder of Baseline Ventures announced the launch of a volleyball league in India in association with the Volleyball Federation of India (VFI), only to see the idea being scuppered by another volleyball league being announced three days later, which also found support from a faction within the VFI.

The following year saw the sport in India getting embroiled in multiple issues — from court cases to de-recognition by the sports ministry — with VFI President Chaudhary Avadhesh Kumar and Secretary Ramavtar Singh Jakhar squabbling over control of the national body.

With the federation itself in a state of civil war, a league seemed nigh impossible. The sport suffered in the country before stability was finally restored with fresh elections being held and the sports ministry granting VFI recognition in July 2017.

And just like that, the league that Mishra had envisioned in 2016 became more plausible.

"In 2016, when we were given the rights to go and conduct the volleyball league, we didn't sign the agreement at that time. We waited, because three days later there were a lot of issues (due to announcement of another league). But what we also did was that we didn't give up in the league. We waited until everything was cleared before jumping on board in February 2018," Mishra told Firstpost.

The volleyball league, to be called Pro Volleyball, is set to begin from September this year, right after the Asian Games. Organisers told Firstpost that six teams will be part of the first edition of the league, which will be played in two centres — one in north and other in south — in a caravan format that the Pro Kabaddi League follows.

The league is also expected to have auctions and a draft. International players will be picked through the draft system to keep prices in control, and Rs 75 lakh is expected to be the cap on Indian players, who will be picked via an auction.

The league recently appointed Joy Bhattacharjya as its CEO. Bhattacharjya was the Director of the Indian Premier League franchise Kolkata Knight Riders for the first seven years before taking over as the Project Director for the recently-concluded FIFA U-17 World Cup.

The organisers added that bid documents for the league will be formally released on 15 May and added that they were in talks with both the main broadcasters — Star and SPN Sports — over TV rights.

"If it goes right, Pro Volleyball has the potential to be bigger than kabaddi as well," Mishra said.

"In the first year, the idea is to get the product right and do it really well. I come from a TV background, so I knew that this is a good TV sport. There are very few sports which will look good on TV.

"The quality of Indian volleyball is not that far off from international standards. Yes, we will have international players in the league. But even if you watch Indian volleyball, it doesn't look like this is international volleyball but in slow motion, or the baby version of volleyball," said Bhattacharjya.

But will everything that has marred the development of Indian volleyball over the last two years have a bearing on the interest of potential franchise owners or sponsors?

"We spoke to multiple sponsors and they have no concerns coming on board. You look at any sport in the country and there is always some issue or the other. Look at cricket, or boxing, or hockey. Each time a league has started, someone tends to go and file a PIL and derail it. These things are part of life, the sponsors know that. As long as the sport looks good on TV and they get their money's worth, they're okay.

"Otherwise despite all the controversies that dog IPL, why would sponsors be flocking to the league? Each time the league has gone to the market, they have managed to raise the value of the title sponsor," Mishra pointed out.

The first edition of the league will not have women's participation, organisers said.

However, plans are afoot to have an all stars game between two women's teams — one from the north of India and another from the south — on the day of the men's final in the first edition. In time, the women's league will also be introduced.

"We want to showcase the women's game too. Hopefully, in a couple of years we should have a women's league as well," said Bhattacharjya before adding, "If we do a women's league today, there will be money. There is a huge upsurge in women's sport and socially it looks great. The problem is the pool of women's players in the country at the moment. We need at least a 80 to 100 top quality Indian players for the league to go ahead. At this point, our opinion is that that's not there in India.

"The women's league is an easy one to market. But if you do it badly or the level of competition is not up to the mark, then it will drop off in two years and we would have basically killed the concept for the future."

Mishra and Bhattacharjya have learnt from the mistakes of others. In 2011, in the midst of an upsurge in sports league around the country due to the popularity of the IPL, volleyball too got its first league. One edition later, it shut shop with a whimper.

"The guys who started the volleyball league in 2011 ruined the idea for the next five years, because they didn't do it well enough. They tried to do it like other leagues, like IPL," Bhattacharjya said.

"We cannot afford to do that. Indian volleyball has suffered enough."

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Updated Date: May 08, 2018 12:36:59 IST

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