Ah, the wonderful world of professional volleyball. Not really a sport that makes mainstream headlines, especially here in North America. If you are reading this, odds are you are an avid volleyball player that has never watched a pro game outside of the Olympics in their life. But if you are even remotely interested in watching the highest level, and if you want to be a high-level player you should be, you came to the right place. This guide will take you through how professional volleyball works and how to watch its many, many different iterations.

How it Works

Skip this section if you are already familiar with professional volleyball and just want to know how to watch and follow the league.

If you are really good at a sport, people will pay to watch you play it. Most people think of volleyball as just an Olympic sport, but there are quite a few countries with a pro scene. Volleyball players are not paid nearly as well as soccer and basketball players, but many can make a living from it. And players at elite clubs can make up to 7-figure euro salaries, which if you convert to Canadian dollars is a lot of money!

Typically, the season goes from October to anywhere from March to May, ending with a playoff for the best teams, and relegation to a country’s second league for the worst teams. Most leagues have games once or twice a week. To make up for that, there is also usually an intra-league tournament that goes on throughout the season called a “Supercup”, and an inter-league continental tournament.

Most leagues have a limit on the number of players on the court that are not a citizen of the country. The reasoning for this is to encourage domestic player development, but mostly results in laughably overqualified imports scoring 40 points a match or highly skilled players sitting on the bench waiting until the champions league where they can actually play.

Our socialist North American pro sports system is thrown out the window in favour of ruthless free-market capitalism that dominates sports internationally. The teams with the deepest pockets can buy as many elite players as they want which tends to result in the same teams in each league dominating year after year. The volatility among the smaller clubs is high and financial inviability is a common occurrence. This means many pro players are mercenaries, switching clubs every season to the one that can afford to pay them.

Now that you are an expert in how pro volleyball works, here are the main leagues on the men’s indoor part of the game. Most of these apply to the women’s side as well, except the rankings would be quite different.

International/Continental Leagues

Champions League/CEV Cup/CEV Challenge Cup

Foreign player limit: no

Website: cev.eu

Where to watch: eurovolley.tv ($), flovolleyball ($$$) in the states

Club World Championships

Foreign player limit: no

Website: clubworldchampionships.2018.men.fivb.com/en

Where to watch: volleyworld.tvflovolleyball ($$$) in the states

The big daddy of club competitions is the champions league. It just so happens that most of the best clubs reside in Europe, so the battle between them is taken seriously and is probably the most prestigious title on this list. It is an exhaustive tournament too, with 6 stages played out over 8 months. The Champions league’s little brother is the CEV Cup, where the Italian and Russian teams that didn’t make the big tournament battle it out for a significantly more meaningless title. And the baby brother of the bunch is the CEV challenge cup, where it is a miracle if a match is televised.

The FIVB-hosted club world championship theoretically should be the most competitive club tournament and is technically the only international one. The previous year’s winners of South American, Asian, and European championships are invited to participate in a quickie tournament in early December. The fact that the invitations are turned down in a lot of cases hurts the reputation of the event. The timing of the tournament is awkward, and it is hard to break-even playing in the tournament monetarily unless you win. It is still an enjoyable watch, but there is room for improvement.

There is also the Copa Libertadores in South America, but that is just between Brazil & Argentina. And the AVC Club volleyball championship in Asia, but that happens in the middle of the summer where all the foreign (and some of the domestic) talent is gone.

Tier 1: The Big 4

Italy

Foreign player limit: 4

Website: legavolley.it

Where to watch: Raitsport.it (VPN required), Elevensports.it ($), flovolleyball
 ($$$) in the states

Russia

Foreign player limit: 2

Website: volleyservice.ru

Where to watch: Laola.tv

Poland

Foreign player limit: 3

Website: plusliga.pl

Where to watch: ipla.tv VODs are free, live is $

Brazil

Foreign player limit: 2

Website: superliga.cbv.com.br

Where to watch: Sportv, but you need a Brazilian tv package to access it. Pretty much impossible to watch live as far as I can tell.

Right now, Italy could probably be in its own tier, as most of the best foreign talent plays in the league. Russia has been at the top in the past though, and Brazil and Poland could be there one day if their economies ever match their love for volleyball and they relax their foreign player limit. But most of the best players in the world call these leagues home. The top teams in each league all boast multi-million dollar budgets, broadcast big matches on tv, and play for thousands of fans. And even though all of these leagues are top-heavy, there are still talented teams competing for every playoff spot, something you will not find on the rest of this list. If you want to follow volleyball at the highest possible level, then I would stick to these four leagues. And if you forced me to pick one league to follow on this list, I would pick Italy.

Tier 2

Germany

Foreign player limit: N/A

Website: volleyball-bundesliga.de

Where to watch: sport1.de/volleyball (need account)

France

Foreign player limit: N/A

Website: lnv.fr

Where to watch: www.lnvtv.com ($)

Argentina

Foreign player limit: 2

Website: aclav.com

Where to watch: tycsportsplay.com (free sign up to watch)

Turkey

Foreign player limit: N/A

Website: tvf.org.tr/efeler-ligi

Where to watch: trt.net.tr

This tier might be a big step down from the leagues in the top tier, but still contain plenty of high-level national team starters and elite players among the best teams. Germany and France benefit from their generous foreign player limits and therefore attract talent from countries without domestic leagues like USA, Canada, and Australia. They also send teams that are competitive in the champions league every year. Argentina has a deep domestic talent pool, but the games are fairly inaccessible compared to their European counterparts and has been overshadowed by Brazilian clubs in recent years. Turkish clubs pay for top talent but lack the domestic depth and popularity of their women’s teams. There is a lot of room for improvement for the leagues in this tier, especially with the richer sponsor potential of Germany and France.

Tier 3

China

Korea

Japan

Iran

Belgium

The three east Asian leagues are unique in that they pay quite well and elite players like Dmitry Muserskiy, Kevin Tillie, and Thomas Edgar call these leagues their home. They are also covered professionally (in the scope of volleyball) with HD broadcasts and modern stadiums. So why aren’t they higher? They have a strict foreign player limit and poor domestic talent relative to other leagues around this level. This results in most teams relying on their foreign superstar for most of their offense, and 40-point games happen here more than anywhere else. Iran has recently been the top Asian country for international and club play, but their top clubs have folded due and the players left due to unstable economics in the region. Belgium is in here because Maaseik and Roeselare rock the champions league every year.

Tier 4

Finland

Slovenia

Serbia

Bulgaria

Portugal

Spain

Czech Republic

Greece

Most of the teams in this tier have one team good enough to make it to the champions league where they have the privilege of getting unceremoniously bounced by on of the teams in tier 1 and 2. Most of these leagues don’t go much deeper than a couple teams and can get downright bad lower in the standings. The occasional great player plays in one of these leagues, but you get most things worth watching just by following the Champions League.

Special tier for North Americans

NVA

Website: nvausa.com

Where to watch: nvausa.com/tv (Commentated by our very own /u/_rvrb)

ONE Volleyball

Website: onevolleyball.org

Where to watch: ONEVolleyball YouTube channel

These are the current attempts to create professional leagues in North America. NVA is based in the states and runs during the fall/winter. ONE Volleyball runs in the summer in Toronto and Calgary. While the talent might be better than you expect, it is still far behind most of the leagues in this guide and the tournaments are firmly semi-pro. However, if you a North American fan starving for a domestic league, NVA and ONE Volleyball might be worth checking out.

If anyone has information for a league and would like me to add to the list though I would be more than happy to put it in. Happy watching!

1 Comment »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *