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Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, March 2015, Washington, DC.

Summary: The American Volleyball Coaches Association did something unthinkable over the last four years: The group successfully lobbied the NCAA to include Sand Volleyball as an official championship sport. AVCA shares the strategy and tactics it used to help it achieve its goal.

Between 2011 and 2015, Sand (Beach) Volleyball moved from a National Collegiate Athletic Association "emerging sport" to become the 90th NCAA Championship sport. Given that the NCAA legislative calendar is annual and its budget cycle is triennial, going from "emerging" to "championship" status in four years is considered warp speed for this organization.

Even more remarkable is that the birth of this new sport happened at a time when the NCAA’s governance structure was broadly panned by the media and the public as plodding, dysfunctional, and unresponsive. (Does that sound like another governing body you're used to working with?)

So, how did this happen and what lessons are there in this success for other associations dealing with bureaucratic behemoths? The American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA), a group of more than 7,000 volleyball coaches with a mission to advance and develop the sport and its coaches, was the lead advocacy group behind the process, and we'd like to share the strategies that proved effective.

1. Align the interests of different constituencies whose help is needed to make your project a success

Coalition building. That's what AVCA set out to do from the beginning with this effort. Identifying the right partners was key, and the strategy the association used to do so was to find groups facing a certain problem and offer to help solve that problem at a minimal cost.

A once powerful group, the NCAA's Committee on Women's Athletics (CWA) was looking for a "win" to reclaim its relevancy. The popularity of Sand Volleyball handed it an emerging sport with a readymade fan and television base and a good chance for success. A group looking for a cause can be a powerful influence; just be sure to give it credit every step of the way.

Then there were the Indoor Volleyball coaches who were concerned about losing the chance to train their players in the offseason due to persistent pressure to cut costs. Since the beach season is opposite the court season on the calendar, having the option to sponsor both sports made sand volleyball an immediately attractive option for court coaches. They got on board with the effort.

Due to the availability of crossover players and coaching talent from the indoor team, beach volleyball gave athletics administrators a low-cost women’s sport that could make their departments compliant with federal Title IX legislation. The result was 40 varsity teams, the minimum number required by the NCAA for a sport to move from emerging to championship sport status.

2. Once a new program has launched, stay engaged and fill gaps where needed to help it thrive

AVCA, by default, ended up writing rules and administrative regulations, organizing and hosting countless committee calls, and moderating disputes during the early seasons of play. This responsibility was unanticipated, unlike anything AVCA staff had ever had to manage, and very wearing on the entire organization and certain board members.

But, if you give birth to it, you raise it! We took on the task of hosting the first four national championship tournament because there was no one else to do it. None of us had beach volleyball experience, but we found tremendous partners in the Gulf Shores/Alabama Convention and Visitors Bureau, CBS Sports Network, and USA Volleyball. The success and publicity around the championship was noticed by the media-hungry sports community and convinced fence-sitting administrators that the sport could be a commercial success.

The experience brought with it a number of benefits:

  • Working outside of your comfort zone can net your association new partners and relationships that will help you grow going forward.
  • It allowed AVCA to track participation in the sport from the early days and prove objectors wrong who held that the sport would simply cannibalize student-athletes from the court game.

  • The research was also critical in convincing NCAA Divisions II and Division III to add programs, and their support was critical to the funding of the championship.

3. Compromise where you can to give critical interest groups what they need to support your project

In negotiating inside a large bureaucracy, acknowledge objections even when your community doesn't share the concern. There are times in launching a new program when you must decide which interest group to alienate based on how much influence each has to block your initiative.

A group within CWA was concerned that noncoastal schools would shy away from Beach Volleyball so they renamed the sport Sand Volleyball. Many in the volleyball community were incensed by what they considered a hijacking of their sport by an outside group. We gave in on this issue because we needed CWA's support and calculated that the beach community would have no choice but to go along.

Although few in the volleyball community are self-conscious about playing beach volleyball in a bathing suit, many in the collegiate ranks found the attire of professional beach players exploitive to women. We answered this objection by copying the regulations that governed NCAA track and field attire, figuring these had already been approved as college-appropriate.

All of these tactics played into the quick rise of Sand Volleyball through the NCAA's emerging sports program. In 2016, the NCAA will sponsor 90 championships, and the first Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship.

Kathy DeBoer is executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association in Lexington, Kentucky. AVCA is managed by Associations International.

Reprinted with permission. Copyright, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, March 2015, Washington, DC.


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