“In my campaign, I said two things: innovation and opportunities,” says Ary Graça (above). “Innovation for the high level of volleyball, and opportunities for the small countries.”
The International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) is by no means the only sports organisation adapting to changing times by innovating its product, but the global governing body for volleyball is intent on doing things its own way.
For Graça, whose tenure as FIVB president was extended for eight years in 2016, the overarching aim is to “expand volleyball around the world” and become the number one family entertainment sport globally. Competition from other entertainment formats remains “the biggest challenge” facing sports federations, says the Brazilian, and to compete for consumer attention in today’s much-changed media landscape, every organisation must now embrace digital technology across all aspects of their business.
“The money that comes from sport must go back to sport,” he continues, speaking in Turin ahead of Sunday’s FIVB Men’s Volleyball World Championship final between Poland and Brazil. “It cannot go to the bank just to say ‘I’m a rich federation’; I am a rich federation but I want to be rich because I want to be in the whole world.
“If I go to the whole world, digital platforms will be very important for me. That’s why I’m making such a big effort in China, United States, France - those countries are very important with, let’s say, wealthy people. Let’s be optimists. If, in five years, [China] has 1.5 billion people and our performance is not so big, we reach 100 million people [all paying] US$1, that is US$100 million I don’t have today.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that Graça has sought to instil a more business-minded approach at the FIVB. Having set the ambitious target of becoming a tier-one Olympic sport by 2020, the former banker knows the sport of volleyball needs to think and act like a media-minded, data-driven corporation to bolster its bottom line.
“I don’t do anything without research,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter what I think - I want to know what you think because I’m trying to sell a product to you. Today, we are dependent on TV [networks]. In five years, I think it will be more than 50 per cent [digital platforms]. Children don’t watch TV anymore.”
The players are very important but today the crowd is important too. The fans are part of the show, they make the show.
Reinventing the live experience
The FIVB’s commitment to modernising its live product is fully evident inside Turin’s PalaAlpitour, where this year’s Men’s World Championship culminated with a win for defending champions Poland before a sellout crowd of around 14,500 on Sunday. From the moment both sets of players descend into the arena through an oversized LED gangway, accompanied by deafening house music and obnoxious lighting, it is clear where the organisers’ priorities now lie.
The entire show is big, loud, organised fun. During natural breaks in play - which number 164, on average, per match - every effort is made to highlight player athleticism and important moments, and to use those as the basis for constant audience participation. So-called ‘monster blocks’ and ‘super spikes’ are vocally celebrated with distinctive chants and dance moves that are taught to spectators early in proceedings and eagerly performed throughout.
Stoked by a courtside DJ and bellowing MCs, the thumping, high-tempo production is somewhere between the NBA and a full-body workout; a family-friendly, neatly choreographed disco adorned with Kiss Cams, inflatable clappers and frequent renditions of La Macarena.
It is a far cry from the staid gymnasium events of years gone by, and it is all in the name of what the FIVB has termed ‘active engagement’.
“I brought this idea from Brazil: the participation of the public in the match,” says Graça. “The players are very important but today the crowd is important too. The fans are part of the show, they make the show.”
The resources and technology that go into bringing this polished in-arena atmosphere to life are extensive. A network of at least 36 cameras are used to capture the action, while a team of around 30 technicians control crucial elements such as lighting, scoring and audio. Four giant screens and a state of the art sound system - the largest that could be fitted within a venue of this size - further enhance the mood and help keep spectator attention trained on the field of play.
Adding a further dimension, and the occasional drama, to proceedings is the use of Hawk-Eye technology, which was introduced to volleyball for the first time at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Similar to its application in tennis, the system comprises ten ball-tracking cameras that capture footage used for generating video replays and challenging umpire calls.
The idea, besides boosting officiating accuracy and objectivity, is to measure more data points during matches than ever before, and to use detailed stats and graphics to contextualise and explain the action to fans in new ways. The Hawk-Eye system, which is in use at volleyball’s World Championships for the first time, is also able to track player reaction times and the speed of serves and spikes. That wealth of information can then be fed directly to on-site screens, broadcast partners and other digital platforms at the click of a button.
“When we considered the final of the Men’s World Championships, we needed a framework and some principles as to what we needed to do to be able to create a magical, inspirational and spectacular experience for our fans in the venue, for our players and also for our viewers,” says Steve Tutton, the event’s sport, innovation and technical director.
“This is all part of transforming volleyball into not only being about a leather ball full of air and some players hitting it over a net - it’s about creating an experience that is life-lasting and liveable and you can be a part of the game.”
The FIVB's ‘active engagement’ policy ensures constant audience participation.
Building a digital ecosystem
Beyond the live event, that line of thinking has motivated the FIVB to create Volleyball TV, the sport's first over-the-top (OTT) digital streaming platform which launched in May to coincide with the start of the inaugural Volleyball Nations League (VNL), a joint venture between the federation and IMG. Available in 50 markets worldwide via desktop, mobile and iOS and Android devices, the €19.99 subscription service provides live coverage of elite international matches as well as an array of supplementary content and archive footage.
During the VNL - an event which saw the FIVB, in partnership with IMG Media, take complete control of its content production for the first time - Volleyball TV carried action from 260 men’s and women’s matches, plus ten-minute highlights from every game. For this year’s World Championships, a total of 196 matches are on offer across the men’s and women’s editions, the latter of which got underway in Japan last weekend. Plans are now being made to add other FIVB competitions to the platform in future, as well as national leagues and major volleyball tournaments from around the world.
“It is the first year that volleyball seriously and heavily put together investment in order to enter the digital environment,” says Guido Betti, the FIVB’s TV and marketing director. “We strongly believe in digital. We believe it will be a massive opportunity for volleyball and we are building around that. Our digital view is not only on a premium service, but also on content delivery - on putting a huge amount of content that goes beyond FIVB content only.”
We are changing ourselves, moving the FIVB to become a media company focused on consumers. That is a huge revolution.
Pricing and programming on the Volleyball TV service varies according to the FIVB’s rights contracts in each market - in the established volleyball heartlands of France, Italy and Japan, for example, full match replays and highlights of every game are made available on a 24-hour delay, while in selected markets the service incorporates pay-per-view (PPV) access.
“Of course, our objective is to cover all the world as soon as possible,” says Betti. “In the majority of the markets, we were able to carve out [digital rights] without any impact [on existing broadcast contracts]. In a few others, we had to find a compromise, maybe not having all the matches live but putting the matches that the broadcasters have live on delay. But it’s a start. Volleyball is a sport that is growing but is not like football, so we have to work with that.”
Betti adds that the objective is to “build little by little” and, in time, “own the relationship with the consumer” - a move which constitutes another fundamental shift in mentality for the FIVB.
“We are changing ourselves, moving the FIVB to become a media company focused on consumers,” he continues. “That is a huge revolution, I would say. At the same time, a branch of the organisation is really focused on event deployment - that is a big innovation if you consider we are a federation. But we understand the power of controlling your product and distributing content properly.”
According to Graça, the IMG partnership has been particularly transformative for volleyball’s various stakeholders. Where once the body’s 222 national associations were required to pay for production, prohibiting participation at elite championships for all but the wealthiest nations, those costs are now covered by IMG, which is also distributing media rights to the competition on a global basis.
“We launched the VNL with huge investment from IMG,” he says, emphasising the word ‘huge’. “In so few years, with a lot of technology, we are changing the product of volleyball. If you continue this way, we are going to be bigger and bigger. In this moment, we have everything to believe that.”
The Hawk-Eye ball-tracking system is being used at volleyball’s World Championships for the first time.
In addition to Volleyball TV, the FIVB has also rolled out additional digital experiences such as Volleyball World, a Microsoft-powered mobile app that provides complementary stats, live scores and video clips. The app represents the first fruits of a new partnership with Microsoft that will lead to greater segmentation and profiling of the global volleyball fanbase, and in turn enable the FIVB to deliver more personalised user experiences and bespoke digital sponsorship packages.
“We are really focused on marketing that platform which will enable us to generate knowledge to understand how the business should go, how we need to improve the product, what the consumer needs, so we are making huge investments in the right direction,” says Betti.
“We are not [Rupert] Murdoch, we are not Sky, we have not the same amount of money and power to deploy so the steps will be a little bit slower. But we see very clearly where we want to go.”
Betti says the digital enhancements have already stirred considerable interest in the market. He notes the extent to which they marry up with the objectives of sponsors who are demanding detailed consumer data over “simple awareness or generic visibility”, pointing specifically to the strategy that has driven Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten’s recent investments in sport.
Graça echoes that sentiment. He reveals that the FIVB has seen a significant upsurge in the size of its commercial contracts - renewals with several companies have grown as much as tenfold, he says - because of “the value of our product is completely different”.
“Why?” he asks. “Because we are offering a completely new product, a completely new concept, a completely new philosophy of giving entertainment to the public.”