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The Short, Groundbreaking History of Major League Volleyball

It used to be an ESPN mainstay.

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

Despite our interest in sports as a society, for whatever reason, we can’t seem to handle more than a handful of specific professional team sports at any one time.

Sometimes, though, sports have moments that suggest they’re ready for a bigger breakthrough, even if the cards don’t ultimately fall into place. Take volleyball, which, during the 1984 Olympics was in the midst of such a moment, drawing massive ratings and public interest in the U.S.

Culturally, the craze spawned numerous volleyball video games, even movies with volleyball-themed plots, like the 1986 direct-to-video film Spiker, which starred a pre-Kill Bill Michael Parks (rest in power) as the USA Volleyball coach.

Around the same time, ESPN, launched in 1979, was still in its infancy and looking to fill some airtime, and volleyball had the potential to be good TV.

Enter, in 1987, Major League Volleyball, which broke barriers as one of the earliest women’s professional leagues with televised games. The games were sometimes tape-delayed, sure, but you could still watch spikes and volleys on your TV.

The league came with many of the trappings of larger sports leagues, but as Sports Illustrated noted back then, it was not a top-tier league: Pay was limited and the league treated players already on the U.S. Olympic team as off-limits.

“The MLV offers a vehicle for women who are not good enough to compete in the top leagues in Japan and Italy and a chance to demonstrate to the paying public that volleyball is more than fun at the beach,” a 1987 Los Angeles Times article explained.

(Despite this, the league deferred pay and offered per diems to players, on the off chance one of the pro league’s players got a shot at the Olympics. If the players wanted to stay amateur, they could.)

And everything was on a shoestring. Steve Arnold, the league’s commissioner, told Sports Illustrated, “Our total budget is less than Don Mattingly’s annual salary.”

It was a league riddled with disappointments, big and small: The league tried and failed to find big sponsors, turnover among players was high, and attendance numbers were often mixed, with teams in smaller markets drawing far larger numbers than markets with other major sports teams. The Los Angeles Starlites, despite dismal attendance numbers, were champions in both of the league’s completed seasons.

And that imbalance ultimately did the league in. In March of 1989—in the middle of MLV’s third season—the league’s struggling cashflow forced a shutdown.

“For a combination of reasons, whether it be the lack of local ownership, the marketplace, or the way the teams were promoted, the franchises in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles failed financially,” Gary Schwing, the owner of the San Jose Golddiggers, told the Los Angeles Times. “The owners of the three successful franchises were unable to bail out the other three (teams), and the league was forced to suspend operations.”

The people behind MLV, it turned out, were pretty familiar with failure, since many of them launched or had been associated with doomed sports leagues as varied as the World Football League and the World Hockey Association.

Consider Lee Meade, who was at one point MLV’s executive director, but had previously been associated with the ABA, the WHA, and the International Basketball Association, all of which were themselves failures.

“In the realm of failed franchises, Lee Meade has seen it all,” Sports Illustrated wrote in 1990, even if everyone seemed to have a sense of humor about it.

“A lot of the negative stuff you hear about Lee is that he was involved in everything that failed,” Arnold told SI. “That isn’t true. People have made a lot of money on things Lee has been involved in. Unfortunately, Lee hasn’t been among them.”

Meade’s last job in sports was working for the Las Vegas Posse, which, Wikipedia notes, “was one of the least successful CFL teams, both on the field and off.”

Still, as Drake Misek points out on Medium, the legacy of MLV can be seen in modern-day leagues like Major League Soccer, which emulated MLV’s single-entity ownership structure while finding a way to balance the needs of players with both amateur and professional interests.

MLV also stands out for just how unlikely its existence was at all.

“For all its problems,” Misek wrote, “we simply cannot downplay MLV’s enormous accomplishment: they offered pro women’s volleyball in the U.S. on ESPN for two full seasons.”

A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.