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Rise and Shine

Oct 13, 2023
Written By: Mark Newman

Grand Rapids will be one of seven cities represented in the newly formed Pro Volleyball Federation that will showcase some of the world's top players.

It was nearly 700 miles from where the Grand Rapids Rise will begin play in January 2024, but the reverberations were so remarkable that it felt like it had been held in the future pro volleyball franchise's backyard.

A total of 92,003 fans – the largest crowd ever to witness a women's sports event – filled Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, on Aug. 30, 2023, to watch a volleyball match hosted by the five-time NCAA champion Nebraska Cornhuskers.

The previous record for a women's sporting event in the U.S. was the crowd of 90,185 who attended the Women's World Cup soccer final between Team USA and China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on July 10, 1999.

News of the attendance record brought a smile to Scott Gorsline, the DP Fox Sports & Entertainment executive who has overseen the launch of the pro volleyball franchise for owner Dan DeVos, whose interests include the Griffins and the former Arena Football League (AFL) champion Grand Rapids Rampage.

It was a validation of his efforts that began a couple of years earlier, when DeVos was informally approached with two very different sports-related propositions: one, to revive the AFL, and the other, to start a new professional volleyball league for women. The former elicited a "been there, done that" response, but the latter idea instigated intrigue.

DeVos has family ties to the sport of volleyball, and the concept of a women’s professional league proved sufficiently enticing. Gorsline, along with DeVos’ son Cole, DP Fox's director of strategic investments, and Griffins president Tim Gortsema, began exploring the concept advanced by Pro Volleyball Federation founders Dave Whinham and Stephen Evans, a duo who boast many combined years of experience in building and managing professional sports leagues, including the AFL.

The nascent league attracted some well-known founding partners from inside and outside the sport of volleyball, including Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow and his parents, pop star Jason Derulo, and Super Bowl Champion Trent Dilfer, the latter being the father of three volleyball-playing daughters.

"What captivated all of us was the growth of the sport in general," Gorsline said. "I think we all embraced the merits of creating a league like this, because we felt it was important that the league not play second fiddle to the men's version of the sport.

"As evidenced by the Nebraska game, the sport is growing, not just at the college level but also from a youth perspective. The Big Ten, in particular, has done a nice job of growing their attendance through their television presence, but we could also see it locally in the growing interest in volleyball and women's sports, generally.

"From the attention garnered by women's soccer via the success of the U.S. National Team to the growth of women's tennis, it was obvious there was a market for this. And we were excited that this new league will offer an opportunity for many of the world's top women players to continue to ply their trade at the highest level here without having to go overseas."

The enterprise attracted the attention of some heavy hitters within the volleyball world, including two legends of the sport – Dr. Cecile Reynaud and Laurie Corbelli – who became intimately involved from the start.

Reynaud, who is serving as the league's vice president of volleyball operations, is a member of the USA Volleyball Hall of Fame who spent 26 seasons as head coach at Florida State, served as Chair of the USA Volleyball Board of Directors, and is a former president of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Corbelli, who is acting as a consultant in the development of the league's operations, is a Hall of Fame coach with more than 600 career victories inclusive of her tenure at Texas A&M (1993-2017).

Grand Rapids' league entry found its own ace when Gorsline met with recently retired Michigan State University volleyball coach Cathy George shortly after the West Michigan pro volleyball franchise was announced in December 2022.

"Honestly, the stars aligned for us because Cathy had stepped away from MSU because of her mother's illness, and when her mother passed away several months later she became interested in getting involved again," Gorsline said. "We were incredibly lucky to land someone with her credentials."

Hired to become the first coach of the newly named Rise, George brings instant credibility to the new franchise with decades of experience coaching at the collegiate level. She coached 11 seasons at Western Michigan before coming to MSU, where she spent 17 seasons.

As the first woman to coach in the NCAA Division I Final Four, in 1989 with Texas-Arlington, George was the perfect ambassador for the sport. "The coaching ranks in women's volleyball are still very male-dominated, so we feel very fortunate to have someone of Cathy's caliber and reputation to help us build our team," Gorsline said.

In early August, the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel hosted about 50 representatives from the ownership groups of the seven teams that will play during 2024, along with several more committed for 2025. Among the attendees was three-time Olympic gold medalist and San Diego team owner Kerri Walsh Jennings.

Joining Grand Rapids in the inaugural Pro Volleyball Federation season will be the Atlanta Vibe, Columbus Fury, Omaha Supernovas, and Orlando Valkyries, along with franchises in San Diego and Las Vegas. Teams consisting of 14 players will play a 24-game schedule from January to May, with playoffs following a Final Four-style format.

"As an organization, we are super excited that the league is attracting high-caliber players who will provide our fans with some of the best volleyball on the planet," said Gorsline, who was anxious for the league to hammer out all of the remaining details before the first Rise game is played at Van Andel Arena.

"As someone who was there at the beginning of the Griffins, I can say this league has the potential to grow the sport well beyond its current fan base," he said. "With the Griffins, we set the tone in the market right away and we're doing everything at a similarly high level with the Rise.

"We're looking forward to creating that same kind of excitement here for our new volleyball team, too."

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