John Speraw met with longtime friend Wade Garard in May of 2016 to catch up over coffee, but their Starbucks chat turned into much more.
As head coach for both the Bruins and the U.S. men’s national team, Speraw has been heavily involved in the volleyball community for more than five years – and he couldn’t help but notice the problems specifically facing the men’s side of the sport.
Men’s volleyball has struggled to attain the same level of popularity as women’s volleyball in America and is limited to a much smaller set of resources across both the high school and collegiate landscapes.
Only 22 states sanction high school boy’s volleyball, and girls outnumber boys 8-to-1 on high school teams. On the collegiate level, women enjoy 334 Division I programs to choose between, whereas men are limited to only 22.
“I’ll never forget it – I said, ‘Why isn’t this bigger?’” Garard said. “Twenty-two Division I men’s volleyball teams, when college soccer has grown and college lacrosse has grown for men. And (Speraw) said, ‘I don’t know, but I’m sick of not competing for it.’”
Speraw said he felt the need to grow his sport across the United States, but this task wasn’t one he could take on single-handedly. That’s where Garard came in.
The challenge combined Garard’s passion for volleyball, as a former player himself and father to a volleyball-playing daughter, with his professional background in philanthropy and fundraising.
“It was kind of a no-brainer.” Garard said.
Their talk set things into motion. The pair established the MotorMVB Foundation that December, an organization designed specifically to raising funds and awareness in order to stimulate the growth of men’s volleyball at all levels in the United States. Garard assumed the role of CEO, and Speraw became a chairman.
“We felt like there was leadership needed in order to help grow men’s volleyball,” Speraw said. “There needed to be an intentional, specific effort to determine what was necessary, and then go out and do the work to grow our game.”
The pair worked on an initial study in which it interviewed a number of athletic directors, including UCLA’s Dan Guerrero, to gauge the collegiate landscape of men’s volleyball and determine ways to expand the number of college programs.
Speraw said Guerrero was very supportive toward the coach’s efforts outside of UCLA’s campus.
“(Guerrero) feels like coaches here at UCLA should be leaders within their sport, and this is certainly one avenue for me to do that,” Speraw said.
Guerrero said he lent his support in two main areas: developing a game plan to create awareness, and advising Speraw’s fundraising efforts to raise seed money for universities to begin programs.
“It was invigorating to see (Speraw’s) passion for the game and his desire to help grow the sport that has meant so much to him personally and professionally,” Guerrero said in an email. “He sees the tremendous opportunity for others to both enjoy the game and garner an education.”
While conducting the study, Garard said he was surprised by the lack of knowledge regarding men’s volleyball he noticed among athletic directors, who rarely knew much about the sport unless they had previously worked at a school with an existing program.
“It’s both a challenge and an opportunity,” Garard said. “I found that if you’ve been an athletic director at a school with a men’s program, you totally get it. You see high-level men’s volleyball played live, you’re hooked.”
The West Coast boasts a number of these high-level programs. Southern Californian schools such as UCLA, Pepperdine and USC claimed the first 24 NCAA titles in collegiate men’s volleyball history before Penn State earned the first championship for the East Coast in 1994.
Junior libero Spencer Sachs grew up in Deerfield, Illinois, and noticed the large difference in skill level when his team played against opponents from Southern California.
“Growing up, the competition in Chicago was a lot less skilled and advanced than out here in Los Angeles,” Sachs said. “You could definitely tell the big difference in the level of gameplay. … In Los Angeles, the high school teams would smoke our high school teams if we ever played each other.”
MotorMVB’s efforts have targeted this regional disparity. The foundation raised enough money to start two Division II men’s volleyball programs last year at Daemen College in Amherst, New York, and Urbana University in Urbana, Ohio.
Speraw and Garard have focused on improving the amount of college scholarships in their sport as well, since each Division I program is limited to only 4.5 scholarships.
Men’s basketball, for example, has 13 scholarships available per Division I team. The NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision offers each of its programs 63 full scholarships.
“If there are more scholarship opportunities, then the pace of the growth for the youth and high school boys accelerates,” Garard said. “There’s places for them to go.”
The foundation raised more than $1 million in its first year, with an eventual goal of $25 million. Speraw also hopes to boost the number of collegiate men’s volleyball programs from 188 to 380 over the next decade.
“It’s ambitious but doable, and I think necessary,” Speraw said. “There isn’t one part of our game – these regions, these entities, whatever the case may be – that isn’t eager to see growth occur on the boys’ and men’s side. I like to say that MotorMVB is now like the tip of the spear on the growth of the game.”
Numbers suggest that the sport is moving in the right direction. High school men’s volleyball has experienced 12 percent growth in the past four years, and USA volleyball has seen its membership among boys increase by 44 percent from 2011 to 2015.
Sachs said he has noticed growth in men’s volleyball, particularly when the Bruins traveled to parts of the country near his hometown.
“A lot more people are starting to play the game,” Sachs said. “And with coach Speraw and his efforts to grow the sport, … you definitely saw a piqued interest of people coming to see the games when we played Loyola-Chicago, or when we played George Mason out in D.C.”
Speraw’s work extends outside of the country as well.
The coach will once again represent the United States when he returns to the Summer Olympics for a second coaching stint at the games. But Speraw said his goals extend far beyond winning a gold medal in 2020.
“I felt a deep responsibility that my job isn’t just to win a gold medal in Tokyo,” Speraw said. “It’s to put the United States in a position to win gold medals in 2028 and 2032, wherever that may be, and on.”
That’s where MotorMVB’s efforts come in: to grow the sport among Americans and help the national team’s chances for success at international competitions in years to come.
“The best way to do that is to increase our talent base,” Speraw said. “So that’s what we’re trying to do.”