With the Rio Olympics still over two years away, many players on the U.S. volleyball team are working their day jobs: Playing for professional teams overseas.
Elite volleyball players head for such far-flung locales as Siberia in the winter months, allowing them to earn a living while still chasing Olympic dreams. For the top players it can be a comfortable living with salaries in the six figures.
But for most, indoor pro leagues overseas allow players to continue doing what they love beyond college, make a little money and perhaps aim for a higher level with the ultimate goal being one of the 12 spots on the U.S. Olympic team.
Volleyball agent Tim Kelly, whose agency represents “well over” 200 athletes, says some 25 American women and 10 men are making more than six figures. A handful can command more.
“The average sports fan would be blown away if they found out that anyone was making a million dollars net playing volleyball,” said Kelly of Bring It Productions. “That continues to shock people.”
There are numerous popular and competitive pro leagues abroad, including teams in Russia, Italy, Turkey, Brazil and South Korea. There are opportunities for both the elite pros and the post-college players not quite ready for the 9-to-5 grind, Kelly said.
But it’s a lifestyle that has many challenges.
Players wind up in foreign countries unable to speak the language and with scant support systems. There’s no hand-holding like in college. Many teams are limited as to the number of foreign players they can have on their rosters, so companionship from others in the same situation is not an option. Communication can be difficult.
Still, salaries are usually entirely take-home pay. Room and board, transportation, medical care and everything else is taken care of. So even an entry-level player may come home after a season with $8,000 in their pocket. And they get training and competition if they aspire to a higher level.
“I always tell people you have to be ready for an adventure and not to have too many expectations,” said Courtney Thompson, a setter who played on the U.S. women’s team that won the silver at the 2012 London Games. “It’s a lot different than a lot of people think, because we have nothing like it in the United States. They train differently, they play differently, the lifestyle is obviously different - which can be really cool, but it can also make it difficult.”
Thompson, who was a standout for the Washington Huskies, made the 2012 Olympic team and played a key role when veteran setter Lindsey Berg went down with an Achilles injury. The U.S. women lost in the gold-medal match to Brazil.
Thompson plays in Switzerland for Volero Zurich. Last season while playing in Poland, she was the subject of a documentary called “Court And Spark” about her odyssey abroad as a professional athlete.
“The first year I remember that every time they would give me a check - which wasn’t much every month - I would say, ‘Thank you, thank you so much. Thank you.’ And finally my boss was like, ‘Courtney, you can stop thanking me. This is your job.’ It’s something you’ve done for free for so long,” Thompson said.
Other U.S. Olympians working overseas include Jordan Larson-Burbach with Dinamo Kazan in Russia, Danielle Scott with Brasilia Volei in Brazil, Matt Anderson with Kenit Kazan in Russia and David Lee with Tang Dynasty Hotel Shanghai in China.
Adventure aside, athletes need to be smart about what they’re getting into, cautioned middle blocker Rachael Adams, who plays in Bydgoszcz, Poland.
“That’s the scary thing about playing overseas: You have to negotiate these things, fight for what you want, and know what you deserve. You could have in your contract a car, apartment, utilities, a flight ticket home and back for Christmas, and more. But if your agent doesn’t negotiate it for you, or your team doesn’t believe you’re worth it and doesn’t want to pay that much on top of paying you, you won’t get any of these things,” Adams said.
To help athletes navigate, Adams and Geena Urango launched the website Athletes Abroad, www.athletesabroad.wordpress.com. It doesn’t just cater to volleyball players, but all U.S. athletes who play professionally in foreign countries.
Urango, who played indoor and sand volleyball at USC, felt especially isolated overseas because she made the leap to be with her boyfriend, middle blocker Max Holt, who played last season in Italy before going to Russia this season.
Athletes share their personal experiences on the site, but it also offers advice on packing, diet, bringing your pet overseas and even “planning a wedding from 5,309 miles away.” The site connects pen pals, too.
“In the end it’s an experience not many people get to live themselves,” Urango said. “Finding the positives of living overseas can be tough when you do feel alone and like you’re missing out on so much at home, but when you do find them, the whole experience abroad is actually quite rewarding.”
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