For U.S. Women’s National Team volleyball players Kelsey Robinson Cook and Justine Wong-Orantes, both of whom were part of Team USA’s gold medal win at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the idea of playing their sport professionally in America was an almost foreign concept.
Since finishing their collegiate careers at Nebraska – Robinson Cook graduated in 2013 with All-American honors, while Wong-Orantes finished in 2016 as a two-time All-American and 2015 NCAA champion – the athletes joke that they’ve been living out of suitcase ever since. But that looks to change in the foreseeable future, as both athletes announced this week their signings with League One Volleyball (LOVB, pronounced “love”), which is creating the first professional full-season indoor volleyball league in the U.S.
“[Winning the gold medal in Tokyo] was this special moment for the sport of volleyball, and I think it showed just how important the sport is for women in the United States,” said the 30-year-old Robinson Cook, who hails from Bartlett, Ill., but has spent her pro career playing in China, Puerto Rico and Turkey and currently is on her second stint in Italy. “You can see — our best-of-the-best are winning a gold medal — so we deserve to come home, and we deserve to play in front of our friends and family. And that’s what this sport needs.”
“I’m just so, so excited that it’s all coming into fruition,” adds 27-year-old Wong-Orantes, a southern California native who’s played in Germany and France since turning pro. “And I’m really excited for the sport, because the more and more I look back on especially collegiate volleyball, I just feel like the game is growing exponentially, and so to have a league in America will just speak volumes to how much the sport has grown.”
LOVB is capitalizing on that popularity and growth, using a “community up” approach that began with a small network of junior volleyball clubs in 11 cities across the country and has grown 270 percent in the past year alone. LOVB currently boasts 769 teams across 30 clubs in 18 states, and the league plans to double its offerings ahead of the launch of its professional league in 2024.
“When you think about those numbers, and you think about the fact that this is a sport where the women’s game supersedes the men’s game, it’s really compelling,” said LOVB CEO Katlyn Gao. “[Women’s volleyball] is already well established — we are internationally winning gold — and there’s no reason why this can’t be the next major league sport, and the first one to be female. And so the fact that someone like Kelsey and Justine, who really self-selected into being part of LOVB from the very beginning, are signing on – it was so organic.”
The signings also further the relationship that Robinson Cook and Wong-Orantes currently have with LOVB, where they’ve been active members of the league’s Athletes Council since 2020.
“I’d been approached so many times with the idea of professional volleyball league in America that I initially kept LOVB at arm’s length,” admits Robinson Cook. “I’d heard it all. …But the minute they started speaking on it, talking about the ideas and the model that they wanted to use to start this league, I thought, ‘This could happen.’ I got off that first phone call and started talking to my husband, saying I think this could be something. And obviously, I’ve stayed on ever since. It’s been really, really cool to be a part of.”
A key component of that model centers on the league’s commitment to equality, diversity and equity. Wong-Orantes was especially impressed with the league’s consistent, personal dialogue with members of the Athletes Council, ensuring all aspects of the league’s plans, schedules, salaries and benefits offered would be met favorably by the player community. Those benefits include competitive salaries with built-in marketing contracts and healthcare benefits like maternity leave, childcare support, fertility support, athlete care and more. Additionally, LOVB plans to introduce several options for players’ advancement on and off the court, including professional opportunities to support players in their post-playing career.
This week’s athlete signings cap off a busy quarter for LOVB, which announced in September it has raised $16.75 million in Series A funding from a diverse range of investors including Billie Jean King, Kevin Durant and Chelsea Handler. The league’s total funding currently stands at more than $24 million, and it has the buy-in of the U.S. national team, which Gao says is attracted to LOVB’s sustainable approach.
“We’re building that path beyond college, and we’re building it as a full-time indoor season league, so that makes it really compelling,” explained Gao. “What they’re attracted to regarding League One Volleyball in particular, is that community approach that they very much embrace as the right way of going about building something that lasts. We’re not just chasing something shiny.
“The popularity [of volleyball] is decades in the making, and we want to make sure that this is a long-lasting, thriving league that is going to be the NBA for volleyball,” she continued. “So they really care about how is it done. It’s female-founded, it’s female-lead, but also, we’re making very disciplined business decisions to make sure that this isn’t something that’s flashy. Of course, flashy is exciting, but that’s all in short duration if we don’t create the league in a way that is sustainable for the long term.”
To that end, Wong-Orantes can see a time when the tables are turned for players looking to play professionally after college. Afterall, collegiate programs often recruit internationally, and she can imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when the best players in the world want to make the U.S. their home.
“I’m excited to see everyone’s reaction — like all across the world,” said Wong-Orantes. “There’s going to be a new and complete league in America, and I believe international players could honestly gravitate to it. Everyone already thinks America is a great place to play and just to visit, so I hope that it gets to that point.”