NEW YORK -- The cocaine-induced death of a young athlete provoked one man's re-evaluation of his profession and indirectly generated the birth of a women's professional volleyball league.
'I got tired of helping guys make money that they abused; they didn't know how to spend it,' said Steve Arnold, a former sports agent whose last client was the late Don Rogers of the Cleveland Browns. 'I figured there had to be a better way.'
Arnold, who represented more than 800 athletes including Julius Erving and Bubba Smith, now sits on the other side of the negotiating table as President and Commissioner of Major League Volleyball. The women's league, in its second season, owns and negotiates the contracts of all its players to prevent bidding wars and escalating salaries.
The league averages 1,000 fans per match and has a 10-game TV deal with ESPN. Each team plays a 22-match regular season, followed by one playoff round and a championship match. The season extends from February to the end of May for the Chicago Breeze, Los Angeles Starlites, Minneapolis Monarchs, New York Liberties, Arizona Blaze and San Jose Golddiggers.
Arnold served previously as director of the World Hockey Association, the American Basketball Association, the World Football League and World Team Tennis. All failures, right? Not necessarily, says Arnold.
'It was never the intention of the WHA, ABA and WFL to do anything else but merge,' said Arnold, 50. 'Out of the WHA came Wayne Gretzky and four of the top teams now in the NHL. And if Donald Trump (USFL) had merged into the NFL, I don't think anyone would have called him a failure.
'The situation now is different. Support for the (MLV) is greater because we're not competing against an existing phenomenon.'
MLV teams are owned by Major League Volleyball, Inc., headed by West Coast real-estate executive Robert Batinovich. This season, stock is being offered to investors who want to assume operating and marketing responsibilities of a team in their area.
The setup allows a league budget of $1.9 million, including $500,000 for players' compensation. Each player earns $6,000 base salary, plus game, statistical and playoff bonuses.
'The total payroll of the league is less than Vida Blue's lost arbitration salary,' Arnold said. 'Where else can you own a professional sports team for the price of a horse -- and not even a thoroughbred?'
The idea for a women's pro volleyball league derived from high television ratings (second to men's gymnastics) of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Arnold said his league hopes to build off excitement surrounding this year's Summer Games in Seoul.
'It seems everybody gets interested in volleyball every four years,' Arnold said. 'I think the timing's right -- after the women's movement and all. And the women playing in our league are great athletes, very attractive and very articulate.'
The commissioner said the young league's best chance for survival is promotion on a grass roots level.
'There are hundreds of big-little cities where you can be the only sport in town -- like the Green Bay Packers,' he said. 'But there's a Catch-22; if you don't have teams in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, people don't take it seriously.'