On August 7, 2021, the Blues won, in Tokyo, the first Olympic title in their history against Russia. A coronation followed by a new victory for the teammates of Earvin Ngapeth, last summer, in the League of Nations against the United States. Never had the France team, whose record remained blank for sixty-nine years, from its first official match in 1946 until its first title in 2015, appeared so strong.
Uninhibited, the Blues will aim for a new title at the Paris Olympics. A performance that only the USSR (in 1964 and 1968) and the United States (in 1984 and 1988) have achieved so far. “This golden generation is quite capable of achieving this feat”, says Éric Tanguy, president of the French Volleyball Federation (FFVB).
Spectacular progress of the women’s volleyball team
During this time, the French women’s team began a spectacular progression, going from 55e place, in 2015, at the 20e place today in the international ranking. After reaching the quarter-finals of the 2021 European Championship in Serbia, the team coached by Belgian Émile Rousseaux won its first major title in 2022, in the European League of Nations.
These performances did not go unnoticed in the major European teams. Imitating Christina Bauer, who was for a long time the only Frenchwoman to play abroad, Héléna Cazaute, the captain of Les Bleues, Lucille Gicquel or Amandha Sylves recently exported their talent to the – very tough – Italian championship.
The successes of the national selections gave a serious boost to the clubs, which recorded a “real boom in licensees, around 40%”, observes Yves Bouget, the president of the National Volleyball League (LNV). But this influx caught the leaders off guard: “We suffer, like all indoor sports, from a very worrying shortage of equipment for the future and the absence of an infrastructure construction plan since the end of the 1960s”, denounces Yves Bouget.
The creation of new teams is hampered by the lack of gymnasiums, while the most coveted formations resign themselves to limiting their number of licensees. “Our structures have been saturated for a long time. We were already refusing people before the gold medal at the Olympics”, assures Gilles Gosselin, manager of the Saint-Nazaire club. The ambitious promoted from Ligue A, who will reopen a training center next season, discusses with the municipality“which is sensitive to this problem, but which must also carry out other projects, in particular finding land to build housing”.
An ever-increasing crowd during elite matches
This renewed attractiveness is also reflected in the level of crowds in the stands, during elite matches. Tours Volley-Ball (TVB) had 175,000 spectators last season, while Saint-Nazaire is cultivating a historic local enthusiasm for volleyball: “Since we have returned to the elite, our Sports Palace has been constantly full, rejoices Gilles Gosselin. This fervor is not new. When we were relegated in 3e division, we already had an attendance higher than the average for League A clubs.
Yves Bouget regrets that this dynamic has been hit hard by the health crisis. “It delayed the work we were doing on our business model, which is to make volleyball a spectator sport. » The former president of TVB, elected head of the LNV in December 2020, is working to find new outlets for professional clubs, whose budgets remain much lower than those of basketball and handball.
To do this, the French leaders had imagined integrating into League A – for two seasons – the Chinese team, 17e in the world rankings, which would have taken up residence in a French city in order to prepare for the 2024 Olympics. The project was dismissed last summer by the Ministry of Sports: “It’s a shame because the Chinese had agreed to invest 8 million euros over four years,” regrets Yves Bouget. A windfall of 2 million euros per year, higher than the current budget of the LNV. “We would have had substantial resources for real development. »
Inspired by the change made fifteen years earlier by professional handball, the LNV encourages its members to turn to private funding: “We must no longer content ourselves with chasing public subsidies”, pleads its president. A “Club License”, a new professional label, is being created to encourage clubs to structure themselves, develop their networks of partners and “look more and more like companies and no longer like sports clubs”.
Media exposure, the clubs’ new hobbyhorse
A necessary policy, according to Daniel Braun, president of the Mulhouse club, one of the biggest budgets (2.2 million euros) in the women’s League A: “With the economic and energy crisis, we should have no illusions, communities are not going to increase their participation in the operation of professional clubs. »
To find new partners, the LNV has made media exposure its new hobbyhorse. The youtuber “Le volleyeur français” has thus joined the lnvtv.com website, the streaming channel launched by the League. “When I started my term, we had 6,000 subscribers. We now have 35,000. rejoices Yves Bouget, who has reached an agreement with BeIN Sports for the broadcast of the best poster of each day of the championship every Friday evening since September 30, 2022.
“This is a big step forward, no doubt favored by the Olympics. It’s been a few years since we were on premium TV. If volleyball isn’t televised, we won’t move forward.” says Pascal Foussard, manager of TVB, leader of Ligue A. Among women, the media of the Altice group broadcast, live and unencrypted, the French championship on the Twitch channel of RMC Sport and on the antennas of BFM Regions.
The arrival of these broadcasters does not directly fill the coffers of the clubs, contrary to what is practiced in football or rugby, which have made television rights the bedrock of their economic model. “But it will make it easier to find new sponsors. A player who wants to invest will instantly find himself with visibility around a strong brand,” claims Yves Bouget. Two large companies are in advanced discussions with the LNV to associate their name with the men’s and women’s A Leagues. The future of tricolor volleyball is played, more than ever, on the economic ground.
The number of licensees on the rise
Before the Covid-19 crisis, the French Volleyball Federation listed 135,000 licensees registered in the 1,800 clubs in France. Last season, that number was 182,800, including 99,000 men and 83,000 women.
In January 2023, 160,000 people have already subscribed to a license, 20% more than the same period last year. Girls represent 57% of license holders up to the age of 18.
The International Volleyball Federation unveiled in November the calendar and the six host cities of the group stage of the League of Nations 2023. A French city is one of them: Orléans (Loiret) will host a group including France, Brazil and Slovenia from June 20 to 25.