The guy in the bleachers shouting "Amazing! Beauty! Unbelievable!" and waving a New York Liberties pennant knows why he goes to Major League Volleyball games. "I love tall women." says 63-year-old John DeNitto of Uniondale, N.Y., who is 5'2½" and as compact as a bowling ball. By this, DeNitto did not intend to slight his 5'1½" wife, Helen, who is seated beside him in a yellow Liberties T-shirt. "Helen can't stretch the way these tall girls do," John says. "Amazing! Unbelievable!"
Perhaps not as unbelievable as the fact that on a night in April the DeNittos and 384 other fans paid between $6 and $18 to watch the Liberties lose to the San Francisco/San Jose Golddiggers in four sets at Hofstra University. That anybody showed up at Hofstra University Physical Fitness Arena is amazing in itself. Before the MLV moved a team there, Uniondale, Long Island, had not been known as a volleyball hotbed.
The last attempt to serve up the sport to paying customers was made by the International Volleyball Association, a coed outfit started in 1975 that, at one point during its brief life span, employed Wilt Chamberlain as its commissioner. The IVA was spiked after five seasons of anonymity.
Typical of the way the old league carried on business was the Tucson franchise's President Carter Couldn't Make It Tonight Night, which featured free admission to all uncles named Sam (provided a paying niece or nephew was in tow), half-price admission for all military personnel and for fans with patriotic tattoos, and a promise that Jimmy Carter wouldn't attend. "Our money is better spent elsewhere," says Steve Arnold, commissioner of the all-women MLV. "Our total budget is less than Don Mattingly's annual salary" (which is $1.975 million).
Arnold, a former players' agent, has also been involved as a principal in the World Football League, World Hockey Association, World Team Tennis, the ABA and the International Basketball Association. About the only defunct league Arnold hasn't had a hand in is the League of Nations. He got the idea for the volleyball league in 1984 after watching the U.S. women's team win a silver medal in the final game of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Arnold persuaded seven California investors to underwrite the six-team venture. (The cities are Minneapolis/St. Paul, Los Angeles, San Francisco/San Jose, New York, Chicago and Dallas.)
"Initially, I tried to talk Steve out of the whole thing," says New York Liberties general manager Jerry Saperstein, whose father, Abe, was the promotional genius behind the Harlem Globetrotters. But it was Saperstein who came around. "As my old man used to say, 'You can't fault anyone for failing, just for not trying.' "
Arnold runs the league like a small barony. G.M.s all get the same pay, $17,500. Players receive a $6,000 base salary for the 22-game season. They earn an extra $50 for each win and bonuses for individual statistics such as hitting percentage, kills and digs.
The MLV players were selected in a draft last December. Members of the U.S. national team were excluded because they're in training for the '88 Games, and Arnold didn't want to risk annoying the U.S. coach, Terry Liskevych. Nevertheless, MLV protects a player's Olympic eligibility by placing her salary in a trust and paying her per diem expenses, a delayed-payment system that is widely practiced in track and field. A few of the MLV players have been invited to national-team tryouts, but New York player-coach Mary Jo Peppier says, "Realistically, none of the players has much of a chance to make the national team. The roster is pretty much set."
Peppier played on the first U.S. women's Olympic volleyball squad in 1964. She coached at Utah State and Kentucky and has written a book, The 15-Minute Setter, which is not about a quail-hunting dog but about the strategy of feeding players who are open for kills. Peppier, who is 42, is one of the MLV's setting stars. "My body won't always do what my mind tells it to," she admits. Her players are better listeners. "I'm not Bobby Knight," she says. "I tell them the most important thing is that they have a commitment to happiness."
Peppier proposed that the national team be one of the MLV franchises. "Imagine the Olympic basketball team playing in the NBA," she says. But Liskevych has shown little interest in having his team play at the MLV level.
Volleyball fans on both coasts have displayed a similar apathy. Rather than watch MLV games in person, they would just as soon catch the delayed broadcast on ESPN, which isn't exactly the healthiest sign for a fledgling league. There is cause for concern over the league's long-term prospects. Arnold says the MLV has enough financing to make it for at least two seasons. If most games pull just 386 patrons, he'll need it.
Saperstein claims that the fans who do come out come back. "They return in ones and twos and threes, but they return," he says. Attendance figures are uneven throughout the league. The same night that the Liberties drew their 386 on Long Island, 2,490 showed up at the Edina (Minn.) Community Center, which has also never been big volleyball country. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, where people really play the game, the average attendance has been around 750. The league says the break-even point for MLV is an average attendance of 1,500 a game.
Those fans on Long Island saw gritty, scrambling, relentless volleyball. Many of them were wildly enthusiastic. DeNitto was positively transported, especially after getting New York's middle blocker, Laura Smith, to sign his pennant. The 6-foot Smith is tall enough to attract John, but Helen says she's not the real reason that he comes to the Liberties' home games. Setter Wendy Stevenson is. And she's only 5'8".
"I know," John confesses. "But to be perfectly frank, she's my next-door neighbor."
Peppler (center) is still good enough to be a setting star.