By Michael G. Glab

Bill Kennedy is one of the top real estate developers in the Chicago area. He’s built more than 18,000 homes, over half a million square feet of office space, two golf courses, and a Florida resort. He lives in affluent Barrington Hills.

A fellow like Kennedy might start thinking he can do anything. But when his daughter, Kelly, was in high school a few years ago, there wasn’t a thing he could do about kids tittering the moment she walked into the classroom. “She was six-foot-one or six-foot-two in high school,” Kennedy says. “She was the tallest girl in school. Kids are cruel. No matter what she did, she lost her self-esteem.”

Kennedy himself is a tall man, six-foot-three, and he knows the advantage a tall player can have in sports. Now 57, he started playing volleyball in the late 60s with the Northbrook Park District (his team once won the state park championship). If he couldn’t do anything about the kids at school, perhaps he could do something for Kelly’s spirit.

He introduced her to the game. Kelly was a natural. “She got into volleyball, and all of a sudden she got her self-esteem back,” Kennedy says. “Now she stands tall. She’s six-foot-four. She wears high heels. She walks into a room and everybody in that room, little girls to men, they all look at her.”

After high school Kelly went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she was a standout on its national-powerhouse team. When the volleyball season ended in December, Kelly’s college eligibility as an amateur expired, and she joined 23 of the best women players in the country on an exhibition team to promote a new league, United States Professional Volleyball.

The idea man, moneyman, and head cheerleader of the USPV is her dad. “I’m not doing this just for Kelly,” he says. “It’s for all 24 athletes I have on this team. They’re all strong, powerful, self-assured women who will be successful. They will finish their careers in sports, and then they will be successful in the business world, if that’s where they want to go, or in family life. We’re built out of 24 athletes with self-esteem.”

According to Kennedy, the USPV is the first professional sports league in American history created first for women–there is no pro men’s league. Every other women’s professional league–the Women’s National Basketball Association and the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League come to mind–was conceived as an afterthought, a jump on the bandwagon after a men’s league had been established. But with the impetus of Title IX, passed in 1972 and mandating that college athletic departments eventually allocate money equitably between men and women, volleyball has become the top female sport in colleges, with a greater number of teams than there are in basketball.

“Volleyball has picked up and taken off,” Kennedy says, flamboyant in a cowboy hat and cream-colored leather three-piece suit, surrounded by cowboy art in his East Dundee office. (He’s the same guy who produced The Return of Navajo Boy, the documentary featured in a Reader cover story in January.) “Every NCAA college has a volleyball program. It is the number one women’s sport in colleges. That drove the high school volleyball programs, and that drove the junior high school programs.”

Kennedy was invited to invest in a men’s pro volleyball league in 1994. “I wanted to start a women’s program first,” he says. “But everybody said, ‘It won’t work until you start a men’s program.’ Well, not knowing much about sports business and not having the experience and the education I’ve put myself through since then, I made the commitment to help start the men’s league with the understanding that eventually I would start a women’s league.”

The men’s league never got off the ground, collapsing a couple years after it started. The organizers perhaps bit off more than they could chew, attempting to place franchises from coast to coast and seeking national corporate sponsorships and a big TV deal. “When the men’s league failed, I began to realize that most people who wanted to start it didn’t know as much as I did,” Kennedy says. “There are almost a thousand colleges in the United States playing women’s volleyball. There are 65 colleges in the United States playing men’s volleyball. It doesn’t take much of a rocket scientist to see what’s happening.”

After the men’s league debacle, Kennedy did some homework–a five-year cram course in sports business and marketing. For instance, there’s a fundamental catch-22 in trying to get backing for a nascent league. It would have nothing to offer national sponsors until it’s obtained a national TV contract, but the networks won’t even talk to honchos at a new league unless they have sponsorship agreements in hand. That was part of the reason for a regional organization for the USPV at first, which not only cuts down on travel expenses but offers local sponsors targeted markets and makes the games more attractive to local broadcast and cable outlets.

“We have to start on a grassroots, regionalized basis,” Kennedy says. “I need to have a team in Milwaukee, Chicago, Louisville or Indianapolis, Omaha, in Ohio, Detroit, in Minnesota so we can have rivalries. It’s pretty easy to get in the car and drive to Minnesota to watch your team play there. I can go to Indianapolis in two and a half hours. I can drive to Milwaukee in an hour and a half. If I don’t have national television and my favorite team is playing in Los Angeles, I’ve lost any exposure in the Chicago market.”

The USPV will begin play in the midwest in January 2001 with six to ten teams engaging in the kind of traditional six-on-six indoor volleyball most people played in high school gym class. Kennedy created the current Dream Team to stir up interest among fans and potential investors, and last year it competed against some of the top college players and a few foreign professional teams visiting cities where Kennedy hopes to land franchises.

The USPV has a 15-year plan to bring the number of teams up to 32–Kennedy hopes to expand into the southeast within five years, the northeast within ten, and the west by 2015. He’s also thoroughly considered the league’s establishment and appeal. It’s already gained the imprimatur of Federation Internationale de Volleyball and USA Volleyball, the world and national sanctioning bodies that establish rules and guidelines for amateur and professional play. The USPV will not only provide business opportunities to investors eager to capitalize on the popularity of women’s sports but establish a year-round training program and talent pool for the U.S. Olympic team. Investors will be hit up for $3-$5 million, committing for a minimum of three years, though at least at first there will be no individual franchises.

“Why are we starting in the midwest?” Kennedy asks. “Everybody says, ‘Volleyball–that should be in California.’ That’s beach volleyball. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m the first person that would like to go out, sit on a beach, and watch a beautiful girl play volleyball in a bikini. But if you look at where the fan base is, it’s the midwest.” Kennedy cites studies showing that the colleges with the highest average attendance for women’s volleyball matches are in Hawaii, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Pennsylvania.

When the USPV begins playing for real, it will be with local sponsors like Jewel-Osco and the north central regional operation of Oldsmobile. Both will participate in store or dealership promotions, including events and advertising tie-ins. Throw in a couple of national sponsors like Royal Neighbors of America, an insurance company run by women, and Ballgirl Athletic, a women’s apparel manufacturer, and Kennedy is confident the league will hit the courts on the projected start-up date.

“I’m more optimistic now than when I started thinking about this thing five years ago,” Kennedy says. “It was a big investment”–he’s sinking $3 million into the project–“so I was really excited but concerned. When we first started, we had two U.S. players who talked to us about playing in the league. Nobody else talked to us. There are at least 70 women from this country who play professional volleyball all over the world because they can’t play here. Now we’re getting tremendous feedback from them: ‘We would rather play in America than overseas’; ‘Keep up the good work–we want to be part of it.’ I didn’t get that before, but I’m getting it now. We’re getting tremendous input from foreign players, Italians, Brazil, Japan, it goes on and on. They’re hearing about us now.” When asked about his fallback position in case he can’t drum up the money for a league of six to ten teams, Kennedy refuses to even consider the question. “I’m perfectly confident we’ll find the investors,” he says.

Kennedy gave the USPV profile among players a shot in the arm when he hired Arie Selinger–who’s brought both women’s and men’s teams to Olympic medal rounds–as the Dream Team’s head coach; his associate coach is Satoshi Matsunaga, a noted pro coach in Japan as well as former head of the Myanmar and Indonesian national teams. As assistants, the league hired Ping Cao, captain of the 1984 Chinese Olympic team, and Haruya Indo, a noted defensive and setting guru in Japan’s pro league. “We went out and found the best coaching staff that’s ever been assembled in volleyball,” Kennedy says. “The goal was not only to raise the USPV to a professional level but show the investors this is the quality we are aiming for.”

Kennedy also brought in Bob McAuliff as president and CEO. When he was president of the Chicago Wolves International Hockey League team, the minor-league Wolves grabbed a significant share of attention and attendance away from the NHL’s sputtering Blackhawks.

Having turned over day-to-day operation of his development company to his employees, Kennedy is free to travel with the Dream Team, talking up the sport and wooing investors. “This is the only major country that doesn’t have professional indoor volleyball,” he says. “Yet the game was invented in this country. There are still 23 million people playing volleyball in this country. But it never had a professional image here. That’s what I’m trying to bring it.”

For the exhibition slate, which began in August, the players have been paid a prorated salary based on an annual income of $30,000 a year. When league play begins, they’ll be paid base salaries of $30-$50,000 a year and will be required to do community outreach, making personal appearances and helping spread the gospel of women’s volleyball.

For some–like Anne Eastman, an Indiana University star who played in Switzerland for two years then retired to work at the Chicago Board Options Exchange–playing in the USPV might not be a big financial risk. She’s established a career she can return to. But some of the others, like the eight college seniors who joined the Dream Team in December, are sacrificing a couple years of career-building potential for a league that has yet to play a real game.

So far the Dream Team has struggled against its better established competitors. After a loss to Team Canada in Madison, Wisconsin, Selinger told reporters, “We’re not ready….We’re not ripe.” Kennedy was thrilled that day, though. He’d hoped to attract 1,500 people at $5 a head to the Dane County Coliseum–and 1,670 showed up.

The exhibition tour culminates this month with a playoff for the “Royal Neighbors of America USPV Millennium Cup, presented by Ballgirl Athletic.” Kennedy invited two teams, one each from Poland and Japan, to square off against two squads of Dream Teamers (one the Stars, the other the Stripes) in four midwest cities, with the final rounds to be held this Saturday at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont. The final game will match one of the Dream Team squads against one of the international teams for a $60,000 purse.

Following the playoff Kennedy will start working on the USPV’s initial team draft, though nothing will be done until after the Summer Olympics in Sydney–he doesn’t want to interfere with training. “It’s a great sport for women,” Kennedy says. “It’s a great sport for role models.” Certainly no one titters anymore when Kelly walks into a room.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.