Club volleyball business reaching new heights
When the courts mandated a change in the order of high school sports seasons for 2007-08, some prep athletes were forced to choose between two sports in which they previously participated. For example, girls who had competed in swimming and volleyball now had to select one, because both were offered only during the high school fall season.
The change brought Dan O’Connor to a bit of a crossroads, too. He could stay in his longtime position selling warehouse management information systems, or he could heed the call of a group of people who envisioned a better future for young volleyball players and help develop a whole new version of club sports in West Michigan.
O’Connnor, the co-founder and director of Michigan Volleyball Academy, chose the latter.
MVA was founded in July 2007, at the same time the court ruling became effective. In October 2009, Michigan Basketball Academy was launched for youngsters in grades K-6. Michigan Sports Academies was created shortly thereafter as an umbrella organization for the volleyball and basketball programs.
With volleyball becoming a fall sport at the high school level, O’Connor knew there would be expanded opportunities for girls who wanted to hone their skills during the club season that would run through winter and spring.
“We knew the change was coming and we wanted to take that opportunity to do something different,” said O’Connor, adding that MVA’s decision to offer separate winter and spring sessions was the key to the club’s business model. “We wanted to make sure we had the ability to include those multi-sport kids who played basketball in the winter or soccer in the spring (in high school). We didn’t want to penalize them for playing high school sports.”
By splitting the club season into two separate segments, MVA tried to accommodate athletes’ high school sports schedules while still offering them the ability to play club volleyball at the highest level.
“I think we’ve held true to that,” he said. “These multi-sport athletes can come in and play at the top level, have the travel, have the competition and work on their skills.”
To fill the void when high school volleyball moved from winter to fall, MVA was instrumental in forming what are called “power leagues.” These leagues include club teams from around the state and region that play each other in a tournament-style format on several weekends throughout the winter. Points are kept toward an overall league championship.
“This was a way that we could build a competitive schedule for all of our teams that minimized travel and cost for our kids and their families. We were probably the first in the nation to start that, and college coaches say now everyone is doing it.”
Another innovation for MVA is the incorporation of performance training into the program. As part of their tuition, volleyball players can come in once a week for strength, speed and agility work, called Parisi training. A huge assist in that endeavor is MVA’s location next door to the MVP Sportsplex in Cascade Township, which is the program’s home court.
“Parisi is incorporated into all the training we do, and I think that was a first (nationally), too. No one else was incorporating physical strength and conditioning into their program, and we just made it a part of what we do,” O’Connor said.
More than 500 kids are playing basketball for MBA and another 360 girls are taking part in MVA. In fact, MVA is at capacity from a facility perspective, O’Connor said. He credited the “teamwork” of sponsors, shareholders, coaches, parents and even the athletes with the program’s success.
“This isn’t about me or about any one person. It’s what we do as a parent group; everyone is involved. This is what we have built. It’s about committing to something, getting everybody on board, and then following through. We don’t market. There are no flyers, no e-mails, no glossy tri-fold brochures. Our belief is that our parents will find like-minded parents who are interested.”
When MVA was first proposed, O’Connor didn’t know whether he was interested. His job in warehouse software sales provided a comfortable lifestyle and, frankly, he was good at it.
“I sold warehouse management software to companies for 15 or 20 years before this. I was constantly on the road and, after 15 or 20 years, that will take a toll on you.”
O’Connor’s philosophy of salespeople breaks down into two categories: hunters and farmers. A hunter “eats what he collects” while a farmer “collects, sits back and waits for it to grow.”
“I am a hunter,” he said, smiling. “The problem is that the thrill of the sale lasts for about 30 seconds — then you have to go out and get another one. It gets tiring.”
The MVA position has been more fulfilling in many ways.
“I just had to trust the Lord and go into the unknown,” he said. “Yes, I would still have to work hard and be away a lot on weekends, but the tradeoff was that, every night, I got to go home to my family.”
He and wife Faith have been able to watch daughters Meaghan, Kendall and Paige play volleyball and son Colin play basketball, all as part of the program he runs.
O’Connor said it’s amazing how his two professional endeavors dovetailed at the point of transition.
“One of my last warehouse deals was with (sports apparel maker) Under Armor. At the time, they were trying to break into women’s volleyball and were looking for 10 clubs across the nation to partner with, and they asked us to be one. So we contracted with Under Armor to get club gear at a discount and we all have to wear it, and it’s been a great relationship.”
Club volleyball is all fun and games on the surface, but O’Connor’s business acumen is crucial to the organization’s success.
“Make no mistake, this is a business. We have an office. We have a staff. When you call, we answer the phone. That’s the way we wanted to run this — as a business.”
O’Connor’s exposure to business started when he worked as a pie maker as a schoolboy. “I was in charge of the fruit filling,” he said, laughing. At age 16, he moved on to managing Woodland Skating Rink in Grand Rapids, where he would stop by at 5 a.m. to open the facility and then return after school to help wherever he could.
During that time, he also learned the value of perseverance. The O’Connors are celebrating their 20th year of marriage, but the union didn’t come easily. Dan told Faith they had a future together when he was in sixth grade, but she refused to even date him until after high school.
“I guess that turned out OK,” he said, smiling.