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Sports & Recreation

Metro Atlanta is feeling the ‘Vibe’ of professional women’s volleyball

This is the first year for the Pro Volleyball Federation, and the Atlanta Vibe is one of seven teams in the league.
Atlanta Vibe Marlie Monserez (21) and Karis Watson (16) blocking Pro Volleyball Federation Omaha Supernovas (5-3) at Atlanta Vibe (4-2) Thursday, February 29 | 7:00 p.m. ET Atlanta, Ga. | Gas South Arena

The recent NCAA women’s basketball championship series and WNBA draft caused a lot of excitement among women’s sports fans.

Although the pay disparity still exists, the nation is starting to appreciate female athletes more than ever before. Even though basketball is getting a lot of attention right now, one of the fastest-growing women’s sports is volleyball.

On the collegiate level, about 96% of colleges and universities have a women’s volleyball program, according to an analysis by Morning Consult, a business intelligence company that offers surveys and polling.

On August 30, 2023, a college volleyball match in Nebraska smashed a world record in the stands, according to news outlets. It drew more than 92,000 fans at Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium, breaking the previous record of 91,648.

Many here in metro Atlanta hope the same type of fever catches on at Duluth’s Gas South Arena, home of the professional women’s volleyball team, Atlanta Vibe.

Meet the Atlanta Vibe

This is the first year for the Pro Volleyball Federation, and the Vibe is one of seven teams in the league.

The team was ranked number one at press time with a 16-4 record and four more games left in the regular season.

Team owner Colleen Durham Craig is also the founder of Rally Sports Management. A former D1 volleyball and track athlete at Cornell University, she went on to Harvard Business School, turning her competitive nature from athletics to business.

Atlanta Vibe Alli Linnehan (17) serving (background) Karis Watson (16) and Leah Edmond (13) stand ready to defend Pro Volleyball Federation Omaha Supernovas (5-3) at Atlanta Vibe (4-2) Thursday, February 29 | 7:00 p.m. ET Atlanta, Ga. | Gas South Arena

She’s made it no secret that she’s passionate about furthering volleyball, leveraging her personal and professional experience to partner with leaders looking to grow the game.

“I following [volleyball] in the news. It’s growing into the largest team sport for girls in the United States. And there hasn’t been an opportunity up until now to play professionally here — all these athletes had to go overseas, or they stopped playing after college,” she said. “When the opportunity came along to launch with this league, I jumped at the chance.”

A February 29 home game didn’t garner a sold-out venue, but it’s early in the life of this franchise.

“If you look at the data and statistics, viewership has continued to climb,” she said, citing the Nebraska attendance record. And if you look at all the colleges this fall, the viewer statistics each week seem to go up, including for the first time this past season, the NCAA championships, which were broadcast live on television on a Sunday, and we averaged 1.7 million viewers and sold out the stadium and arena.”

She’s confident that now that broadcast stations and sponsors see that professional women’s volleyball has fans who aren’t just interested in the sport but are athletes themselves, the Vibe will find its solid fan base.

Atlanta Vibe Fans watch intently Pro Volleyball Federation Omaha Supernovas (5-3) at Atlanta Vibe (4-2) Thursday, February 29 | 7:00 p.m. ET Atlanta, Ga. | Gas South Arena

“What’s really starting to draw people’s awareness is something that people in the sport [have known for a long time],” she said. “It’s amazing, it’s fast, it’s energetic. It’s fun to watch, there’s excitement going on. And now we’re starting to finally get to that next stage and level. So it’s super exciting.”

More attractions, more economic impact

Sporting events are a big deal at Gas South. Besides the Vibe, it’s also home to the premier “AA” hockey league, ECHL’s Atlanta Gladiators, and the National Lacrosse League’s Georgia Swarm.

Both leagues have been around for a while, and while lacrosse doesn’t have the history of hockey, the NLL’s 15 teams have a dedicated following. And though it’s a tier below the National Hockey League, the 27 teams that make up the ECHL are just as loyal.

So, with the addition of volleyball and all three seasons overlapping, you’d think there’d be a logistics nightmare for Gas South. Nothing could be further from the truth, said Stan Hall, CEO of Gas South District and Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have a team of people who book every event we have in that building regardless of what the event might be,” said Hall. It’s just an everyday prospect of manipulating schedules, working this one in, moving this one to another time, and they do it all day long to make sure that we have a full house almost every day.”

With three professional sports teams, concerts, conventions, and festivals, Gas South District buildings are closed only about four or five days a year, Hall said.  The arena basically holds one event at a time, but the convention center can hold as many as eight different events at a time.

A well-oiled machine

The Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau also works with Explore Gwinnett, the county’s tourism arm, which helps with county events and attractions such as Lilburn’s BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the largest traditionally designed Hindu temple in the Southeast.

It also manages the Gas South District and oversees the Gwinnett County Sports Commission, whose main mission is to bring all types of sporting events to the county.

The Gwinnett Convention and Visitors Bureau not only controls Gas South District but Cool Ray Field, home of the Gwinnett Stripers, the AAA affiliate of the Braves, and it is in charge of the Mitsubishi Electric Classic Tournament, a premier golf tournament on the PGA TOUR Champions.

Besides improving the quality of life for those who live here, the goal is to provide customers for the hotels, restaurants and retailers in the county, much like the Georgia World Congress Center, Cobb Galleria and other venues throughout the metro area.

So having a team like the Vibe call Gas South home will certainly be a boost to the area, Hall said.

“We’re not just looking at our campus, we’re looking at the county as a whole,” he said. “On different levels, relative to which part of our business model you’re thinking about, all of it is in place, number one to drive economic impact in the county.

“But number two is also to create an environment of entertainment, whether it’s sports, whether it’s concerts, whether it’s meetings, whether it’s conventions or whatever, all here in our backyard within the confines of Gwinnett County,” he added.

The county really does well when it comes to attracting people to visit and perhaps relocate their families or even businesses to the area.

Young girls volleyball Club Supporting the Atlanta Vibe Pro Volleyball Federation Omaha Supernovas (5-3) at Atlanta Vibe (4-2) Thursday, February 29 | 7:00 p.m. ET Atlanta, Ga. | Gas South Arena

“Most buildings of our size have private ownership involved in a lot of them,” said Hall. “We’re in a very unique situation in Gwinnett that has been successful and has been profitable and has been just a wealth of opportunity that we provide to the county.”

Vibe takes off

In the grand scheme of things, the Vibe is a perfect accompaniment to the existing infrastructure in Gwinnett’s sports attractions.

It’s the only professional women’s sport played in the county at a time when women’s sports are really taking off. A late February home game had several dozen season ticket holders getting a briefing on the latest team news and cheering their team onto the field.

Pro Volleyball Federation Omaha Supernovas (5-3) at Atlanta Vibe (4-2) Thursday, February 29 | 7:00 p.m. ET Atlanta, Ga. | Gas South Arena

“We played, we executed our game plan, we made adjustments very quickly. We were really proud of how our players had stepped out in that match,” Assistant Coach Sally Polhamus told the crowd. “It was a fight to the finish of that fifth set.”

From the barrage of questions, it was obvious that these folks were really tuned into how the team was evolving. At the time, the team was 4-2 after losing its third match on the road.

“As we’re learning teams, it’s great because we’re seeing more and more tendencies,” Polhamus added to a sea of nodding heads.

It’s that kind of intense focus and passion that teams want to see from fans. That’s what builds long-time followers who consistently support.

The next generation of players

With thousands of school teams, club teams and youth organizations like the Y teaching fundamentals and growing players as well as spectators, volleyball is expected to continue its upward trend.

A team from Walton County won their championship game and was awarded tickets to see the Vibe.

Young girls club volleyball team supporting the Atlanta Vibe Pro Volleyball Federation Omaha Supernovas (5-3) at Atlanta Vibe (4-2) Thursday, February 29 | 7:00 p.m. ET Atlanta, Ga. | Gas South Arena

Coach Stephen Moore of the Savage Volleyball Club hadn’t known much about the sport, much less training youngsters to play five years ago. But his daughters were interested, and he dove right in.

“My daughter was playing volleyball, and I watched her play, and I just wanted to help out,” he said. “I retired from the military. And I just wanted to help out so I learned everything I could about volleyball.”

The girls were excited to see that something they love could be a part of their future.

“It’s a lot of fun to see how good they are and how different they play,” said Lily Roberts.

She hadn’t known much about volleyball until her older sister began playing. Now she’s hooked.

Moore is glad to be involved in this emerging sport, and he warns that girls are just as committed and serious as boys.

“This was a rebuilding season for this team. There are some new players, and some not as experienced players, but these girls have been working really hard since October,” he said. “Our first four tournaments we won medals and then this past weekend, we won the gold medal championship.”

Like many of those in attendance, they planned to come back to Gas South. Judging from the excitement, it may not be that long before Mercedes Benz Stadium, State Farm Arena and Truist Park have a serious rival for sports dollars.

Photos by George Hunter

Arlinda Smith Broady is part of the Boomerang Generation of Blacks that moved back to the South after their ancestors moved North. With approximately three decades of journalism experience (she doesn't look it), she's worked in tiny, minority-based newsrooms to major metropolitans. At every endeavor she brings professionalism, passion, pluck, and the desire to spread the news to the people.

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