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In Her Own League

Cecile Reynaud was driving near her home in Tallahassee in late September 2022, already far down the road into a peaceful and well-earned retirement. Then her cellphone rang.

The name that flashed on the screen was familiar, but the nature of the call was entirely out of the blue. It would soon take Reynaud — the legendary former women’s volleyball coach at Florida State University and one of the country’s most respected and beloved names in the sport — on an abrupt U-turn back to the game and into the fast lane of a fledgling volleyball venture.

Reynaud — an inductee into no fewer than five separate volleyball Halls of Fame — knew all too well that even the most accomplished women athletes faced a dead end after competing collegiately, unless they chose careers in Europe for minimal pay, and away from family and friends for long, lonely stretches during the year. Many simply stopped playing.

That’s why she was intrigued by what friend and fellow USA Volleyball board member Jenny McGhee had to say. McGhee wanted to gauge Reynaud’s interest in taking a key role in a start-up national professional league for women, the Pro Volleyball Federation. “Jenny said, ‘Can I talk to you about this?’ so I pulled over into a parking lot and listened,” Reynaud, 70, recalls.

McGhee laid out the high points. The endeavor is set to begin play in cities nationwide in February 2024, with one of its seven charter franchises based in Orlando and more to follow. It’s an entity that already boasts a bevy of marquee investors and will pay players a base living wage of $60,000, with the potential to earn bonuses for finishing in the Top 4 and the champion splitting $1 million in prize money. And it’s a league that boasts the financial clout of Grand Rapids, Mich. franchise owner Dan Devos, the billionaire chair of the NBA’s Orlando Magic.

“I wasn’t sure about it,” Reynaud says. “I was finally at a point where I was just riding my bike, watching Netflix and taking naps. But I agreed to another call.”

Five days later, while visiting her sister Camille in Arkansas, Reynaud found herself talking via Zoom with the league’s co-founders — Dave Whinham, president and CEO of Columbus, Ohio-based The TEAM Management, which handles transactions in sports and entertainment industries; Stephen Evans, president of a Dallas-based sports and entertainment brand strategy agency, The Remedy; and Mc- Ghee, Evans’ friend and the one who had the idea of contacting Reynaud in the first place.

“I had served as chair of the USA Volleyball board of directors for two years — an intense time during COVID, involving how to manage the Olympic Games, and whether people around the country were going to continue to play or not,” Reynaud says. “Before that I was on four or five boards. I thought, ‘Do I really want to take a chance on this? I don’t need another job.’ But I just kept asking questions and they had good answers for everything.”

The more Reynaud listened to Whinham and Evans, the more the competitive fires were stoked in the coach who led the Lady Seminoles to more than 650 victories between 1976-2001; and who won six Metro Conference championships and the 1998 ACC crown. That year, the team convinced her to celebrate by getting an ankle tattoo — a design of a volleyball pierced by a feathered spear she still proudly displays.

Whinham and Evans got right to the point. They wanted Reynaud to join the new league as vice president of volleyball operations, tapping her vast knowledge of the sport, her deep connections and the enormous respect she’d built over the decades.

Indeed, Reynaud once served as head coach for USA Volleyball’s Junior National Team that toured China and Japan, had been team leader for the USA Women’s National Sitting Volleyball Team at the 2012 Paralympic Games and was deputy competition manager for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. And she has authored numerous books, including two acclaimed volumes of The Volleyball Coaching Bible.

“I called various colleagues around the country, and asked, ‘What do you think?’” Reynaud recollects. “They asked, ‘Do they have the money?’ I said, ‘I think they do – they have Dan Devos as an owner.’”

Reynaud showed her sister the job description: help hire new coaches, create the rules, set schedules in major arenas that hold 10,000-20,000 spectators, develop a college draft and handle endless details. “This is you. You’re going to do it,” Camille told her sister.

And she did.

“As we got to know Cecile, we came to learn she has the perfect demeanor for this job,” Whinham says. “She’s always gracious. She’s a strong leader. And once she agreed to join the league, we viewed it as a benchmark for our credibility among the real volleyball community.”

“We wanted somebody who had been a legend in the sport, somebody who understands the game at a very high level, who had phenomenal connections,” adds Jen Spicher, the Michigan-based CEO of the new league. “And Cecile does. She knows everybody. She’s like the mayor.”

Climb to the Top

Reynaud’s journey began in the small town of Monett, Mo., population 5,000. At age 10, she moved with her family to St. Louis, and excelled in kickball, basketball and even football with the boys. In high school, she played every sport available to girls.

When Camille went off to Missouri State in Springfield, then known as Southwest Missouri State University, she reported back to her sister that the school just sent its women’s volleyball team to California for a tournament. Reynaud was sold. She was accepted and became a volleyball standout and All-State field hockey player — twice named among the Outstanding College Athletes in the country. It was the era before Title IX, the federal law requiring equal access to athletic scholarships for women, so Reynaud earned spending money as an intramural supervisor to supplement the $10 her parents sent each week.

Her favorite course was in volleyball theory, learning the intricacies of the sport. Graduating with a physical education degree, she landed her first job in tiny Steelville, Mo., as the only girls’ physical education teacher for junior high and high school. She coached volleyball, softball, basketball and track, and even drove a school bus. One day, she got a call from her college volleyball coach telling her Florida State was looking for a head volleyball coach. “I didn’t even know where Tallahassee was, but she told me I’d be good for the job, so I applied,” Reynaud says.

FSU was looking for a graduate assistant to coach the team while working on a master’s degree. Reynaud accepted a contract in 1976 for $3,000 a year, paying for her degree from that. It proved to be a noteworthy year for FSU, which had just hired an affable new head coach named Bobby Bowden to lead the woeful football program. “Bobby and I were in all the head coaching meetings together,” she says. “He’d say, ‘I hope we can win and get you all more money.’ He was always very supportive.”

Reynaud took classes for her master’s and worked a side job at a liquor store to make ends meet. “I had to be the only Division I coach with that job,” she says. After two years, the coaching position was made fulltime.” Her booze-selling days were history — and FSU volleyball history was ready to be made.

Star Recruit

Reynaud’s reputation as a winning coach already was solidified when she made one of her most memorable recruiting moves. In 1988, one of Reynaud’s best middle-hitters had become academically ineligible, so Reynaud went in search of a player with height and talent to fill the role. At a high school tournament at the University of Tampa, an unusually tall adult woman walked by. “I was talking to one of my player’s father and said, ‘Who’s that?’ and he said, ‘Well, her daughter is out there,’” Reynaud remembers. The 6-foot- 3 player was Gabrielle Reece, a senior at Keswick Christian School. Reynaud invited Reece to visit FSU and Reece soon after committed.

Reece was more than a talented player; she had a blossoming modeling career. By her second year at FSU, she was traveling to magazine shoots during school holidays or in the off-season, at times splitting her time between Tallahassee and New York City. When the season was on, Reece focused on volleyball. “We had national press following us because she was a world-class model,” Reynaud says. “She would get all her classes done to remain eligible to play, and then she’d leave on a weekend and make more money than my salary. I remember walking through the Atlanta airport with the team and us seeing her on magazine covers. But Gabby was always gracious. Whenever anyone came to interview her, she made a point of talking about the team. She never put herself in front at all.”

Reece went on to hold FSU records, won the 1989 Dodge National Athletics Awards Most Inspiring Collegiate Athlete and was among Rolling Stone magazine’s Wonder Women of Sports. She played professional volleyball, became a Nike spokesperson and television celebrity. Now more than three decades later, she remains a grateful, close friend to Reynaud. “A lot of coaches would have said, ‘You have to choose’ but she looked at my opportunities and that I was on my own, and she supported me. We had a deal: ‘When you’re here, you’re here. In season, you’re not running all over the place to photo shoots.’”

“There’s an authority to Cecile and she also is rooted in her own moral compass,” she says. “My teammates were great to me, but there were some times when some weren’t that nice about everything. And Cecile brought me to her office one day and said, ‘Hey listen, if any of these girls had the opportunity you have, they would take it.’ With our relationship, she cared about me as an individual first, then as an athlete.’”

Reece and her husband, Laird Hamilton, a former big wave surfer from Hawaii, now run successful companies in nutrition products, fitness programs and athletic fashion: Laird Superfood, Laird Apparel and Xpt. “Cecile helped build a foundation for me to be able to pursue all these things I’m interested in and good at,” Reece says. “It definitely started with her, and being mentored by somebody who gives you the confidence to say, ‘I can try that.’”

Net Gain

Reynaud went on to earn a PhD in sports management in 1998 and retired from coaching in 2001. She taught sports management at FSU until her full retirement in 2015. The bonds with her former players endure. “Some have started volleyball clubs, some have gone into finance, some teach or sell insurance and others are raising families,” she says. “But when you see them, the conversation isn’t about what they learned from me on the court. It’s what they learned off the court, and that makes me feel good.”

As for Reynaud herself, there’s a new chance to notch a win. “The fact that I can take all the different areas of my career and bring them to the table now feels great,” she says. “It’s really nice to create something that will remain forever for any young woman who wants to keep playing volleyball.”

A Surge in Women’s Sports

In late August, an event in Nebraska placed an exclamation point on the new Pro Volleyball Federation’s belief the time is right for a women’s professional league.

The largest crowd ever to attend a women’s sporting event — 92,003 fans — packed the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium on Aug. 30 to watch five-time NCAA champion Nebraska defeat Omaha. In addition to Orlando and Grand Rapids, Omaha is home to one of the seven inaugural franchises, along with Atlanta, Columbus and San Diego.

“When we announced there would be a team in Omaha, the next day people were buying tickets. They are absolutely crazy about the sport there,” says Cecile Reynaud.

The 2021 NCAA women’s volleyball final had set an ESPN record of 1.2 million viewers — more than the viewership for the Major League Soccer championship, Axios reported — and there’s been a steady rise in girls high school involvement in the sport of 15% since 2002.

That’s the type of anecdotal evidence league executives point to as signs of audience appetite for a full-scale pro league. And it’s just one reason why the Pro Volleyball Federation has attracted such high-profile investors as past Tampa Bay Bucs quarterback, Super Bowl XXXV champion and former ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, whose daughter, Tori Stringer, will play for the league’s Atlanta Vibe; Cincinnati Bengals star quarterback Joe Burrow and his coaching father Jimmy Burrow; pop/R&B artist Jason Derulo; and Olympic gold medal beach volleyball icon Kerri Walsh Jennings – as well as billionaire Dan Devos.

“As I was doing the volleyball dad, cross-country marathon when my three daughters played club around 2015- 17, I started seeing the sport explode,” says Dilfer, now the University of Alabama at Birmingham head football coach and whose three daughters all played college volleyball. “Now fast-forward to when Tori played at Louisville (2019- 21), I thought, ‘Man, all these girls are going overseas and nobody in the States can follow them.’ I was shocked there wasn’t a unified professional league in the U.S.

“It’s a TV sport that’s just going to explode in the near future here,” Dilfer adds. “Look at what the WNBA has done – I see pro women’s volleyball overtaking that as a spectator sport hopefully in the next decade.”

The Tampa Bay region will get in on the national volleyball act Dec. 14 and 17 at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, when it hosts the NCAA Division 1 semi-finals and final.

Orlando’s Warrior Women

In August, Orlando’s Pro Volleyball Federation team, the Valkyries, unveiled its name at a lavish event. Rooted in the ancient Norse mythology, the moniker references an elite force of goddesses representing courage, strength and female empowerment.

There’s good reason for the Pro Volleyball Federation selection of Orlando for one of seven charter franchises, which will be led by a top name from the college ranks, Coach Amy Pauly.

Orlando is a hub of the sport. National tournaments have abounded for years, from ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at Disney World to the Orange County Convention Center, where its more than 2 million square feet can accommodate hundreds of volleyball courts and draw thousands of attendees.

According to the website sportsdestinations.com, six volleyball tournaments held over three months in 2022 drew 226,000 spectators, generating an economic impact of $290 million. In addition, the 50th AAU Junior Volleyball Championships held at the OCCC and Wide World of Sports drew approximately 200,000 attendees and, according to Visit Orlando, was projected to create an economic impact of $256.7 million.

The Orlando franchise is run by president and CEO George Manias, whose background is in sports business with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins and the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. Games will be played in the 10,000-seat Addition Financial Arena (formerly the CFE Arena and UCF Arena).

Pauly served as associate head coach for women’s volleyball at the University of Southern California for three years, where she built a reputation as one of the country’s top recruiters. “I’ve been coming to the area in a volleyball capacity since I was 12,” she says of Orlando. “When AAU competition became huge, I started going there every year as a recruiter, or coaching club teams and going there to compete. As I look back at my career, the sport has grown in Orlando at a really rapid rate. It’s part of the community.”

The federation also creates an opportunity for promising players just starting on their careers. Two-time U.S. Olympic volleyball player Donald Suxho, director of girls volleyball at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, is working with teen girls at the international sports training center and prep school, developing them for college and national competition — and now a chance for a pro career in the U.S. IMG is one of the world’s most prestigious sports training academies and began its girls volleyball program this year. “This is a great launching pad,” he says. “And having the pro league gives them a clear pathway for any girl in America to reach their dream.”