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"A confident future for Volleyball and Beach Volleyball"

interview of Dr Ruben Acosta, President, FIVB

by Andrew A. Napier [ ]
article published in FIVB VolleyWorld (September 2006)

Anyone who has followed the phenomenal growth of Volleyball and Beach Volleyball since Dr Rubén Acosta became FIVB President in 1984 will not be surprised to find him more determined than ever to do whatever is required to further develop the sports that the FIVB governs. 

Under his leadership the FIVB will continue to develop Volleyball and Beach Volleyball as exciting and accessible sports with high entertainment value.  Even greater attention will be paid to the attractiveness to television of international Volleyball and Beach Volleyball competitions, but after 22 years he is convinced that further success is best guaranteed by each of the FIVB’s 218 affiliated National Federations developing and implementing the most appropriate plans for their ‘market’. 

“There is no secret to success” Dr Acosta says, “just organisation, administration and management, sharing know-how and skills, and seizing opportunities, or as Colin Powell said: “There are no secrets to success. Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty to those for whom you work and persistence”   It is not simply a question of wealth or money: some of the weakest 54 National Federations are in Europe , and some of our most promising Federations are in poorer countries.  We must find the best ways to help them all.”

In the FIVB, the National Federations are directly affiliated to the centre, and the five Continental Confederations are part of the FIVB’s management and co-ordination system.  It is a source of particular pride to Dr Acosta that all the Continental Confederations asked him to stand for re-election for a further four years as President, so that they can continue working together in search of reaching the objectives of the FIVB Volleyball World Vision 2012.  

The 2006 Presidential Election will be decided by the FIVB’s supreme decision-making body, the FIVB World Congress of all affiliated National Federations, which will meet in Tokyo this October.  Dr Acosta will be the only name on the ballot, duly supported by the Mexican Volleyball Federation and the five Confederations.  Another self declared candidate was not supported by any affiliated National Federation, even though according to the FIVB Constitution the support of an affiliated National Federation is required for candidates to go forward for election to the Presidency or the Board of Administration.

So how does Dr Acosta see the future for the FIVB and the sports that it governs?  “There are even greater opportunities ahead for Volleyball and Beach Volleyball, if the FIVB remains united and focussed on the challenges ahead.  If we continue developing Volleyball and Beach Volleyball competitions to make them even more accessible and attractive to TV, we can continue to raise standards and bring more players, supporters and commercial partners into the sport.  Top-level sport has become big business over the past 20 years, and competition between sports will increase.  We must keep moving forward, there is no room for complacency.”

Volleyball and Beach Volleyball have indeed become very big business over the past 20 years, but as well as creating and running global professional events like the 16-country FIVB World League and the SWATCH-FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour, the FIVB also looks after the development of Volleyball and Beach Volleyball as amateur sports for all and leisure activities.

Dr Acosta believes that Volleyball and Beach Volleyball at all levels should be able to benefit from the FIVB’s policy of structuring its top-level competitions and Olympic qualification in such a way that the very best players compete at the Olympic Games, unlike in some other world sports.  “This enables the FIVB to showcase the very best of the two sports which it governs.  Our sports topped the world TV rankings for Athens, and the prospects for Beijing are very promising.  With initiatives like the FIVB Volleyball World Vision 2012 and Volleyball Co-operation Programmes, the FIVB will work with all our National Federations to capitalise on the growing interest in our sports”.

The best interests of Volleyball and Beach Volleyball

Under Dr Acosta’s Presidency the FIVB will continue to be prepared to go against the conventional structures and old fashioned attitudes, if needs be, to protect and promote the best interests of Volleyball and Beach Volleyball.  The most controversial has been the ‘10% rule’:  whereas most sports use marketing agencies and pay high fees, the FIVB encourages its Members to seek new sources of finance that they may find and negotiate for Volleyball and Beach Volleyball in exchange for a commission of 10%:  “the application of this ‘10% rule’ is one of the reasons behind the spectacular success of Volleyball and Beach Volleyball over the past 20 years.  The FIVB and Volleyball development programmes have benefited enormously from it, and more National Federations are encouraged to use it as much as they can”.

From a purely financial point of view, the ‘10% rule’ has left the FIVB with more money to invest in the sports of Volleyball and Beach Volleyball than if the FIVB had had to pay the much larger commissions of up to 40% which marketing agencies charge.  The FIVB system grew out of experience.  “We were totally dissatisfied when in 1986 the marketing agency that we engaged for both Men’s and Women’s World Championships in Paris and Prague earned for FIVB only $500,000 USD, and even then that was much more than other marketing agencies had offered the FIVB.  They saw much less value in our sports and the FIVB tournaments than we did. After this experience, Horst Dassler an icon in the world of sports marketing and one of our most supportive friends in Germany , gave us the 10% rule idea.”

Most of the big agencies approached the FIVB, including the one - ISL - that the IOC used for many years to help its own large marketing department but unfortunately none of them understood the potential value of FIVB Volleyball events.

ISL’s eventual bankruptcy nearly caused cancellation of the FIFA World Cup but over the last twenty years the FIVB has never had financial problems under Dr Acosta’s Presidency.  “Year on year the FIVB has been able to earn more money to channel into its sports, and the more we have earned each year, the more we have put into our sport programmes, we will try and continue to do so,” he says.

The FIVB’s Executive Committee and Board of Administration have set up strict rules and procedures as to what is permitted and the obligations of its Officers, Members, Staff and commercial partners.  “The more successful the FIVB, the greater the temptation, and the greater the need for us all to be vigilant and prepared to enforce the rules,” says Dr Acosta.

“In 2002 we discovered that the President of the then Argentine National Federation had broken the rules by selling FIVB properties to which he had no right and then trying to hide it from the FIVB.  When he was found out, he launched a vicious attack on the FIVB and its President and accused him of corruption. As a response, all the FIVB institutions, from Commissions to the 2004 World Congress, stand up like one man, gave a unanimous vote of confidence to the FIVB President and ousted from FIVB such a person. The same pattern but aggravated was followed during 2001 to 2005 by the former FIVB Manager and the same response was given by the Executive Committee, the Board of Administration and NFs.  

After a very difficult period during which the FIVB had to suspend the then Argentine Federation for refusing to accept the authority or decisions of the FIVB Board of Administration, the FIVB World Congress of 2004 expelled the old Argentine Volleyball Federation and voted unanimously to recognise a new Federation for Argentina.

“The one good thing to come out of these difficult episodes,” says Dr Acosta, “is that the Swiss legal system has thoroughly examined the ‘10% Rule’ and all the claims of corruption, and on all four separate occasions have found in favour of the FIVB and its President.  The Swiss Courts have determined that the FIVB system is perfectly legal and the FIVB’s payments made in accordance with its rules are all legitimate.”

With respect to doping, the FIVB is rightly proud of the drug-free record of Volleyball and Beach Volleyball and is prepared to go further than the Guidelines of WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) to keep it this way. There is one area in which the FIVB is stricter than WADA: in the FIVB a whole team would be eliminated if two members of the same team tests positive, or they lose the match when one member tests positive, whereas WADA wants only the individual players suspended.  The FIVB’s Medical Commission believes that WADA’s policy on this matter is too lenient, because Volleyball and Beach Volleyball are team sports and - as has been seen in other sports - doping is rarely the decision of lone individuals.

On the matter of arbitration, the FIVB has been reluctant to use the IOC-funded Court of Arbitration in Sport, except for anti-doping appeals, preferring instead to refer all other cases to the International Volleyball Tribunal (IVT).  This is likely to continue for the time being. The FIVB appreciates the importance of independent arbitration, but believes that key improvements in the IVT may be a better way of guaranteeing independent arbitration while maintaining confidence that arbitrators fully understand Volleyball and Beach Volleyball, two of the most successful team sports in the world.

“The International Volleyball Tribunal is currently entirely financed by the FIVB and we are looking at bringing in another, independent source of finance.  To guarantee independence, we may also need to change the system of election of judges or arbitrators,” he adds.

Future changes

But what about changes to the FIVB itself, especially after some of the recent difficulties?  “Our top priority is for the FIVB to have the right structures to meet the challenges ahead, the right people with proven experience in Volleyball sports activities and loyal members at the helm of our institutions,” says Dr Acosta.  “I believe that for the immediate future an organisation as complex as ours requires an Executive President, but with a greater role for elected First and Second Executive Vice-Presidents than we have today.  For the FIVB at this juncture this is better than having a non-executive President and a CEO, and much better than having an Executive President with a CEO.”  The Board and Executive Committee have also agreed that, for the time being at least, the heads of department in the FIVB Secretariat should all report directly to the FIVB President.

“Also with the sums of money that the FIVB is generating for its sports, it is the general feeling that the time has come to have an elected Treasurer and a new Investment Committee, with outside experts to guide their decisions. 

“We do not believe that the FIVB Congress would agree to open the door to shameless opportunists attracted by our sport’s hard-earned financial strength, nor do we believe that the FIVB Congress would want to change our current system of the FIVB World Congress electing the President and Board of Administration, and the Board electing twelve of its members to join the President on the FIVB Executive Committee. 

“We will also continue to have a comprehensive and explicit FIVB Code of Conduct, which will be monitored and enforced within the FIVB’s existing governance structures, rather than through the creation of a quasi-autonomous Ethics Commission.  For FIVB, maintaining the highest ethics standards will continue being an ongoing management task at all levels, and – as FIVB institutions’ iron hand and fearless attitude have already shown in recent cases – no distinctions will be made between junior officials and high-profile administrators whom the FIVB, after hearing them and confirming their grave faults, was obliged to dismiss. The FIVB can be very proud of the very high ethical and moral standards of everyone in the sport: players, officials and administrators.”

To what extent have recent experiences led to these conclusions, and what changes are likely in the longer term?  “The FIVB Executive Committee and Board of Administration came to these conclusions after the infamous experience of the former Manager with his double performance of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  He was discovered to have abused his position to commit the FIVB to large expenditures which benefited himself but had no obvious benefit for our sports”, explains Dr Acosta. As IBM’s Thomas J Watson Jr said: “Joining an organisation is an act that calls for absolute loyalty in big matters and little ones”.

“In the longer term the FIVB may require further changes.  We also need to look at what is to be required of the President in the future, so that we can be sure that the FIVB always has a person committed to take Volleyball and Beach Volleyball forward.  For example, the FIVB regulations empower the Executive Committee to set aside funds for the Presidency, including representation, but the role is not salaried.  This may need to change for the next President.” 

As the general trend indicates, in future, the Presidents of IFs may need to be salaried, as is already the case in some other sports and has been frequently mentioned for future IOC Presidents. Eventually, notwithstanding the 10% commission permitted under FIVB rules, the FIVB will not always have a President like the incumbent who is also able to look after the commercial interests of the sport and negotiate lucrative broadcasting and marketing contracts for the FIVB.                                                                       

Working together

For the immediate future, the FIVB President would like to see everyone in Volleyball and Beach Volleyball working together to increase further the appeal and accessibility of the sports.  Under Dr Acosta’s leadership the FIVB has developed a highly-professional approach.  The most notable change to Volleyball was the move to Rally Point Scoring.  “It may seem obvious now, but at the time it was a bold decision needing courage and vision.  Players, coaches, referees and National Federations had been talking about change and studying the options for 30 years.  Rally Point Scoring and the Tie-break have helped to make the game much quicker, more attractive, more accessible and easier to understand.  Volleyball has become a long way before it could be considered a real spectacle which provides great entertainment to the public.”

These two major changes also now apply to Beach Volleyball, which the FIVB has also been developing since it took over responsibility in 1986.  Both sports learn from each other: the tie-break was applied to Beach Volleyball after it was found to be a success in Volleyball, and the FIVB introduced Rally Point Scoring to Beach Volleyball after the new system had successfully transformed Volleyball.  The FIVB also introduced the coloured ball to both disciplines after discovering that it made for better viewing on television.

Each discipline has also seen other changes to address particular challenges: the introduction of the libero has brought many benefits to Volleyball, including avoiding large numbers of substitutions and bringing to the sport world-wide a large population of average-sized players able to play top Volleyball.  The FIVB is currently also considering ways of eliminating delays in substitutions and is even studying whether and how to allow two liberos without going to seven players on court.  

Beach Volleyball

For Beach Volleyball one rule change also made a difference: the FIVB studied and agreed to the players’ request for the ball pressure to be reduced.  However the biggest change to Beach Volleyball in recent years has been to introduce it to new audiences in city centres and iconic locations such as Gstaad in the Swiss Alps, the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Alexander Platz in Berlin.  The sport has become so popular at the Olympic Games - where it has now been on the programme since Atlanta 1996 - that bid cities and organising committees have sought to catch the imagination by locating the Beach Volleyball tournament in the most iconic locations.  For London 2012, Beach Volleyball has the best venue of the Games, near Buckingham Palace in central London.

Beach Volleyball has also come a long way from the beaches of California and Brazil, but many the world’s most spectacular beaches also continue to play host to Beach Volleyball tournaments as well as the prestigious inland venues. 

By making it into a highly-attractive professional sport, the FIVB has also opened up new opportunities for National Federations.  “As Switzerland has shown, it is possible to reach world-class levels in Beach Volleyball with its two-person teams more easily than in Volleyball,” Dr Acosta points out.  “Switzerland is today one of the world powers in Beach Volleyball, and Gstaad has become one of the players’ favourite stops on the SWATCH-FIVB World Tour.”  Next year Gstaad will host the World Championships, which will be one of the most important qualifying events for the Beijing Olympics in 2008.  Players’ best eight results in the qualifying period will count towards deciding who qualifies for Beijing, but Gstaad World Championships points will count for more than points won at Grand Slams or Open events."

Dr Acosta would like to see Beach Volleyball becoming more of a year-round sport.  The SWATCH-FIVB World Tour is currently predominantly played in the Northern Hemisphere, but there are plans to have more events in the Southern Hemisphere and to have more training camps in warmer climates for Northern Hemisphere players in their winters.

He also wants the FIVB to intensify its efforts to nurture Beach Volleyball at younger age levels.  Over the years there has been steady improvement among the younger players.  “This year’s Under-21 Beach Volleyball World Championships in Poland will show us the champions of tomorrow, and the Under-19 World Championships in Bermuda will be an important stepping-stone for players who should soon also be competing for the highest prizes”.

Sustainable progress

All in all, Dr Acosta envisages the FIVB continuing to raise the global profile of both Volleyball and Beach Volleyball, to increase further their appeal for television, to make adjustments to the sports when necessary and to make arrangements to share expertise and skills between countries.  “The biggest challenge will be to find the best ways for each National Federation to seize the opportunities,” he says. 

“There are some situations that apply everywhere: for every federation to become professionally organised, for each country to have a National Volleyball League and a National Beach Volleyball Circuit, and for the National Leagues in the strongest countries all to be fully-professional.  Beyond that there will be different challenges and opportunities depending on the relative international strengths of Volleyball and Beach Volleyball in each country and their popularity relative to other sports.”   With its Volleyball World Vision 2012 the FIVB has a tried-and-tested process to help each National Federation plan and achieve sustainable progress.

“The FIVB and its affiliated National Federations can face the future with confidence.  Success is not guaranteed, so there is no room for complacency.  It will be hard work, and as Colin Powell said, the result of perfection, learning from failure, loyalty to those for whom you work and persistence”, but it will be worth the effort: we already have a head-start over many sports.  There is already a growing interest in our sports among players, spectators and television, and our challenge is to find the best ways to capitalise on this interest,” says Dr. Acosta.

In today’s highly competitive market for sport, Volleyball and Beach Volleyball are fortunate to be able to call on the experience, the commercial skills, the detailed knowledge and passion for the sports and the visionary leadership of Dr Acosta for a further four years.

Andrew A. Napier

June 2006