British volleyball is scheduled to break new ground next week (October 22) when the London-based IBB Polonia London club faces HAOK Mladost Zagreb away in the CEV Champions League.
It’s a historic moment for the semi-pro club which is rooted in London’s Polish community and which will host the second home leg on October 30 at the Copper Box, one of the venues built to host 2012 Olympic Games. No other UK club has competed in the Champions League and IBB Polonia see it as a trailblazing opportunity to raise the profile of the sport in the domestic market.
For while volleyball may be a massive sport in Brazil, the USA, China, Russia and much of Europe, it is little more than a blip on the UK sports radar.
Polonia, led by its chief executive Bartek Łuszcz, aims to change all that and the scale of their ambition is evidenced by projects including its partnership with the highly-respected digital sports marketing agency Seven League, broadcasts across BT Sport, Eurosport and Polish cable operators, a crowd funding initiative designed to raise £400,000 and a on sponsorship programme which encourages partners to become equity investors rather than simply buying inventory.
Łuszcz is a man on a mission, not simply to build the club but “to change the image of English volleyball” and he is deploying a sophisticated strategic approach to achieving his goal.
“Professionalism is a mind set and we are becoming more and more ambitious in the way we build the brand in every way: starting from the quality of our team, signing top-level talent, the way we present the match-day experience, alliances across other sports and delivering digital content.
“When we are starting on this amazing journey, we had a budget of just £7,000 but now it is £200,000 and we have seen it doubling more or less every year,” he said.
Polonia is one of England’s oldest volleyball clubs and, as the name suggests, was founded by Poles and has been supported by London’s sizeable Polish community.
And while Łuszcz is determined to extend the club’s fan base beyond that core with activations focusing on Lithuanian and Brazilian communities, he also understands the power of those Polish roots and current links as he builds for the future.
Lead sponsor IBB is a London-based builders merchant with strong roots in the Polish community which is investing £500,000 over five years, while a recent addition to the partner roster is Atlas, a Polish company which makes chemical products for the construction industry and which is heavily involved in supporting another heavyweight sport in Poland, ski-jumping. Another sponsor acquisition is ESS, a steel manufacturer which also sees the relationship with the club as a door to the London and UK Polish community.
“The fact is that in this sport in this country we are operating in a market where we are able to give sponsors aa whole range of unorthodox, but impactful opportunities, because the landscape is relatively under regulated in that respect,” said Łuszcz.
“When I saw Earl’s Court jumping in 2012, I thought volleyball was already a top-tier sport and was disappointed with its status here. There are players here from all over the world and I felt sorry for them. I wanted to offer them something better. At the same time, I realised the size of the Polish community in London and those of other nations where volleyball is popular. There sat the opportunity.
“The quality of the sport here is probably equivalent to the second tier elsewhere in Europe, but what really let the sport down was the standard of event presentation to make it attractive to fans. That is something we are fully focused on,” he said. “Those who manage to grab a ticket for the Copperbox will see volleyball at a premium level, but perhaps more surprisingly, they will see it presented in a way that will shift expectations forever. It is going to be incredible, with a top notch DJ, pyrotechnics…the works.”
However, Łuszcz takes an economically realistic approach to the task the club faces and his long-term ambitions include basing the team in Poland and, effectively, commuting to play games. His logic appears sound. Costs, he says, of paying and housing players are at least 50-per-cent lower than in London, while Polish volleyball has a sophisticated support infrastructure which the team could tap into. That would benefit the bottom line, but also the quality of volleyball the team can achieve.
That, however, is for the future. More pressing is the on and off court challenge of a two-legged Champions League tie which guarantees further European competition as the losers go on to play in the second-tier continental competition and the winners go a step closer to the high-profile group phase.
That the team will go into the game with eight British players under 22-years-old on the roster is also important to its energetic chief executive and his mission to popularise the sport in London and beyond, and he wants other clubs to join the campaign.
“We are always saying that others should follow us, and we are always happy to share the knowledge that we have gained during this journey in order to help them,” he said.