The article originally appeared in The Meeting Professional, a strategic partner of Facility Manager magazine.

The phenomenon of girls club volleyball has become so popular across the U.S. that it is filling up major convention centers such as the 2.3 million-square-foot Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation’s capital.

But you are not alone if you have not heard of Girls Club Volleyball. The burgeoning sport is still under the radar in many circles.

“When my husband walked into the convention center seven years ago and said, ‘I want to do a girls volleyball tournament here,’ they looked at him like he had three heads,” says Bonnie Goldberg, tournament director of the Capitol Hill Volleyball Classic. “They simply said, ‘We do not do sporting events here in the convention center.’ And he said, ‘Well, call down to the Atlanta convention center and talk to them a minute because they are doing it. Please ask them about the economic impact in their city.’”

(The annual ASICS Big South National Qualifier, held at Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center, has been filling up the venue for years, with more than 1,300 teams attending last year.)

Goldberg says that by the time her husband Barry, who is tournament director of the Capitol Hill Classic and head volleyball coach at American University in Washington, D.C., got back to his office that day after meeting with the Washington Convention Center, there was a phone message from staff at the center saying, “Let’s discuss this volleyball tournament idea.”

That was the beginning of the Capitol Hill Classic, which shared the convention center with a boat show the first two years and has bought out the entire center every year since then. With 144 teams attending the classic the first year, it has grown to an amazing 920 teams this year, bringing 40,000 visitors to the nation’s capital over President’s Day weekend. (This year, the tournament set up a record 119 volleyball courts within the building.)

“It’s optimum timing both for us and for the D.C. metro area,” says Bonnie Goldberg. “We are bringing 40,000 people to the city on what is usually one of the coldest and dreariest weekends of the year. The local hospitality industry likes that because it fills up lots of hotel rooms, and as planners we like that because it is at a time when we can get really good rates. Many of those hotel rooms are being filled by families who are coming here on their own money to watch their daughters compete in the tournament. I heard the economic impact of our tournament on the local economy this year was US$20-25 million.”

volleyball2Goldberg says Girls Club Volleyball, which involves girls ages 12 to 18 and issanctioned by USA Volleyball, is a growing phenomenon due to a couple of key reasons.

First, it’s a wholesome, friendship-building, athletically enriching sport for girls. Kids get together under adult supervision to learn a sport that becomes a way of life for them as they grow up. Second, a little-known fact is that for motivated girls who develop good athletic skills, it can become an avenue to landing a college scholarship.

“We had upwards of 200 college women’s volleyball coaches at this year’s tournament, and they were there for recruiting purposes,” says Goldberg, who played volleyball in college, went on to play professionally in Europe and then came back to the U.S. to coach at the college level. “They are there to watch the girls, get information about their skills from the club team coaches and all that can result in scholarship offers—full scholarship offers to an NCAA Division I university. Clearly that is a significant, potentially life-changing opportunity for a female athlete.”

Goldberg says there are 351 Division I colleges and universities affiliated with the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). And of that, 334 of those schools have women’s volleyball teams that compete on an inter-collegiate level. Between Division I, II, and III there are more than 1,000 women’s volleyball programs in the country.

“What many people don’t realize is that volleyball is second only to basketball as a sport that offers college scholarship opportunities for young women,” she says.

Under NCAA regulations, each college may offer 13 scholarships per year for women’s basketball, in which the team roster is usually about 15 to 20 players. Women’s volleyball teams at the collegiate level can offer 12 full scholarships.

“We only have six girls on the court at a time, so that equals an entire starting team and an entire team’s worth of backup players on full scholarship,” Goldberg says.

Another example of growth in women’s volleyball opportunities at the college level is evident with sand volleyball teams. There are now about 40 NCAA Division I schools with sand volleyball teams (competing for the NCAA Sand Volleyball Championship and the number of colleges adding the sport is growing, Goldberg says.

An advantage of sand volleyball is that it is played in the spring, while indoor volleyball is played in the fall and winter, so a girl who participates in both can play, get training and improve her skills all year long.

Another appealing aspect of Girls Club Volleyball is that USA Volleyball, the sanctioning organization, picks players for the U.S. National Team and for Olympic volleyball competition, both winter and summer, which now includes the increasingly popular sand volleyball. It becomes a good group to associate with if one aspires to be an Olympian.

volleyball3Goldberg says it is that strong range of developmental opportunities for girls that tend to make their parents highly supportive of their daughters’ participation in the sport. And that parental support seems to offer huge potential for the sport’s growth.

“We started the tournament two years before the big recession hit,” Goldberg says. “And I remember having my fingers crossed during the registration process for the third tournament and saying, ‘If we can only have as many teams sign up as we had last year, it will be a miracle.’ Sure enough, we had 100 more teams. And that has continued to happen, no matter what the economy is like. This shows me that parents will give up a few things, maybe the Starbucks coffee or something like that, but they will not stop supporting their children’s opportunities.”

Goldberg teamed with her husband Barry, who has been highly successful as an NCAA Division I volleyball coach at American University—taking his team to a 173-11 record in the past 13 years, winning a conference championship in 14 of his last 17 years and posting two NCAA Tournament victories in 2013 (taking American to the Sweet 16)—to start a volleyball club for girls in the Washington, D.C., area 15 years ago. The Metro American Volleyball Club now has 18 teams with girls aged 10 to 18 who live all over the Washington metropolitan area.

The reason behind that venture was obvious: love for the sport.

“We both go way back in volleyball,” says Bonnie Goldberg, who not only played in college and then professionally, but has coached at Georgetown University and then American University, where she met her husband. “It offers great developmental opportunities for young people, even those who don’t necessarily go on to get a college scholarship or make a career out of it.”

Ahen Kim, coach of the team called “17 Travel” (because its members are 17 years old and travel to many tournaments during the season), says that by the time the girls are old enough to participate on his team, “they embrace volleyball as a way of life.” Kim’s team, part of the Metro American Volleyball Club, won its division and a gold medal at the Capitol Hill Classic.

“By the time they get to the level of my team, they have typically been in club volleyball for a long time; many of them start learning the volleyball lifestyle when they are 12 years old, and two of the members of our team have already signed letters of intent to go to colleges with NCAA-level volleyball programs,” he says. “But some of our team members started only two years ago. Girls start at various ages, and they not only have the possibility of college scholarships out there in front of them, they are a part of something that builds their athleticism and often builds a network of friendships that may last a lifetime.” FM

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The Logistics of It All

Large volleyball tournaments are for-profit businesses and require management skills that become more complex based on size.

“The key these days is to have a really good software system to manage all this,” says Bonnie Goldberg, tournament director of the Capitol Hill Volleyball Classic (CHVC). The CHVC uses a cutting-edge software program called Sportwrench to manage registration and scheduling of teams and officials. “When you have 920 teams that are going to play during a three-day tournament and be pared down to the divisional winners at the end of the third day, you really need to be on top of things.”

A very useful part of having big tournaments with every age-level of girls involved is the learning experience for the younger girls, says Ahen Kim, a coach with the Metro American Volleyball Club.

“The typical regional tournaments are just one-day events in which a limited number of participating teams go, play and go home all in the same day,” he says. “But with three-day tournaments like the CHVC, the younger girls get to watch the older, more experienced players in action.”

The size of the tournament offers big opportunities for the trade show element of the event,” says Jeremy Rubin, managing director of his own consulting company, Synergies21, and director of the trade show and sponsorship division of the CHVC (one of more than 10 tournaments Synergies21 supports).

“When you have 40,000 relatives and friends of the team members coming through the building in a three-day period, and also the girls themselves at the venue, this makes a great opportunity for exhibitors and vendors,” he says.

Rubin says the vendors and exhibitors include those who have products to sell directly to the players and spectators, entities that simply want to market their products by handing out pamphlets and coupons and corporations that want to spread brand awareness.