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China can learn from TV expert Lima’s volleyball vision, which highlights the sport’s natural drama

By Jonathan Powell at Yutang Sports 11 Apr 2017

Photo Credit: Getty Image

As a former TV production journalist covering multiple Olympic Games over 30 years, the Secretary General of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) L. Fernando Lima has a strong understanding of the drama inherent in sport.

Since taking up the role in 2015, Lima has worked to implement his vision of how volleyball should be presented on TV and to the fans in the venues. He believes his strategy would work well for the China Volleyball League, which seeks bigger audiences. He will visit China next month to consult with organisers and share his ideas.

As Secretary General he works across all departments of the FIVB but specialises in the communication, marketing and commercial administration of volleyball worldwide.

Speaking to Yutang Sports at the SportAccord Convention on Wednesday, the Brazilian explained how the federation sought to identify its unique selling point from within the flow of the game. 

“All sports have a natural narrative,” said Lima, who previously served as the FIVB TV and New Media Commission President (2001-2003; 2013-2014) and as a member of the FIVB Press Commission (1997-2000).

“They all have a connection with the real world. For example, historically men needed to swim across rivers, throw javelins, and run, and these things came from real situations. Volleyball was invented in the USA in 1895, by a teacher who understood the need for an indoor sport in winter, the concept of a ball flying over a net. All sports have their origin. There is a history. Any sports appeal depends, from the beginning, on how people understand the sport.

“It’s very easy to understand swimming or running, because it’s about who gets to the finish first. Some sports narrative is easy to understand because of the rules. But who would understand the tension in a game of chess if they didn’t know the rules?”

Lima says that with volleyball they wanted to understand the story that the sport was telling intrinsically, in every match.

“What we identified is that volleyball has many breaks, mostly between points, and also in time outs and intervals between sets. We started to think how we could use that interval in a creative way, to prepare the fans for the next point.

“We also began to look for the celebration moment, the ‘goal’ moment in volleyball, or the ‘touchdown’ moment, that defines the sport and can go viral online. We did an analysis; we thought the sport was ‘unwell’ in medical terms. It needed some medicine, it needed fixing.”

Lima says there is a way to present the contest narrative, to keep people paying attention.

“Look at Saturday night prime-time television, with singing talent shows like X-Factor, or The Voice and you see the same kind of entertainment based on atmosphere. They show people paying attention to other people. TV shows the audience, the jury, backstage, and you see that everyone is engaged. You are part of something. But if every time you distance the fans from the action, you are saying to them: ‘you are not part of this’.  This is the wrong message.

“At every top-level volleyball match, you are going to see certain rallies that are fascinating to the public. Most rallies last about six seconds. A long rally is 30 seconds. Listen to the behaviour of the fans, and listen to what they do in this moment. Humans are driven by tension, and tension comes from suspense about the outcome. With a long rally, the outcome is delayed. It’s not there, the ball is kept in play, again and again, and that is unexpected. The expected is: pass, set, serve, spike, then ‘point over’. Or the point is over with the serve, or the serve is out, these are all very short actions with minimal drama. Every time you have longer action you start to build the tension with the fans. It’s the drama inherent in the sport. The Greeks understood this 2000 years ago. Volleyball had not been doing that, it hadn’t recognised it.”  

Lima believes it is also crucial to package the hero in the narrative of the sport.

“The hero might not be the one who scores the point. Or the hero might be the one who allowed the rally to be extended, or a combination of actions to reach that final point. Volleyball needs to show one fantastic action from different angles, mixing the different replays, different angles, with faces so you know who did each action, and so you can relate to the experience of the athlete in a human way.

“From this, you are able to create a situation, which is very emotional, between a fantastic moment and a player. It’s basic communication, but volleyball was not doing it. Volleyball had always been transferring the obligation to produce the TV feed to each national organiser, so there was no standard. Each country would do its own broadcast. The FIVB was not able to control the broadcasters, so they would do whatever they wanted.”

Lima suggest that any league that wants to develop its commercial capacity, such as the China Volleyball League, needs to study these ideas and then implement its own business model along these lines. “I understand the cost issue, but there are ways to start. We are working with companies who have remotely operated camera production systems, which allows good production but can scale down the cost, and still make it appealing.

“You have to inform viewers about what is happening in a proper way. FIFA did it by setting up their host broadcaster services (HBS) in 1998. The IOC did the same with OBS. Each sport needs a central entity to define how each sport be broadcast.”   

The FIVB began to see improvements with the overall presentation at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. It started to engage fans more at the venues, with the beach volleyball in particular, hosting a party atmosphere. The beach game had always had some form of time-out entertainment, but there was no real connection with fans.

“Now, we are creating new principles based on active engagement, with fans in the arenas physically doing more. Television will benefit from this, and the atmosphere will change, and this transfers to the viewer.

“On the court, you have to deliver the fantastic things that are happening in the proper way. The formula that we found is simple; that every volleyball venue should have proper lighting, a proper audio system, a giant screen, one DJ who understands which musical clips work with people, and a good announcer. It’s about leading the behaviour, an instinct for what needs to be done to create the atmosphere.”

It all adds up to what sounds like theatre production. Lima calls it his ‘Volleyball de Soleil’, after the famous Cirque de Soleil alternative circus show.

“By integrating some elements of the circus, music, script and more, we created a new business model. It’s about finding your own space. We identified our space: volleyball has so many time out breaks, where we can make noise. No other sport has this. We decided to engage people with the sport, at every opportunity. It’s the fight to get the consumer. The concept is unique to volleyball.”  

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