Aury Cruz has been in the game for a long time. When the Olympian started with the University of Florida women’s volleyball team in 2000, the sport was still using sideout scoring. Fast forward 21 years later, the 39-year-old outside hitter never thought she would be playing professional volleyball in the United States.
When Athletes Unlimited first contacted Cruz, she thought they wanted her as an advisor because of her extensive international playing experience. She found the idea of a United States women’s professional volleyball league great for the sport’s development.
“I thought, this is wonderful for United States volleyball and the young girls to have this,” Cruz said via telephone.
Saying Yes To A Dream
When league officials followed up with Cruz shortly afterwards, she was blindsided by their request. They asked her to play.
“This is what I always wanted,” Cruz said via telephone. “It was like a dream to play close to home. Of course, I wanted to be part of this history. [I told them to] count me in.”
The Player Executive Committee utilized their network to reach out to other globetrotting athletes playing in the far corners of the volleyball universe. Their efforts landed them on Lindsay Stalzer, a veteran outside hitter who spent the past 15 seasons playing internationally, most recently in the Philippines.
The 36-year-old who is known for her versatility and tremendous leaping ability, also promptly accepted a contract. Playing in her home country was a pipe dream she had while overseas, one she thought about, but never expected to come true.
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“I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be so nice if the United States had its own professional indoor league,” Stalzer said via telephone. “We could stay here; we have such a great pool of talent. It’s kind of sad that once you graduate college you either have to join the corporate world, get a job or play in another country. This is a dream come true, so I definitely knew I had to be a part of it.”
Making The Numbers Work
Both fans and the athletes had questions about players salaries going into the season. New leagues are frequently faced with the arduous task of offering salaries that are competitive enough to attract talent without sinking long-term viability. Athletes Unlimited committed $1,000,000 to salaries for the 44-player league, which included a $10,000 guarantee, and up to $35,000 in bonuses for each player.
“I’m happy for the salary,” Stalzer said. “Of course, there’s an incentive to do really well and help the league do really well by getting an end of year bonus. … It’s a unique format, but everybody’s embracing it.”
Navigating international volleyball’s salary structure varies significantly, as the sport’s top players make up to $1,000,000 annually playing in Turkey or China, but also start at $1,000 to $2,000 euros per month in the lower tier European leagues.
Tim Kelly, who represents many professional volleyball players through his company Bring It Promotions, said there are nuances that make it difficult to compare salaries from Athletes Unlimited with those offered globally.
“What people don’t understand with salaries is that everything is paid,” Kelly said during a recent phone call. “If you’re lucky enough to make a million, you’re not paying for anything including taxes or insurance. They’re flying you over, giving you a place to live, giving you a car and sometimes feeding you. … You’re only paying your self-employment tax when you get home. The difference with the salary in AU of course is that you are paying some of your own costs, and you are paying taxes on it. When people want to make a direct comparison, I think that’s a mistake.”
Stalzer agreed early career volleyball players weren’t going to get rich as they transitioned from college to the pros; however, they could experience life in another country and come out ahead if they make smart choices with their money.
“Especially starting out, you don’t do it for the money,” Stalzer said. “You do it for the experience and sheer desire to keep playing and the love of volleyball. If you’re wise with your money, [you] make enough to save it. You don’t have a lot of expenses while you’re in a certain place. They put you up in an apartment or hotel, and they provide a lot of stuff for you.”
Players coming right out of the club and college system where their needs have been catered to for years, often scoff at the entry level salaries. Kelly said they frequently failed to account for the perks when looking at the entire package.
“Some of the players have a lot of trouble with that,” Kelly said. “It’s got to be a little bit more about the experience and not the money, so you can tell yourself a professional. If you’re in Sweden making $2,000 a month or in Germany making $3,000 a month, that’s pretty good money to put away, but you’re really doing it because you want to play volleyball and want to live overseas.”
Navigating The Game
Cruz, who represented Puerto Rico in the 2016 Olympic Games and is in the University of Florida’s Hall of Fame, said there is a complete mindset shift once you turn professional. Everyone is now playing for the job, which might be different from your college teammates who aspire to do something else other than continuing with the sport.
“In college, they try to assume you have a role to play,” Cruz said. “We’re going to play a little bit calmer, like trying not to waste opportunities and minimize errors. When you play internationally, you’re working for it. You’re not simply playing for fun; you’re playing because this is your job. You were contracted to make points. It doesn’t matter who is next to you, you’re doing your thing.”
With the likes of Olympians Jordan Larson, Sheilla Castro and Bethania de la Cruz in the league, Stalzer immediately noticed how they raised the level of play. It was a challenge that created a heightened sense of intensity on the court.
“The competition is actually even higher than I expected,” Stalzer said. “I’ve been playing in the Philippines the last six years. It’s a great league; I love it, but the height of the players on average is much, much lower than here. There are some big, strong players in this league. The competition is super hard, super high and these three match weekends are pretty intense. … You’re kind of drained after each weekend and then you only have three days with your new team before you do it all over again.”
Training For Longevity
Approaching their late 30s, both Cruz and Stalzer have figured out how to combat the physical punishment that comes with a lengthy career. Both outside hitters showed tremendous leaping ability and resiliency throughout the condensed season, something they attributed to their increased focus on training.
Stalzer said she takes very little time off during the offseason, choosing to train almost year-round, while Cruz enlisted the help of a new personal trainer in 2016. She said the investment was necessary to keep her in the game for a few more years.
“The first discipline an athlete needs is to train to keep your body in rhythm and eat healthily,” Cruz said. “You learn how to keep your body strong. Playing on the [Puerto Rican] national team, you’re traveling four months with the national team and then you’re playing overseas eight months. Your body doesn’t really have time for rest, but if you have discipline with your workouts, it will help your body to last. Sometimes you just say, ‘Okay I want to be done. I don’t want to play anymore; I want to I want to have a family, or I want to be close to my family or friends.’ Then you realize this is my job; this is what I depend on. I need to work; I need to prepare myself to stay healthy to be able to do the work.”
Pioneers Leading The Pack
With Athletes Unlimited set to go for a second volleyball season in 2022, Cruz and Stalzer were among the leaders of this pioneering group. They finished fourth and 12th respectively in overall points. In addition to endearing new fans with their exciting play on the court, off the court the players hit milestones as well. They landed their own Topps trading cards, while additionally utilizing their platform to raise money for charitable causes.
Stalzer held the entire experience close to her heart and hopes the added visibility will inspire young athletes to follow in her footsteps.
“It means the world to every girl playing volleyball or has played volleyball in the United States,” Stalzer said. “I know when I was growing up I idolized female athletes in general. To have a league of amazing volleyball athletes so visible to young kids, young females, young athletes, even males, I think it’s priceless to have more exposure.”