'Sky is the limit' for Pro Volleyball League as Chennai win inaugural edition

Rudy Verhoeff celebrates Chennai Spartans' PVL title. Pro Volleyball League

"Rudy! Rudy!! Rudy!!"

The 6000-odd spectators at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium in Chennai weren't quite singing praises about the 1993 Daniel Ruettiger biopic, but it was an underdog story nonetheless.

Rudy Verhoeff, the captain of the Canadian volleyball team, towers above the rest at 6'7". A seasoned blocker, he led his country at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and is a gold medallist at the NORCECA Volleyball Championship.

In recent years, the Nehru Indoor Stadium has played host to several sporting icons. In 2016, it welcomed Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Ronaldinho as part of the Premier Futsal Tournament. Last year, Ajay Thakur became an instant fan-favourite for Tamil Thalaivas in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL).

Verhoeff isn't nearly as high-profile a name - at least in India - but on Friday, he etched a big part of Canada in Periyampet, marshalling Chennai Spartans to victory over the heavily-favoured Calicut Heroes in the final of the inaugural Pro Volleyball League (PVL).

For a city that has already tasted success in franchise sport - Chennai Super Kings are reigning IPL champions, while Chennaiyin FC are current holders of the ISL - winning the PVL crown on home turf was extra special.

The captain Shelton Moses was the first to go to ground, throwing his hands on his head in joyful disbelief, numb to the deafening roars of the crowd. Behind him, the coach MH Kumara was hoisted into the air by the rest of the players. Eventually, they recovered their bearings and embarked on a victory lap, thanking the home support for all the chants, screams, and occasional witty banner.

"It just goes to show how underrated volleyball is as a sport in India. The engagement has been great, better than I could have imagined," Edwin Joseph, the team coordinator Chennai Spartans, told ESPN, reflecting on the large crowds that turned up over the last fortnight to support their respective teams in the PVL.

"The Indian market is a narrow one dominated by cricket, but there are plenty of volleyball fans down south. The advantage we have is that the sport is not very expensive, as all you need is a net and a ball. So you can see a lot of players coming from downtrodden families and from the lower middle-class, which is highly encouraging. Our aim is simply to give these budding talents a platform to shine."

That platform was there for all to see during Spartans' march to the title, particularly in the semifinal against Kochi Blue Spikers, who, for no fault of their own, were the designated antagonists of the evening.

"We now have a product that appeals to everyone. Only the sky is the limit." PVL CEO Joy Bhattacharjya

Because of the way the PVL is packaged, with the fanfare and music almost interspersed with the action, matches often border on the cinematic.

There is the long, drawn-out introduction scene for the heroes, walking out to court almost in slow motion, with fireworks behind them. There are designated musical numbers, as the heroes even shake a leg to the DJ's cues.

Sometimes, not all is well in paradise, as there is suddenly also conflict thrown in. Kochi, while not quite the moustache-twirling, sickle-holding villains like their cinematic counterparts, briefly threatened to silence the crowd, only for the heroes to mount one last stand after the interval and save the day.

The final was almost anti-climactic in comparison, as the Spartans ran out worthy champions in straight sets, inflicting upon Calicut their first defeat of the season.

Words like spike, dig, serve and super point are thrown around frequently in volleyball, but for the uninitiated, all that really translates to is, do not let the ball touch the ground at any cost.

It makes for a highly competitive and engaging format, with fans having no room to drift off or turn away.

"We have done a great job in raising the profile of the sport," says Safeer PT, the owner of Calicut Heroes. "Now, even fans of other sports are curious (about volleyball). People from my friends and family circles are getting interested. Today, I even see children discussing statistics and things like super points. Over time, there is no doubt that we can rival even the ISL and PKL."

Brand recognition could go a big way in achieving that, even at this nascent stage in the tournament. Spartans, for example, dressed in yellow, bear striking similarity to another franchise from Chennai. Joseph credited their success on and off the field to the Spartans management, particularly the chief branding and marketing officer Uppiliappan, and the chairman Rajasekaran.

"Of course we chose (a yellow jersey) keeping Chennai Super Kings in mind," admits Joseph.

"Yellow simply has a different feeling and connection with our fans, so we had to fight for it. There were protocols we had to follow, but we were keen on having yellow.

"All the teams here have been good at positioning their brand. The league began only in February, but we started laying the groundwork back in November. There are a lot of teams working together, discussing several strategies. It is important to position a team in the right way. People recognizing your brand is a big deal, after all."

Yellow or not, fans will not be forgetting this Spartans team in a hurry. At the post-match conference, Verhoeff and Moses turned up with their medals proudly around their neck, smiles wide.

Verhoeff spoke of his experiences over the last month, the "fantastic" crowd support, and conceded that he hadn't quite thought of celebration plans just yet.

He eventually parted with one final, serious thought.

"Please don't give up on volleyball, guys. You've all seen how great it can be."

Had Verhoeff been at the room only moments earlier, he'd have been present to hear PVL CEO Joy Bhattacharjya put those concerns to rest.

"We are only getting started here. We always plan from the bottom, thinking of the fans first," he said.

"The PVL is only going to get bigger. We already have plans for a women's league, and now we know there is a taste for it. Only logistical issues remain; sponsorship is not a problem at all.

"We now have a product that appeals to everyone. Only the sky is the limit."