Pro volleyball comes to Arizona for a 5-week season at Mesa's Legacy Park

By Phil Latzman
Published: Thursday, October 5, 2023 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, October 5, 2023 - 9:17am

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This past August, a record 92,000 people jammed into Nebraska’s football stadium in Lincoln to see a volleyball match.

It was the largest crowd to ever witness volleyball in person, proving volleyball had finally arrived on the American sports landscape.

Hoping to take advantage of its newfound popularity, Athletes Unlimited, a women’s-only network of professional sports leagues, is rolling out the volleyballs inside a retrofitted arena at Mesa’s Legacy Park.

“We have leagues in volleyball, softball, lacrosse and basketball," said Cassidy Lichtman, director of volleyball for Athletes Unlimited. "We’re hosting our volleyball season here in Phoenix. And we play a little bit of a different style. So, instead of having teams in different cities, we bring all of our athletes here to one place and play a five-week season, and redraft our teams each week.”

A new home for pro volleyball

Woman in white shirt stands with volleyball court and players in background
Phil Latzman/KJZZ
Cassidy Lichtman is the director of volleyball at Athletes United.

After playing two spring seasons in Dallas, they signed a TV deal with ESPN to play in the fall but needed a new place to play.

They chose Legacy Park complex in southeast Mesa, which filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this year.

“(We) looked at a bunch of different places, and Legacy here in Mesa had what we needed. And there’s a lot of good volleyball going on around here. And it’s not a bad place to be in October/November, so we’re excited about it.”

Lichtman is also excited to showcase the sport here as it experiences a wave of popularity in the U.S.

“People have been able to watch it and the audiences have grown, not only in Nebraska and Wisconsin but around the country, and they're breaking records weekly on the college level. And it’s just a great sport to watch,” Lichtman said.

“(It’s) super fast-paced, really dynamic. So, once people see it, once they go to a game or see it on TV, they tend to come back," she said.

But volleyball has still struggled to gain popularity on the pro level here in the states, with many of the best American athletes forced to play overseas to earn a living.

Lichtman says other women’s sports leagues have been able piggyback on the success of the men’s leagues.

Arizona stars, including Randy Johnson's daughter

Volleyball player in action
Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited
Willow Johnson, Randy Johnson's daughter, plays womens pro volleyball with Athletes Unlimited.

Why has it been so hard to get something like professional volleyball going in the U.S.?

“That’s a good question because it’s a huge sport. The numbers are pretty massive. It’s the biggest team sport for girls in high school ahead of soccer and basketball, it’s incredibly popular at the college level. I think one of the things that’s hard for us is that it’s not as popular on the men’s level,” Lichtman said.

Deja McClendon is trying to change that as a member of Athletes Unlimited’s Player Executive Committee. She’s a former star at Penn State who has been playing overseas.

“For me, it’s really nice to see that people want to invest in women’s sports. They see that it’s a growing opportunity. They see that we have a huge passion for it and fans have a huge passion for it,” McClendon said.

There’s also a few local ladies among the 44 competitors, including the offspring of an Arizona sports legend. Willow Johnson is the 6’3” daughter of Baseball Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

“I actually played a lot of sports growing up, but I gravitated towards volleyball. My older sister played, and I wanted to be just like her, so I decided to play. But I did play baseball, softball, basketball, swim. I tried everything.”

Johnson played briefly overseas after graduating from the University of Oregon.

“To be honest, I didn’t even know much about professional volleyball until I got to college. I didn’t even know that you could go overseas and play,” Johnson said.

See games in Mesa starting Oct. 6

Volleyball player player in action
Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited
Deja Mclendon plays womens pro volleyball with Athletes Unlimited.

But now she’ll be playing professionally in her hometown, competing with players like Brooke Nuneviller, an All-American from Gilbert who also went to Oregon and made an international stop before returning home.

“I went overseas in Turkey to play professionally, so now it’s just really exciting to come back here in the fall and you know, not only come home to America to play professional volleyball, but also in my home state of Arizona, so that’s gonna be super fun to have just families and friends around everywhere,” Nuneviller said.

While players compete on teams, Lichtman said there’s new teams drafted each week and players compete individually for points.

“It’s a really exciting way to play it. It is a team sport. Team wins matter the most for your points, but within that game we’re playing another one, where you’re trying to get your own points. And at the end we crown one champion, not a team champion.”

The competition starts Friday night at Legacy Park and for the next five weeks. Games will be played on Friday, Sunday and Monday. Tickets start at $15. 

Volleyball player in action
Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited
Morgan Hentz plays womens pro volleyball with Athletes Unlimited.

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