CHENNAI: As he surveyed the arrangements in place at Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium on Friday evening, a top Pro Volley League official anxiously glanced at the chairs reserved for VIPs. “That’s the only section I’m worried about. Those with complimentary tickets don’t turn up sometimes,” he said. “The rest of the stadium, I’m sure will be packed.”
He wasn’t quite right, but he wasn’t too wide off the mark. Chennai Spartans’ rather anticlimactic 2-3 loss to U Mumba Volley had to be the best-attended volleyball match in the city in some time. Even more than the number that had turned out to cheer Tamil Nadu a month ago, when they’d made the National Championships men’s final. The organisers pegged the final tally at 2,478.
The stadium looked like a place transformed. Colourful lights shone, while a gigantic steel frame surveyed the playing area. Sponsor billboards occupied prime positions; a sight unimaginable at nationals.
The cheers started well before the game began. As the players warmed up with towering smashes, every Chennai jump was serenaded with applause. The home team’s reasonable start to the match saw the venue erupt multiple times.
But when Spartans finally held on to their nerves and won the fourth set, the crowd found its voice again. Behind the action, a bunch of school kids, still in their uniforms, threw pieces of paper in the air; their improvised version of confetti. That’s the sort of thing you normally see in a movie hall.
It is perhaps least surprising that the league has managed to capture the imagination of fans here. PVL officials knew as much when they picked Kochi and Chennai for the inaugural season. If there are two cities where fans will turn up, these are the two.
But the league means much more to the local volleyball landscape than just whipping up fans into a frenzy. “I come from Pollachi, which is a far cry from urban Chennai,” says Shelton Moses, Spartans captain as well as a long-time Tamil Nadu team member. “The state’s sports hostels are the sport’s lifeline.
“Earlier, when kids like me joined these hostels, they did so because they love the game. There was little hope; volleyball is not exactly favoured when it comes to recruitment. But now, kids in these areas will see us playing in front of thousands of fans. They will see the money that has come in. Now more young players can choose volleyball.”
Result: U Mumba Volley bt Chennai Spartans 15-14, 15-8, 15-10, 10-15, 10-15.