D1 Volleyball Club, like many clubs across the country, trained out of schools in the Chicago area until March of 2020 when the schools closed due to Covid-19. As early as May, Club Director Derek Jensen and his staff knew there was a chance that they wouldn’t be training out of the same facilities that they had been using for the past 10 years. With over 40 boys and girls teams in 2019, finding new space was next to impossible as there were times D1 would be using 12 courts across three locations in a given night for four to five hours… and none of those facilities had any indication they would be reopening in time for the club season. So, even after several years of 50%+ growth and an amazing group of families, shutting down the club was a real possibility.

Though closing was the easier option, and maybe the smarter business decision, serving our community and keeping our amazing staff/coaches working was extremely important to us” says Jensen.

The biggest stressor for Derek and his staff was uncertainty. Since D1 has always rented their practice space, they rely on their partnerships very heavily. Typically, they will have all of their agreements complete by April/May for the following year and will start building all the programs out at that time. This year it felt like they were (and still are) waiting on information from dozens of organizations. The schools they rented from needed clearance from the state/local health departments like everyone else, but D1 also needed to consider feedback from their board and their students’ families.

Derek and his staff started touring industrial buildings and searching for land to potentially create their own facility. It was during this process of facility exploration that the conversations with Wildcat Juniors Executive Director Karen Sonders started.

Wildcat Juniors was in its 14th season when the pandemic hit. Unlike D1, the club rented eight hardwood courts at Athletico Center in Northbrook and a newly remodeled two-court gymnasium at the Northfield park district for 25 teams, clinics, camps and a youth academy.

“We knew that it would take additional resources and staff to run a club that could support a facility, and we loved the synergy that could exist with this merger” adds Jensen.

Both clubs had built reputations for being “team players” in the local volleyball community. They each worked hard to run great businesses and competitive teams, but had always been willing to share information with other clubs. Together, Derek and Karen tried to make decisions that not only benefitted their organizations but grew the game for everyone. During the merger there was no difficulty cutting through old issues to get to a positive discussion; both were open and supportive from the first conversation. D1 and Wildcat Juniors were also fortunate to have very similar clubs with unique strengths that they felt complimented each other.

The legality of the merger went very smoothly, as both directors were both focused on creating a fair and simple partnership. Due to the timing, they didn’t want all the business details to get in the way of creating a great club for their athletes to participate in this season. By the end of the summer MOD Volleyball was formed.

Going through a merger and a global pandemic as a business owner is something no one can prepare for, especially on such an unknown timeline. There are so many behind the scenes items that are part of a club merger, and in an ideal world club directors would want months to work through the list before the start of the new club season with the merged entity. Instead Derek and Karen were in a situation where, in a given day, they might be talking about the new name, meeting with attorneys to discuss the legal partnership, deciding what jerseys to order, and planning this season’s tryout.

If we were to go back, we would have liked to have a few months (maybe March-August) to get all of the organizational ducks in a row so we could enter tryout season without so many outstanding high level decisions” says Jensen.

Change is scary, and it can also be a lightning rod for any stressors, frustrations, or confusion that may or may not actually be related to the change itself. Many coaches, athletes, and families were going through extremely difficult times due to Covid-19, and, merger or not, this club season was going to be unique and complicated. There was a general sense of fear and uncertainty that Derek and his staff worked hard to calm as best as they could across the club.

Due to Covid, MOD Volleyball increased its gym space for this year to allow teams to spread out. They are still in a situation where certain facilities are in holding patterns and could receive the green light to rent next week or they may not be able to rent at all this season.

This season the club projects to have 70-80 full season club teams as well as short training seasons, lessons, and a youth program. This will end up being around 1,000 members and 100 coaches/staff, which is similar to what both clubs had combined in the past, and was intentional to some degree.

With all of the COVID precautions and the fact that we had to cut last season short for our athletes, we wanted to make sure our loyal families knew they had a home” shares Jensen. “So, for the first time ever for either club, we sent out invites to join the club instead of hosting a full tryout for returners and new members. The vast majority of athletes accepted our invitation and we hosted a significantly smaller tryout to fill the remaining spaces.”

This year is very unique as the nine full time MOD Volleyball staff traverse so many unknowns and attempt to train their athletes in the best way possible during a pandemic. Karen and Derek are working to develop their roles together as they move through a full season, so most tasks are being managed/led by one of them but the other partner is involved and supporting. In the long term, their goal is to essentially break the club into two parts – the training and the operations. Karen will become the Executive Director of Training while Derek will take on the role of Executive Director of Operations.

We believe that the best clubs excel in both areas (operations and training) and that having a partner fully committed to one side of the club will lead to a better overall organization. Obviously there is always crossover between the roles, and I think we have an advantage as partners because Karen and I both managed both aspects of large clubs for a long time. I believe that by creating this partnership we both can focus on what we consider our specialties, developing both aspects of the club in a positive fashion” shares Jensen.

MOD Volleyball (Chicago, Illinois) is a member of the Junior Volleyball Association, an organization entirely focused on improving the junior volleyball experience and the needs of junior clubs. For business education for club directors click here.