The NCAA Transfer Portal is transformational in collegiate athletics. It was established October 15, 2018 as an online interface to systematically manage the transfer process from start to finish, add more transparency to the process among schools and empower student-athletes to make known their desire to consider other programs.

According to the NCAA, in 2020-21 8.2% of Division 1 female volleyball undergraduate student-athletes transferred, an increase from 7.7% in 2019-2020. In 2021-22, the number is higher, but unlikely to reach more than 8.5% by the time the school year ends.

“Transfers for playing time have been common for years and are often in the best interest of everyone involved – the transferring student-athlete, the program she is going to, and the program she is leaving,” says AVCA Executive Director Kathy DeBoer. “The transfers which are problematic are when a contributor leaves a team. These transfers usually fall into two categories: the first is a ‘transfer up,’ i.e. the player moves to a program in a bigger conference or at a higher ranking. This often leaves the program they left feeling ‘poached’ or, at least ‘used.’ Left coaches will say: “I found you, I gave you a chance, I trained you until you were good enough to really help us and you leave for a bigger or higher ranking program.” If there is no tampering this transfer is not illegal, but it certainly feels unfair.”

“The second in this category is a contributing player transferring because she is unhappy. These transfers not only weaken a program, they get the attention of administrators. Successful coaches can survive these if they are intermittent and they are able to ‘reload’ with better talent, but these types of transfers are often a death knell for a struggling or under-achieving coach.”

In Division 1, volleyball players have always been allowed to transfer and be immediately eligible if they were released by their previous school. If schools withheld a release, the player could appeal the decision to the NCAA based on ‘hardship’ criteria. Also, most conferences required a year in residence for a transfer within the league. Not surprising, student-athletes found these restrictions oppressive and some took the issue to the courts. Today, the majority of Division I conferences allow players to transfer to another school in the same conference and compete without sitting out a year, and colleges can no longer deny a release.

The majority of Division I conferences today allow players to transfer to another school in the same conference and compete without sitting out a year.

“Student athletes who are currently enrolled in collegiate programs are definitely the winners. The intent, to allow student athletes to continue their collegiate career without interruption / sitting out a year, definitely has some positive merit. The NCAA and campus compliance offices are no longer in the position to control if a student athlete can be immediately eligible. This is a huge relief for those entities,” states Fran Flory, who just retired as the Head Volleyball Coach at LSU for 24 years.

The college student-athlete is empowered by the Portal. The student athlete has to initiate the transfer portal process with the compliance administrator at their current college or university. Once a student-athlete asks his/her compliance administrator to place their name in the portal, the school has two business days to submit the information. The format of the portal is simple. It lists the athlete name, school, email and if they receive athletic aid.

I’m not a proponent of the Transfer Portal and how it’s used, yet you have to get involved in it,” exclaims Legendary Coach Russ Rose, who recently retired after leading the Penn State Nittany Lions for 43 years. “Kids can just come and go as they wish. People say it’s like free agency, but it’s really not, because to become a free agent, you have to serve a certain number of years before you can go somewhere. You can’t legislate ethics. And because of that, it’s an open scenario for people to go shopping now at the other school’s expense.”

Truth of the matter now is that players don’t have to demonstrate any loyalty to the school, whether it’s them, their parents or their former club coach shopping around for alternative opportunities.

Rose led Penn State to 109 consecutive match victories, 111-straight set wins, and four consecutive national championships from 2007-10. He credits that success to building a culture that embodied work ethic, selflessness and grit.

I am not a proponent of the Transfer Portal and how it is presently being used, yet as a coach, you have to get involved in it, ” exclaims Legendary Coach Russ Rose, who recently retired after leading the Penn State Nittany Lions for 43 years. “Players can just come and go as they wish. People say that the transfer portal is similar to free agency, but really it isn’t, because in order to become a free agent, you have to serve a certain number of years and honor your contract before you can go to another team. You cannot legislate ethics, and because of that, it has now become an open scenario for people to go shopping at the original school’s expense.  A few years ago the focus was on the facility arms race and now it has shifted to NIL, with players wanting to know what they can receive.”

Flory believes that from a coaching perspective, the Portal will change how coaches are able to build their programs.

“The ability to truly build a program, where the highest standards of excellence and behavior are not only expected, but are modeled by the upperclassmen for the incoming players, is being challenged. Can coaches actually build a “program’ or will they end up simply building a “team” each and every year? The answer will be different for all, but I am relatively sure that many collegiate programs will hold scholarships for potential transfers, rather than sign incoming freshman.”

Once the student athlete is in the Transfer Portal, the school does not have to honor the scholarship. If student-athletes withdraw from the Portal, the original school can return them to the roster and restore athletics aid if it chooses, however that is up to the discretion of the coach.

Since the student athlete’s email is the only way a college coach can get in touch with an athlete, a college coach will typically reach out to the athlete’s club for more information and to move the process along. The club’s recruiting coordinator/coach can then be a liaison between the school and the athlete, especially to help set up a visit.

Rose advises that the club volleyball community should be very tuned into the fact that A) you shouldn’t be bartering the players like an agent, and B) the college players shouldn’t be contacting other college players at other schools and saying, “Hey, my coach says there is a scholarship for you if you want to come midyear.

From a recruiting perspective, unfortunately, the PSA’s are the ones in the most difficult situation, at least until the additional COVID year has expired. There simply are not enough roster spots available. The additional year, allows coaches to add players with the experience and knowledge, who will have a guaranteed immediate impact. Not all collegiate programs will honor the additional year, which makes all of those players once again, recruits. Additionally, not all players will play an additional year, but there are quite a few moving on to Master’s programs at different programs and maximizing their academic and athletic opportunities,” states Flory.

All student-athletes who participated in 2020-21 were given an ‘extra year’ and this changed the roster balance of most teams. Players who were heir-apparent at particular positions had to decide if they wanted to wait another year; grad transfers swooped in and claimed what might have been an open position; and, freshman who had been recruited as a likely starter had to wait their turn. All of these factors contributed to players entering the transfer portal in higher numbers.

The winners are the coaches that are at schools that can get kids in immediately.

Rose suggests that a combination of the Portal and NIL (Name Image Likeness) will result in what is somewhat evident in football, where you have a number of teams that are above everybody else because of their ability to attract players based on what is available in their NIL agreement.  The portal provides a revolving door scenario to get players to come and go with more lucrative offers. The gap between the “haves and have nots” is rapidly expanding.

Recruits need to be patient. Over the last 10 years, volleyball recruiting occurred very early and honestly in many cases, too early. Slowing the process down, for both recruits and collegiate programs, can definitely be a positive of the transfer portal.

PSA’s having more time to make a decision that will affect the rest of their lives, is a positive. Collegiate programs making decisions about their needs later in the process is also a positive. The advice I would offer to PSA’s is first – be patient, second – be persistent, third – be sure of your decision, so you are not the ones transferring in two years,” says Flory.

One thing is certain, obtaining a college scholarship to play volleyball at the collegiate level has not gotten any easier.

We’ll need to see how long these factors ‘gum-up’ the system, but it’s anticipated this bottleneck will pass in a year or two,” believes DeBoer. “A trend with far more staying power is the continuing increase in the number of girls choosing volleyball as ‘their’ sport, a number now 60,000 higher than other team sport. While this is good for volleyball, it has made a DI scholarship harder to win than any other women’s sport. This fact means transferring will continue as players look for court time.”

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This article was a collaboration with Briana Schunzel, JVA Director of Marketing, Education and Partner Development, along with AVCA Executive Director Kathy DeBoer, Former LSU Head Volleyball Coach Fran Flory, and Former Penn State Head Volleyball Coach Russ Rose.