The Salt Lake City Stingers were a brief entry in the International Volleyball Association (1975-1980), a West Coast-based co-ed pro volleyball league during the 1970’s. The team formed in early 1979, announced as the merger of the former Orange County Stars and San Diego Breakers franchises. Whereas some IVA teams played in small high school arenas, the Stingers played their home matches in the 12,000-seat Salt Palace, which was also home to the Jazz of the NBA, newly arrived from New Orleans.
For the 1979 season, the Stingers signed a pair of top Olympians in Fernando de Avila (Brazil) and Stan Gosciniak (Poland), one of the world’s premier setters. But the club would lose Gosciniak midway through the season when the Community government of Poland called him home to coach a university team. The Stingers finished 17-23 and out of postseason consideration.
But the IVA limped into its sixth season in May 1980 buffeted by a host of existential crises. The league got a black eye the previous summer when the owners of one of the league’s flagship clubs, the Denver Comets, were arrested for running a major drug trafficking operation. Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan deprived the IVA of a major promotional platform that investors had counted on for years. The league featured top male and female Olympians from all over the world. And finally there was the condition of the franchises themselves, many of which were underfunded and bordering on insolvency. The Seattle Smashers club folded just days before the 1980 season opened, forcing the schedule to be re-worked. Teams in San Jose and Santa Barbara shut down midway through the season.
“We were probably the most solvent <team>, not because we were selling a lot of tickets, but because of the deep pockets of our owner, a San Diego-based real estate mogul named Don Sammis,” former Stingers GM Tony Lovitt told FWiL in 2011. “It was Sammis who, after the IVA folded, continued to be a benefactor of volleyball, attracting the USA men’s volleyball team to San Diego to train for the 1984 Olympics.”
In July 1980, with the league gasping its final breaths, the Stingers declined to travel to Denver for a scheduled match. That was effectively the end for the Stingers. The rest of the IVA followed within a day or two.
The Tucson Sky were a franchise in the co-ed International Volleyball Association from 1977 until the league disbanded in the middle of the 1980 season. The Sky followed an earlier failed IVA team in Tucson – the Tucson Turquoise – who played for a single season in 1976 before folding.
After a last place 11-25 finish in their debut season of 1977, the Sky appeared in the IVA championshi series in both 1978 and 1979. Both times they faced the Santa Barbara Spikers. The Spikers took the crown in 1978, but the Sky evened the score in 1979 and won what would prove to be the final championship of the IVA.
The Sky returned for a fourth season in the summer of 1980, but by then IVA was hobbled by weak franchises in other cities and demoralized by Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 U.S. Olympics. The Olympics were expected to give a profile boost to both men’s and women’s volleyball and serve as a platform for the IVA’s brand new cable deal with the fledgling ESPN network. Instead, the league folded in July 1980 shortly before what was intended to be the All-Star Break.
The Sky were known for a never ending parade of wacky promotions under General Manager Bob Garrett. Click on the link to Corky Simpson’s Tucson Citizen article above for an entertaining recap of Garrett’s greatest hits.
Among the notable players to suit up for the Sky was 6′ 7″ former Phoenix Suns NBA player Scott English, who was also one of the top player in the IVA during the late 1970’s.
The Sky defeat the Santa Barbara Spikers for the last championship of the IVA in August 1979.
Born: January 1979 – IVA expansion franchise. Died: June 12, 1980 – The Diablos fold in mid-season.
Owner: Jim Blair
The San Jose Diablos were a co-ed professional volleyball team that played parts of two seasons in the International Volleyball Association (1975-1980). The Diablos folded abruptly on June 12, 1980 only 12 games into the club’s second season of play. The entire IVA followed suit one month later, collapsing shortly before the league’s scheduled All-Star break.
38-year old Carlos Feitosa, who played for Brazil in the 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico City Olympics, was the Diablos’ player-coach during the 1979 season. The team went 13-27 in 1979, for the second worst record in the seven-team IVA.
The International Volleyball Association (IVA) launched in 1975, seeking to capitalize on the popularity of volleyball at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The 1970’s saw an explosion of team sports concepts – from World Team Tennis to indoor soccer – all seeking to establish themselves as the sport of the future and challenge the NBA and NHL for space on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The hijinks of the original Denver Comets ownership, however, seemed better suited for the pages of High Times.
By the time Denver joined the IVA as an expansion franchise in 1977, the celebrities had mostly lost interest and moved on, although Chamberlain remained as league President and occasional guest star on the court. Following the 1976 season, Volleyball magazine publisher James L. Bartlett III invested in the league and imposed centralized cost controls on the franchises. For the 1977 season, total operating expenses were capped at $150,000 with a $55,000 player salary cap. The IVA decided to showcase its new Denver club by awarding it the league’s All-Star Game on July 17th, 1977, which would feature an appearance from Chamberlain and a national broadcast on CBS Sports.
On the court, the Comets signed 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympian Jon Stanley as player-coach. Stanley led the Comets to the best regular season record in the IVA in 1977 at 22-14, although the club would fall to the El Paso-Juarez Sol in the first round of the playoffs. Over the next several seasons, the California-based clubs dominated on the court while Denver and the Tucson Sky had the most success at the turnstiles. The Comets’ announced attendance hovered near 3,000 fans per game at the Denver Auditorium Arena.
On July 14th, 1979 the Comets defeated the Albuquerque Lasers at the Auditorium Arena. Following the match, arrest warrants were served at the arena on Comets President Robert Casey, general manager, David Casey, ticket director James Killingsworth and concessions manager Barry Beard. Simultaneously, investigators seized 200 pounts of marijuana from the home of a Comets administrative assistant. The grand jury indictments and arrests marked the culmination of a 16-month investigation into a multi-million dollar international cocaine and marijuana trafficking ring run by the Caseys. The Colorado Organized Crime Strike Force dubbed the sting as “Operation Spike”. Members of the investigative team reputedly made up their own custom “Operation Spike” Comets t-shirts.
In all, 23 men and women were indicted by the grand jury. By the time the trials began in November 1979, 13 defendants had pleaded guilty, including the Casey brothers and Killingsworth. The prosecution’s case alleged that the Caseys served as major marijuana and cocaine importers and suppliers to dealers throughout the American West and British Columbia. Supporting evidence included 780-hours of phone wiretaps recorded between March and May 1979 at the Comets’ offices and the homes of the Caseys and Killingsworth. An unnamed IVA player told Molly Ivins of The New York Times that rumors had circulated within the league about the Caseys’ drug ties: “I think it was fairly common knowledge around the league.”
Remarkably, the Comets returned in 1980 under the new ownership of Bill Johnson. But the IVA was in very wobbly shape. IVA owners voted to terminate the Seattle Smashers franchise just days before the season opened due to insufficient funding. As in the similarly precarious Women’s Professional Basketball League, league investors were demoralized by U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow summer Olympics, denying the sport a major platform of exposure that IVA proponents had been counting on for years.
The Comets played matches throughout May and June, but by July the league was on its last legs. In mid-July, the Salt Lake Stingers refused to fly to Denver for a scheduled match. Calling the demise of the league “inevitable”, Stingers GM Tony Lovitt told the Associated Press there was no point in paying for the airfare.
The Comets hosted the final official match in IVA history, hosting the San Jose Diablos on July 15th, 1980. No record of the outcome remains online. The league quietly folded the next day without completing the 1980 season.
“We survived until a few days before the All-Star Game (July 26th), which was due to be televised,” recalled Ed Kobak, who interned as the Comets’ Asst. Director of Operations that summer. We drew anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 a game – (the IVA was) very successful in Denver.
“After the demise of the IVA, we played an unofficial All-Star Game as the Comets vs. the IVA All-Stars. We paid the other IVA players to come in for the game and we packed the house. I then lined up National Teams from around the world to play us in Denver the rest of the season. We paid the teams to come into Colorado Springs, as most played the U.S.A. team down there, and then we shuttled them up to Denver. We tried to come back with a new league in 1981, but there was no support. Very sad.”