This is an early but exciting day for me. I’ll be jumping on a 747 in route to Munich. After 10 hours in the friendly skies, I’ll have a quick stop for a German plant-based meal and then I’ll board one last flight to my final destination — Katowice, Poland — to begin my 11th year as a professional and fourth year in the Polish Plus-Liga.
This year is a much different with Covid-19 looming in the back of everyone’s minds and on their face. You should see the different styles, shapes and designs of everyone’s mandatory masks in the airport, as well as many of the seats marked off limits in the airport due to social distancing.
Even though the circumstances are very different this time, I’m very grateful to be able to continue my career as a professional athlete, a lifestyle many athletes don’t know exists outside of America.
I’m excited to break down the tools and information needed to go pro, with the goal of bringing awareness and value to young athletes who will one day leave America and continue playing the sport they love as a professional athlete.
How can I continue my career as a professional athlete?
This is a question I receive a lot and it’s a question I never asked myself until I stepped into the USA gym, which left me unprepared and in a position where I had sit out an entire year because no one told me the steps I had to take to get a pro contract.
My goal in writing this article is to give you the information and tools to make sure that once you finish college — as either an NCAA player of the year, a Division I athlete, a DIII player, or someone with NAIA or junior college experience — you’ll be prepared as possible, so you, too, can continue your career as a professional, overseas.
Before we get deep into the “how to,” I’m going to set the stage and help you begin to envision the many opportunities that await Americans overseas. I’ll clear up some misconceptions about what to look for and help you understand what questions you should ask yourself before choosing an agent and a league. I’ll write about what I know, which is the men’s game, but mostly everything I will speak about is on par and will be of help to women looking to transfer their game from NCAA to pro.
Last year, USA Volleyball processed a national federation-record 456 international transfer certificates (336 women, 120 men), allowing United States citizens to compete in foreign professional volleyball leagues for the 2019-20 season.
According to usavolleyball.org, among the popular destinations for American men’s international transfers include Germany with 23 athletes, England with 21, France with 11 and Italy with 10. The USA men’s national team has six players competing in Italy.
How much does a pro make?
This is the No. 1 question that I receive with regards to playing professional overseas, but it’s impossible to give one answer, as it varies deeply. Salaries will vary from positions to leagues, to particular teams, to the length of season a league plays, and, of course, skill level. There are a few countries, like China and India, where the seasons are much shorter, allowing athletes to take another contract in Europe after they finish, which is very rare but a great way to make some extra cash and to extend summer (fellow pro Garrett Muagututia has this cycle down!)
My first contract in Finland was for a whopping $1,300 a month. But it included free lunch and dinner at a local restaurant.
Salaries depend a lot on the leagues, and unfortunately for other liberos out there, which position you play. Opposites, outside hitters and setters often command the most amount of money, leaving middle blockers and us liberos taking much smaller salaries and more than often, fighting just to break onto a team due to the foreigner limit (much more on that later on in the article).
Athletes who aren’t on their national team, or those might have been good college players but got no postseason honors, are looking to take in anywhere from $10K-25K their first year abroad. Athletes who have already been showcased on the senior national team will be looking to pull in $30K-100K for their first contract. Again, a lot of this will have to do with what position you play, with opposites and outsides reigning in the higher end.
If you’ve been able to survive and thrive through the darkness and the European cold for a couple years, while climbing leagues, you will be looking to make $25K-100K. If you’re a stud or managed to also climb the ladder as a national-team starter, you are now beginning to have multiple leagues, teams and agents pull at you, putting you in a situation where you will be commanding anywhere from $80K-200K, with the stars on Team USA pulling even more.
You’re not Matt Anderson, Taylor Sander nor do you see yourself being a national-team starter anytime soon? Don’t fear the numbers or lack there of, as professional teams will be taking care of you, if not rolling out the red carpet to make sure you are settled in and comfortable in your new home away from home.
Almost every league and team will provide in the contract an apartment that they will pay for. Some teams and leagues will provide lunch tickets at local restaurants (I survived my first year in Finland with both a lunch and dinner coupon). As you climb up the ladder of professional leagues, you are almost guaranteed to have a car provided by the club. If you’re in Poland, you might even have a car with your name on it.
If you have a great agent and find yourself in the French, Polish or Italian league, you will most likely be able to write in a flight for your girlfriend, wife or even mom (Taylor Crabb, the legend that he is, wrote in a plane ticket in his contract for his mom when he played in Sete, France.)
This goes without saying that the team will provide a plane ticket, to and from your city of choice. If not, you need to get a new agent ASAP. My first professional year in Finland was also Kawika Shoji’s first year. When I visited him, I learned that his team set him up with a 250 Euro gift card to the local supermarket . For two guys that were fresh out of college, it seemed as if he was gifted a million dollars.
Where I am going with this is that you will be put in a position by the club to save a lot, 70-90% of your money, due to the lack of expenses usually spent on housing, transportation and even food. So don’t stress the number on the contract. The most important thing is to get overseas and to make your mark, allowing more teams and more coaches to see your level and slowly climb the professional ladder.
Do I need an agent?
You definitely do not need an agent, but it helps — it helps a lot. In my first two seasons I didn’t have an agent and it helped me take a little more money in my contract. Most teams have a set amount they can offer a player and their agent, so the theory is: no agent means more money.
This only really works for European players that only want to play in their country, where every team, GM and coach is familiar with them, their style and what they can bring to the team. After spending a full season without a contract, my first year as a pro went great — I was voted libero of the month three out of five months and received the best libero award at the end of the season. A coach contacted me right before the season ended with the possibility of leaving and going to France B. I said my goodbyes, believing I was gone and would be in France the next year — except that it didn’t work out.
Without an agent, I patiently waited all summer for a team to find and contact me. I was naive and ended up having to re-sign with my Finnish team, which, luckily, was happy to have me back. I loved my second season in Finland but I missed out in a big way, having to return to a Tier 4 league (later on league rankings).
The market is very volatile but I believe it is always within an athlete’s responsibility to be as prepared as possible, to put themselves in the best situation to sign in the highest league. So here are my four tips for collegiate athletes looking to go pro:
- Upload 2/3 Full Matches
Against great competition. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. You had a good match and lost to Long Beach State in the final four? Upload it. You had a perfect match against a DIII team in preseason? Do not upload it.
- Learn iMovie
Or pay a friend to cut up a 4-5 minute highlight of your best actions. Teams will prefer to see a whole match to get the best feel for you, but this can serve as a great first impression where hopefully they will want to learn more about you.
- Reach out to former teammates playing overseas.
I was speaking with a younger libero the other week, who is having a hard time finding a contract and my advice was to reach out to every American who played overseas last year (you can find the registry at usavolleyball.org) Ask them if their team is complete, if they can refer you or put you in contact with the manager. When I graduated Long Beach State, there was a five-year funnel of Long Beach State athletes going into this Swedish team, who didn’t have the best budget for scouting. Before the Americans left the team, they recommended seniors to the management, with the team signing one to three players each year from Long Beach. Word of mouth from Americans was how I received my first two contracts in Finland and then in France.
- Reach out to as many agents as possible.
Hopefully, you killed it in college, you were a two or three-time All-American and agents are flooding your inbox. For 99.9% of you reading this, that won’t be you. Don’t worry, my inbox was also empty.
Reach out to former friends and ask them about their current agent, some questions to ask about agents: Are they honest (all the time) Do they exaggerate and propose big time contracts, without them ever surfacing? How quick are they to respond? Are they quick to help during the season when problems arise with the club? Do they help find solutions when problems arise, or are they MIA?
There are a lot of agents out in Europe but these two agents are the only ones I can fully recommend due to my personal work, contact with them and the glowing reviews I’ve heard from other Americans.
Nisse Huttunen (Finland)
Nisse is based out of Finland and has partners in Brazil and Poland (Michalak Brothers) who I currently speak and work with inside Poland. Nisse has been my agent for the past 10 years and has been my savior throughout my career, bailing me out of so many disastrous moments, while always having my back, rather than just taking the side of the club and leaving me out to dry. (That can happen overseas).
This past year was my 10th as a professional and one of my best seasons to date. Unfortunately my club’s president attempted to cut my contract for next year. Luckily, my agents hired a great lawyer, put a ton of pressure on the club and ended up getting my contract back.
Going into my fourth season, my previous agent did the exact opposite, helping the club I signed with. They pushed me away from the contract, as they decided to hire another libero after signing me. Not only did this agent help force me out, but once we agreed with the team for a buyout, he agreed on my behalf, without my permission to forgo the buyout.
If you do decide to work with an agent or agency, this decision has the possibility to make a or break your career and it is incredibly important you can trust your agent.
This is why I am limiting my recommendations to only two out of the hundreds. I know there are other agencies that do great and honest work, but I can only vouch for 10 years of work with Nisse and through the words of every single athlete who works with Chiara.
Chiara Castagnetti (Italy)
Chiara is relatively new to the men’s side but from speaking with American athletes she represents, everyone loves her. She’s done an amazing job for athletes coming out of America, including those who weren’t initially invited to the USA gym, working with them with great intent to put them in leagues where they can grow and can level up.
This is in stark contrast to other European agents, who represent some of the best players in the world. These agents aggressively pursue and sign as many Americans as they can, with the allure and promise that these athletes will be working with this agent only to be left hanging, and cast aside to work solely with one of their assistants.
How do the leagues differ?
Each country has their own league and some countries have multiple feeder leagues. In 2012, I played in the second division in France and AJ Nally (a former Team USA member) played in the third division. More on him and his amazing journey later).
These countries differ a lot in a couple categories that are important for athletes to consider before signing.
- Foreigner quota
- Guaranteed Money: Is your contract backed by the government? (Looking at you Greece)
- Quality of life
What is the level you’ll be playing at?
Some athletes like myself don’t have a choice. I didn’t get any offers my first year out of college and when the next summer came, the only opportunity for me to leave the States was in Finland.
What did I find in Finland with regards to the level? It was a lot lower that what I experienced competing on the Pan American Cup team for USA and wasn’t that much higher than what I experienced playing at Long Beach State.
Beggars can’t be choosers. I had no option, so it was up to me to not only be good but to be one of the best liberos in the Finnish league so I could upgrade and climb into a higher league with my next contract.
This was the same opportunity Dan McDonnell, Garret Muagututia and Kawika Shoji found themselves in, great examples of athletes that began their careers in Finland only to move up leagues each year, all of them eventually traveling with the USA senior team and winning medals in major tournaments.
Once again, your first contract should just be a foot in the door. Don’t worry too much about the level or the salary. If you’re dedicated to your craft, you’ll have a lot of opportunities to grow your game, upgrade in leagues and take in a higher payday.
Just because you find yourself in a certain league doesn’t mean you should expect a certain amount of money, but as you will find in the breakdown below, the leagues will vary widely in the amount they can pay out.
One of the most unique aspects of professional sports overseas is the foreigner quota, as athletes will find out that their ability to sign with a team has a lot to depend on if the team has enough local athletes already on the roster. Along with money, foreigner quotas vary drastically from league to league, Germany has no quota, France allows six, Italy allows four on the court, Poland allows three on the court, Russia and China two each, and for Japan and Korea, the quota is one foreigner on each team.
This is where it gets tricky for liberos and middles. Polish and Italian teams will usually prioritize wing attackers and setters. I don’t blame them. When I first arrived to Poland in 2016, there were 16 teams and I was the only foreign libero, the year after there were two.
This is why you find the majority of foreign Liberos signing in either Germany or France, since the foreigner quotas are virtually non-existent. The goal should always be to level up (league up) as quickly as possible, as the training environment and playing environment for eight months will have a huge effect on your growth — but sometimes there are too many variables out of your control, so be patient.
One of the worst things about professional volleyball is the lack of guaranteed money when signing contracts. Jayson Jablonski was arguably one of the unluckiest players going three years in a row, where he received less than 60% of his initial contract. One of those years, Jayson found himself in Greece, which for me is an absolute no-fly zone, with Brazil, Turkey, Slovenia and even Polish and Italian teams on the “be wary” list, with teams unable to pay players their full contacts, leaving you high and dry in FIVB court.
The good? French and Finnish governments guarantee the contracts to be paid, even if the club loses their title sponsor or goes bankrupt. When signing a contract, it’s very important to do your due diligence in having a conversation with your agent or reaching out to older players that have either played in the league or that particular team to get a feel for the worst-case scenarios. For awhile, athletes were passing up $60K contracts in France to sign $100K contracts in Greece, only to receive $40K for the entire year.
Quality of Life
This one gets a little tricky but most athletes consider this before signing, outside of the $$ attached to the contract. The prime example is guys signing in Russia, even in Siberia!
When I think of quality of life, I first think of where I am going and if it is a city, town or village (you will be surprised the amount of teams that are in villages). There are guys that can absolutely thrive in villages like Chaumont, where there is nothing else to do, but volleyball. However it’s not for everyone and can led to a quick burnout and poor performance on the court.
It isn’t necessary but it’s great to live in a place where athletes can detach from volleyball once in awhile, maybe even create community and a group of friends outside the team, like Ben Patch has done in Berlin.
One of the biggest contributing factors outside of money for Americans is to be able to play with another American. I’ve been fortunate to play four of my 10 seasons with Americans as teammates, five if we count Canadians, which is pretty much the same.
Having the luxury to speak English, connect outside the court, destress, watch sports and take a coffee on a free day, greatly decreases the stress and drama that comes from playing volleyball overseas — where outcomes seem to be the only thing that matter (and something we cannot control).
Having a North American bro overseas leads to less stress, more connection in an environment where you are deprived of family and it gives you a friend who you can hang out, relax and, if you must, vent to, when things get a little out of control.
Can you learn the local language? Do people in the city or on your team speak English?
Finnish is one of the hardest languages in the world for a native English speaker to learn, but fortunately almost every Finnish citizen under the age of 30 speaks English.
Head over to France and you are going to have to learn French to get around and to understand what is going on. Your French teammates prefer to speak their mother tongue.
Can you live in a Polish town, where most people don’t speak English? A language you aren’t going to pick up — although everyone on your team will use the language. The language barrier isn’t the highest priority when I am viewing a possible contract but it is something we might consider. It can be tricky but it also can be an amazing situation if we fly to Italy where Max Holt and Micah Christenson are fully fluent in Italian. What a cool perk, right?
My 10-year journey has brought me endless summers in Brazil and six-month winters in Finland. Most importantly, it’s brought me so many life lessons and new perceptions on life, reshaping my values and priorities.
Let’s get to the good stuff, what everyone is dying to know, and break down the leagues, the money, the foreign quotas and get a little more specific as I group some of the leagues where Americans are brought in into 4 Tiers.
Tier 1 — Italy, Russia, Poland, Brazil
Italy is the place to be at the moment, it’s where Micah, Max, Matt and Aaron Russell were last year and there is no debate that the top our teams in Italy are the best in the world. With the four-foreigner quoted on the court, Italy has the most foreigners out of the four Tier 1 teams, since there is no shortage of great players to be found.
Recently, a lot of athletes out of college have been signing in Italy as a third middle, a fourth outside, or second setter on Italian teams. I believe Italy is a great place to develop, but I am not sold on the benefit of signing as a clear backup. These athletes will then sign on a much lower league to be a starter for their second year, in essence, losing a year to compete and show their talent. But with that said, there is no clear route to success overseas. Signing in a Tier 1 league, you are more than likely to be guaranteed a comfy first year without much drama that is much more likely from signing in a lower league.
Do you like parka jackets, multiple 7-foot teammates and huge bank deposits? Then Russia is the place for you! To want to play in Russia and to be able to play in Russia is an incredibly different story, as Russia’s foreigner limit only allows two athletes from outside the country. These foreigners are usually unbelievably physical or they have consistently dominated with their respective national teams. You can expect to make $100K-900K depending on your position and the team you sign with.
I’ve been fortunate to play in the top Polish League (Plus-Liga) for three years now, living in a curious climate where volleyball is king. Poland is arguably one of the deepest leagues in the world top to bottom because of the immense number of talented Polish players. International volleyball fans got a glimpse of Poland’s depth in 2019 when Poland sent its third team to the VNL Finals and beat Brazil for the bronze medal.
Polish teams, like Italy, have the luxury to sign as many foreigners as they want but are limited to a max of three foreigners on the court at a single time. If you aren’t a starter on one of the top six teams in Italy, Poland is where you need to be. Volleyball in Poland is something to experience as an athlete. This past year the Plus-Liga was viewed more on television than the Polish soccer league.
I’ve also had the unique opportunity to play in the Brazilian Super League. I say unique because Brazil rarely takes in foreigners, due to a couple of reasons: The language barrier, the huge tax teams must pay for foreigners, the intense training atmosphere and the strong level of local players.
Like Italy, Brazil usually has four super teams and in the past it has been Taubate, Sesi, SADA and usually some team from Rio (two teams in the past five years from Rio have gone bankrupt.) Like Poland, the passion for volleyball can be seen everywhere, as the hot and humid gyms are packed to the brim. But unlike the other top leagues, too often Brazilian teams lose funding from sponsors and athletes and teams alike crumble — even in midseason, as was the case when I was there with Rio RDX.
Tier 2 — France, Turkey, Argentina
One of the most underrated leagues in the world is France. It’s a hotbed for players that are undersized but unbelievably skilled. Unlike Brazil and Italy, where the talent is top heavy, France is a slugfest, with every week seemingly an opportunity to rise or fall five places in the standings. This is the place to be if you are rising on the national team and where I believe more athletes should look to sign, coming straight out of college as there is a huge emphasis in ball control, team block and team defense. As a libero, France was heaven for me as the Foreigner quota is six athletes and more than other league, French coaches are looking to take foreign liberos and middles.
Unlike a Tier 1 league like Poland, France will sign seven or eight players who can compete, using the other four spots for young, up-and-coming local players who won’t be able to challenge a starter for a spot on the court. Because of how the teams allocate the money, the training environment can be very low compared to the Tier 1 Teams.
A league that has consistently been able to pay large amounts of money to their foreigners but cannot get the best athletes in the world due to the low level in the Turkish league. More often than not, the Turkish teams will pursue and pay extremely physical opposites and outsides with few foreigner setters.
A league I know little about, but like Brazil, the Argentina league rarely takes in foreign talent due to the immense local talent. Unfortunately due to Covid, the league in Argentina took a huge hit this year with players fleeing and saturating the European market, making for an incredibly deep talent pool in France, Italy and Poland for the upcoming year.
Tier 3 – Germany, France B, Belgium, Greece
The Bundesliga has been poised for a breakout, but unfortunately Covid has destroyed and bankrupt multiple teams for the 2020-2021 season. There were lots of rumors that the biggest team in Germany, BR Volleys was looking to join its Polish neighbors in placing a bid to transfer and compete in the Plus-Liga.
The Bundesliga will continue this season with two major players, BR Volleys and VFB competing for the championship, with both teams serving as a consistent threat in Champions League with budgets that are two to four times more than other German teams. United Volleys has scratched at the top two teams lately but they are still outclassed in terms of the players they are able to sign, as they compete with Duren and Lunnenburg to round out the top three.
Germany has been one of the most friendly leagues for North Americans, seemingly to have at least two to four Americans or Canadians on each team. It’s one of the best leagues in regards to the quality of life as German teams pay and take care of their athletes. Even though Berlin and VFB consistently field rosters that could compete in the Plus Liga, the teams 5-12 are at a very low level.
France B $$
France B? I know what you are thinking and yes, France B, a second league.
France B is a league with multiple teams that could easily compete and win in the Bundesliga, filled with aging but capable players, whose time in France A has run its course. It’s a league where I spent my third year as a professional and learned a lot (very rare overseas), since France A and France B coaches put a huge focus on team block, defense and tactics.
For a lot of young athletes, I understand the discernment to playing in a “B” League, but if you are able to show a great level and compete in the B league, France A teams will be quick to swoop you up. And as I’ve mentioned, France A is not only a great league to compete in but it is a gateway league to Poland and Italy. Don’t sleep on France B!
Similar to the Bundesliga in Germany, Belgium features two teams that have a much bigger budgets compared to the rest of the league and compete in Champions League.
The Greek league is a league that has fallen from grace. In the early 2000s, it featured some of the biggest individual talents and fielded some of biggest teams in the world. Since then, Greek teams have been taken to FIVB court more than other leagues in the world, as players have walked away from their teams, receiving 40-80% of payments they signed for. The league has taken a different route of lately, signing athletes for much lower but feasible contracts as they attempt to rebuild the league and trust in international players to return to Greece.
Tier 4 — Finland, Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, England
I’ll group these Tier 4 teams together as entry level leagues for collegiate athletes to get their foot into the door, taking a little time to separate in my opinion, the best option, which is Finland, and the lowest option, England.
Finland is where I began my career and where countless of other Americans have had their careers ended. It’s dark, it’s cold and it was one of my favorite countries to live in, as it is the biggest testing ground for character in serving as one of biggest culture shocks for Americans, especially Californians.
The league allows up to four foreigners and the rest of the team is built from older Finnish players that may also have another job and younger Finnish players attempting to show their level and leave the country. Play well and you can move up the ladder but as my Finnish agent jokingly once said “one year, two years at most” and you’re done. Finland provides a great chance to show your level, in a great environment, where everyone speaks English, you have the opportunity in Finland to be seen and move up to the Tier 3 category.
England is the most intriguing Tier 4 league as it serves as a last-chance league for low DI athletes and/or DII, DIII or NAIA athletes to get their foot in the door in Europe and get their master’s degrees, while playing “pro ball.”
A couple of friends have been able to get their master’s in England and sign in a better Tier 4 league like Sweden and Finland. The best example is AJ Nally, who was unheard of in college but got his chance in England, grinded his way in the third league in France, then to the Bundesliga before signing in the Plus-Liga from Poland. Tier 4 to Tier 1, the hard way. It goes to show that any and everything is possible once you get into Europe — but of course, not everyone has the character nor the will of AJ Nally!
Bonus Tier Asia – Japan, Korea, China
99.99% of you reading this won’t play in Asia, but we will take some time to go over this very unique but rewarding region in which to be a foreigner. Japan and Korea have been landing big American opposites for years, like Clay Stanley ending his career in Japan, the Great Gaucho, Evan Patak winning a Korean title and the latest to sign, Kyle Russell, was selected to play in the Korean League.
Both leagues are extremely difficult to break into as the foreigner quota is only one and they are looking to take a player who can handle 40-80 attacks a game. Combine this with an relentless training schedule that usually starts at 7 a.m. with a team breakfast and three team trainings throughout the day. if you sign to play in Korea or Japan you are eating, sleeping and living volleyball without much of a social life — if any — but you will be greatly rewarded financially, with a minimum salary around $150K.
China has recently been growing its league and offering large contracts, poaching national-team players like Muagatutia, Scott Touzinsky and Jablonsky. The training regiment isn’t as relentless as Japan’s or Korea’s and the season is four months, allowing foreigners to join European teams half way through the season.
Ready to go Pro!
With more than 450 total Americans leaving the States to play pro last year, more than ever there is a path for you to become a professional and continue doing what you love, while experiencing life abroad. Whether it’s a straight shot to Italy A-1 or you take the route of AJ Nally and climb the ladder, it’s up to you and your will.
I believe it’s incredibly important for each and every athlete to put in the work and do your do diligence to put yourself in the best position to begin in the highest league possible as a starter, by getting video up, being relentless in contacting other Americans and speaking with multiple agents to see which agency is right for you.
If you’re going into your senior year of college and you still have questions, you can always contact me. If you’re aren’t a senior, focus on developing your game and enjoying college. I hope you took a lot of value and clarity from this article and I hope you, too, can continue your career after college overseas as a professional.
Where you can connect with Dustin