Longtime MotherLode volleyball leader transitions out as new group jumps in
For the 47th year running, hundreds of teams from across the U.S. have descended on a handful of Aspen parks for the annual MotherLode Volleyball Classic.
Coined one of the most popular pro-am volleyball tournaments in the country, the competition includes 21 divisions of play over six days, and is one of Aspen’s oldest summer events.
But this year, the tournament is experiencing a big change. Its leader, Leon Fell, is transitioning out of his management position and a group of five longtime MotherLode competitors, known as the MotherLode Fresh Tracks group, is heading the event.
“It’s a difficult transition,” Fell said Sunday morning. “It’s my baby, I grew it, I made it into the event that it is and I’m really proud of that. … I never dreamed I’d still be with it for this long.”
Since 1981, Fell said he’s worked as the lead marketer, promoter and organizer of the MotherLode Volleyball Classic, which was named after the group who started it: The Mother Lode restaurant on East Hyman Street, where The Aspen Times office is located now.
Fell explained that the owners of the old restaurant started the tournament as a 14-team reunion with their southern California friends in Wagner Park, complete with a keg of beer and a barbecue.
They didn’t realize those friends would come back to Aspen with more friends year after year for volleyball.
“By 1981 there were 164 teams. It just grew by word of mouth,” Fell said, who played in the early tournaments himself. “It outgrew the Mother Lode restaurant. At the time, I was working in event production and they knew I played … so they asked me to take it over and I said sure.”
Over the next 37 years, Fell said he did everything he could to promote and market the volleyball tournament. It’s grown to include amateur and professional teams from roughly 35 states competing on several Aspen grass and sand court locations, and was what Fell calls the first destination tournament, or “volleyball vacation” event in the country.
“We were and still are the granddaddy of all destination volleyball events,” Fell said. “It’s not a big neon event that has bright lights and concerts and all of that stuff, it just brings a lot of people who love to play volleyball and who have fallen in love with the town of Aspen.”
One of those people was Claudio Borgiotti, who is heading the MotherLode Fresh Tracks group that’s transitioned into Fell’s management position.
Borgiotti said he first competed in the MotherLode Volleyball Classic in the early ’90s because of its reputation for being a “bucket list” item for volleyball competitors.
About 10 years later, Borgiotti bought a home in Aspen because of his love for skiing, his intent to continue to participate in the annual volleyball tournament and his passion for the city overall.
But although Borigotti inquired about how he could help Fell with the volleyball classic soon after he started playing in it, it wasn’t until about two years ago that he and a few other athletes started talking seriously with Fell about a management transition.
That was around the same time a few of the tournament’s top-level winners sued Fell for not paying them their prize money in a timely fashion.
“We had a couple of lean years as I would put it where our sponsorships were difficult to obtain,” Fell said Sunday, reflecting on the past prize-money issues. “It kind of prompted the discussions with the Fresh Tracks group. It was obvious that after 37 years it was time.”
Fell went on to explain that he paid the winners who sued him with money out of his own pocket and admitted that he didn’t run the tournament well as a business.
“It was a labor of love, a love of Aspen, a love of volleyball and a love for combining the two and wanting to bring a subset of people Aspen never marketed to here, and to let them know how beautiful it is,” Fell said.
Moving forward, Borgiotti and the MotherLode Fresh Tracks group hope to pair Fell’s passion and the tournament’s successful precedent with a more robust business plan that aims to make the renowned tournament sustainable, beneficial and enjoyable for sponsors, athletes and spectators.
Borgiotti said the group also aims to increase the tournament numbers by at least 20% over the next several years, which it already achieved this year with the 296 teams registered.
“We are dedicated to making the event as great or greater than it’s ever been,” Borgiotti said.
As for Fell, he will no longer be an active organizer after this year’s 47th volleyball classic, which MotherLode Fresh Tracks headed.
He also sold his “King of the Mountain” tournament held in Vail earlier this summer to Volleyball of the Rockies, an organization that runs volleyball leagues and competitions all over Colorado, including the doubles tournament in Snowmass every July.
However, Fell hopes to help the new MotherLode leaders organize the tournament one more time for the 50th anniversary in a few years as one last hurrah.
“It’s difficult to walk away completely but the reality is it’s their ball game now,” Fell said. “At 70 years of age, it’s nice to have a group that wants to continue the tradition and excitement of the tournament to its 50th anniversary and beyond.”
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