While the country’s marquee stars once again prepare to head overseas to play on the SWATCH-FIVB World Tour in pursuit of securing 2012 London Olympic bids, the nation’s up-and-coming players are left with a pro scene once again tinged with uncertainty.
As many as four professional tours could hold events in 2012, or that number could be as few as two, depending on the source of the information. And one of those tours could be the resurrection of the AVP, which held a single championship event in 2011 on the heels of its much-publicized bankruptcy downfall a year earlier.
Here’s a quick rundown of how both the Olympic qualification race is shaking out and the possibilities awaiting players on domestic soil.
In terms of the 2012 London Olympics, the Olympic qualifying process is hitting the home stretch and the FIVB World Tour rankings ultimately will spell out who plays in London and who does not.
On the women’s side, two-time Olympic gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh and the team of April Ross and Jen Kessy currently occupy the top two positions. May-Treanor and Walsh still need to compete in one more event to satisfy the 12-event minimum for Olympic eligibility, but barring any injuries that is considered a formality.
Ross and Kessy have a sizable lead over the third-ranked U.S. team of Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Hanson (6,080-3,940).
On the men’s side, defending Olympic gold medalists Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser, and the duo of Matt Fuerbringer and Nick Lucena, are currently the top two U.S. teams. However, the team of Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal is hot on the heels of Fuerbringer and Lucena. Fuerbringer and Lucena hold a slim 3,700-3,640 points lead, so that race definitely will bear watching as the spring and early summer unfolds in front of overseas crowds.
Back on the domestic scene, there has been quite a bit of news in the off-season. To address the persistent AVP rumor, four sources told VBM the AVP is in talks with a potential buyer about purchasing the assets of the sport’s once dominant brand. One of those sources told VBM a small-scale AVP tour could occur in 2012 if the sale is completed. AVP ran a single championship event last October in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Nick Lewin, a managing member of the former AVP majority owner, told VBM via email “There is a lot of stuff going on, but not necessarily what the rumors are,” and noted he would be in contact “when/if I hear something.”
As far at the three entities that held multiple city tours in 2011, Albert Hannemann’s National Volleyball League (NVL) plans a six-city pro tour and will be heavily involved with the National Collegiate Sand Volleyball Association, which lists 24 events for 2012 on its website. NVL ran four pro events last year.
“We had a tough year last year just as everybody else did,” Hannemann said. “We just tried to get through it and wanted to do what we said we were going to do and pay our bills. This is a really good sport that has a lot of momentum. It’s exciting for us. We’re getting some big support from the players, fans and sponsors. We want to make sure we are stable so we can keep growing our schedule of events.”
The USA Volleyball-IMG Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series, according to USAV Managing Director of Beach Dave Williams, has six events scheduled for 2012 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Belmar, N.J., Chicago, Manhattan Beach, Calif., Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Huntington Beach, Calif.—all former regular AVP tour stops.
The surprising news of the off-season is the uncertainty of what was formerly the Corona Light Wide Open Tour. Elevation Group Managing Partner Steve Lindecke, whose company runs the tour, recently told VBM the tour no longer has Corona Light as a title sponsor.
“To be perfectly frank, I am not completely sure that I’m running a tour this summer at this point,” Lindecke said. “I am a businessman and my company, the Elevation Group, is a very smartly organized business that is involved with motor racing and music and figure skating and indoor and beach volleyball. We have substantial lines of credit with two banks, but we won’t run a beach volleyball tour and lose money. We will break even and even put a little money of our own in to cover things.”
But in talking with the three principals involved in last year’s domestic events, the consensus leaned toward the suggestion/possibility of the three groups one day working together given the pro sport’s current economic condition in terms of sponsors sitting on the sidelines hesitant to go all in on a fractured sport. Talk also centered on the beach game’s overall health, especially at the grassroots level.
“At the end of the day, the sponsorship market is soft right now,” Williams, a former AVP executive said. “The deal with Cuervo is the healthiest one out there, thanks to the power of IMG. When you look at what we built at the AVP, I don’t know how practical it is going forward having $25 million in revenue that benefits 300 players. You’re not growing the sport that way. USA Volleyball is completely the other way. We’d like to spread $25 million across 300 events. That would make a much healthier sport in the country. We’re here to give people a chance to play and to create more programming.”
Lindecke stressed the pro game in the U.S. cannot prosper in the current climate with multiple tours.
“What concerns me the most, and I have been preaching this to my fellow national tour organizers, is the sponsorship market does not respond very well to multiple tours,” he said. “In 2012, that is a big concern. We are substantially engaged with companies. And we’re hearing from a lot of companies that until this sport figures itself out, they will hang back or will give nickels and dimes and thus this sport will not move forward very well.
“I have spent a tremendous amount of time trying to get the other tours to recognize the reasons we should work together. It goes without saying that if the other tours are foolish to think that they will just do it themselves until everybody falls by the wayside. Nobody benefits from that process and it will take a long time for that to happen. And now the AVP very likely could be back this summer. That brand still has value and that will cause further problems. That’s four tours.
“When you have a title sponsor, especially one that has been around a few years, you can plan things in advance and you can put together your television and your other media. Now you have a package that has substantially more value to a presenting sponsor. When that title disappears, you lose the ability to present a package like that. From a business standpoint, when that package was worth $250,000 to $300,000 with a title sponsor, it instantly drops to $50,000 or $75,000 without. If you don’t have a title it makes it that much more difficult to make things happen. Fragmenting a sport like this, until there is a leader it is very difficult to really maximize all sponsorship opportunities when this is a sponsorship-driven sport.”
Hannemann believes continued grassroots-focused programming is in the best interest of the sport.
“With beach volleyball a collegiate sport now, it’s important to focus on grassroots,” he said. “We’re giving kids a platform to showcase their skills and realize there is something to strive for so we maintain being the best in the world as a country. We want to make sure there are enough opportunities to go out and improve and ultimately make a living playing the sport. Our athletes should play in as many events as they can. We don’t own volleyball. There are other tours offering events. That is great for the players.”
The notion that the absence of the country’s top stars from the U.S. beach scene the last year has also hurt the sport was downplayed.
“We want to promote all the athletes instead of a few athletes,” Hannemann said. “There is a new breed coming in. Our best players are getting older. There are a lot of hungry guys and girls that are getting the opportunity to play and stay in the sport. We need those hungry young players to play in the sport.”
Williams adds: “(The absence of star players) is nowhere near as big a deal as everybody thinks. Every quadrennial the top athletes are on the road. It does not really come up that much.”
Lindecke, however, believes the lack of names such as May-Treanor, Walsh, Rogers, Dalhausser, etc., has hurt from the all-important business standpoint.
“I understand why they are doing it and I have no problem with them or their motives,” he said. “But the simple fact of them not playing here contributes to the problem. It contributes to sponsor reaction to a proposal you make no matter how great a sport it is, and this is a great sport.”
Going forward, what is known is the beach sport will enjoy its usual quadrennial spike in popularity as the London Olympics near. The contenders for the beach Olympic spots all are marketable personalities with great stories to tell.
But the bigger question moving forward is how quickly can the U.S. professional beach scene return to its glory days where sponsorship money and national television exposure was abundant and players were earning a good living playing the sport they love? The answer to that remains in question.
Players Weigh In
The level of uncertainty with the professional beach game in the United States has a couple of the sport’s top stars concerned.
Defending men’s beach Olympic gold medalist Todd Rogers plans on heading exclusively overseas prior to the Olympics, as does women’s great Misty May-Treanor.
“The plan right now is all FIVB stuff,” said Rogers. “I’m trying to balance travel and making a living and with workout time at home. Plus, for me it means being with my family. And really, there aren’t many tournaments in the states scheduled before London that I have seen. And of those tourneys, I have heard that none are going to have any real prize money to make a living off of. Even after London, it needs to be worth it.”
Rogers added that the lack of a dominant U.S. tour, such as the AVP of yesteryear, brings with it a different feeling.
“I would much prefer a good U.S. pro tour in order to make money at home and still be at home to train and sleep in my own bed,” he said. “The current tours I have heard are going to have $37,500 per gender or less in prize money for the most part, so unless there is good fiscal reason to play, you won’t see me out there. I feel pretty strongly a line needs to be drawn, especially for top players. Young up-and-comers should just get their feet wet and see where it takes them, but I don’t feel top players should play in low money events. It sends the wrong message. I would move on in my life rather than play.”
One of those up-and-comers is Minnesota native Stafford Slick. The 27-year-old Slick played in nine domestic events last year between NVL, USA Volleyball and the Corona Light Wide Open Tour.
“There are three domestic tours,” he said. “You can look at that two ways. You can either be disappointed or you can be optimistic. I choose optimistic. I like that there is definitely a lot of variety of events to play in. I like that some of these events are in places around the country and everybody isn’t just playing it safe and staying in California. People are trying to grow the sport nationwide.”
Slick understands why the game’s top stars are parked overseas.
“I know they are there for a purpose,” he said. “They are creating publicity and hype around beach volleyball. But by them playing overseas, it’s providing the younger players a chance to move up the pipeline and make a name for themselves. It opens the door for the next generation of beach volleyball athletes.”
With prize money nowhere near what it once was domestically, Slick admits being able to make a living playing volleyball on home soil is tough.
“It is very tough trying to survive off prize money alone,” he said. “It’s almost next to impossible. Last year, I barely made enough to cover my travel. Sponsorship dollars and media exposure from television is limited and that’s a big draw for sponsors. I work a full-time job as an administrator at a private school. I get up and train and play with my partner from 6:30-9:30 a.m. and then have to do the desk job thing for now. The reality is our sport is in a rebuilding phase. But I’m optimistic about the future. There are a lot of young guys fired up about it.”
May-Treanor, a two-time Olympian, labels the lack of a dominant pro tour in the U.S. “sad.”
“With beach volleyball being as popular as it is, you would think there could be more stability in the marketplace for a domestic tour,” she said. “I would love to play at home in front of our fans here. Hopefully one of these days something can get started again. Since there is no tour, Kerri [Walsh] and I have some weekends off when we aren’t competing internationally which gives us a recovery period within our schedule.”
But domestic beach woes aside, May-Treanor is looking forward to what 2012 brings.
“It’s exciting, but I have to live in the present and focus on today,” she said. “I plan on enjoying the journey every step of the way. Kerri and I are working hard and would love to be the No. 1 team in the world. We are doing everything we can in order to make that happen.”
Todd Rogers Injury Update Rogers, who injured his knee last season and had surgery to repair it, reports he is in good health. “My knee is still not 100 percent,” he said. “I’m about 95 percent of flexion and 98 percent of extension. I’m probably 60 to 70 percent of strength. I started training on the beach at the end of January. I was at the track in the beginning of December and in the gym at the beginning of November.”
Originally published in May 2012