Pro beach volleyball’s outlook in the United States seems a tad brighter this year, but officials with the three active tours (AVP, NVL and IMG/USA Volleyball) are proceeding with caution as the sport continues to dig out of one of the darkest periods in its history.
Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP)
The biggest curiosity heading into the 2013 season centers on the rebirth of the Association of Volleyball Professionals. Following an ugly chapter in its history that included a bankruptcy-forced shuttering, it returned under new ownership to run several events late last year.
New AVP owner Donald Sun, a successful Southern California businessman, told Volleyball just before press time his group has four confirmed tour stops in 2013, and is looking at firming up a fifth. The AVP plans to release full schedule details in late March.
Sun said the season will kick off in mid-August and could run into early October. The decision to start the tour late in the year is twofold.
“It gives us time to do proper promotion and it gives us time with sponsorships at the local and national levels,” he said. “We’ll have a longer runway. We also have to work around the FIVB schedule. We don’t want to conflict with their tournaments. If we do that too many times we’re putting ourselves in jeopardy of upsetting the FIVB and we’d probably end up losing some of the top-ranked players who play in those FIVB tournaments.”
The AVP recently launched a redesigned website (avp.com), which focuses on multiple social media aspects.
“Once more big news hits, there will be more action there and more content,” Sun said. “It will be an exciting and interactive site.”
Sun said attracting some of the country’s top players to AVP events is also a key goal.
“We’re reaching out to the top players to see what their level of commitment is to play on the AVP,” he said. “So far it’s been really positive. Getting the Olympians to play is one of the keys. The response has been encouraging, but like everybody else they wonder what else do we have in store. That’s a natural and normal reaction.”
Sun admitted a major hurdle in the ongoing process of reviving the tour has been dealing with the brand’s past financial struggles.
“The biggest challenge has been the tarnish of the AVP name and brand,” he said. “We’re in a situation where people say everything sounds good and maybe we’ll put our toe in the water, but we’ve been burned many times. I understand that. We’ve been pretty good here so far at managing those landmines. From a year ago to now, the biggest thing has been moving on from the past reputation of the AVP. We’re trying to change that [reputation], but it takes time. Obviously, I need to show people [we have changed] and I’m doing that quietly and discreetly and hopefully the results will speak for themselves.”
Along those same lines, Sun said he won’t roll out a schedule with 15 dates just for the sake of appearances.
“We’re being fiscally responsible,” he said. “If we’re able to do five events, we’ll do five. If we could do six, we’ll do six. We’re organically growing this brand. I don’t have any outside investors I have to appease. It’s a matter of what can be fiscally justified. It has to start with a level of confidence in this brand not only from sponsors and television, but [also from] the players and fans. It starts with my commitment to the sport. It boils down to a level of trust and a lot of humility from our side and we’ll build on that from there.
National Volleyball League (NVL)
Albert Hannemann’s National Volleyball League starts its third season as the most established of the three entities. Hannemann said that this season the NVL will center itself around four main events in Texas, Ohio, Hermosa Beach, Calif., and Las Vegas. Those events are scheduled to begin in June.
Hannemann added he would like to integrate the tour with his successful volleyball-vacations platform.
“Ideally, I’d like do the vacation and then [in the same location] the tournament on the weekend,” he said. “Cities are interested in heads and beds. With a tournament, it’s hard to track that. There’s no real way to analyze that. With Volleyball Vacations we sign a contract with a hotel and then the visitor’s bureau is on board. We’re going to try and do more of that. It’s a good way to grow the sport and the tour.”
The NVL is close to finalizing a television deal with one of the Fox platforms and recently signed a key sponsorship deal with Mikasa. Hannemann said beach volleyball on television can work if scheduled and promoted properly.
“When the AVP was on live, they did a good job promoting it, but not a lot of people watched because they were out on the weekends playing,” he said. “We’re trying to change the model here because previous beach volleyball models have not worked. We’re doing a lot of different things to make the NVL sustainable.”
Hannemann’s NVL focuses heavily on a grassroots approach to growth.
“We’re getting a good response that way,” he said. “We’re doing it right and we feel good where we’re at now. I played for 18 years and saw a lot of good and bad. I knew some key things had to change. One of the things is helping these players create a career. Right now players can’t make enough domestically. We offer clinics [Grow the Game clinics through the PlayFit Foundation] and we’re partnering with big amateur events and juniors’ organizations. We started a collegiate tour with Sinjin Smith that went real well. We’re doing that again. We’re doing some bar events. We’ve spent a lot of money building NVL as a brand. We’ve proven we know what we’re doing and that we’ll be around for a long time. It’s exciting to see how far we’ve come in three years.”
Hannemann offered a frank take on the current pro beach landscape in the United States, including addressing the burning question on many minds these days: will there ever be a point when there is one dominant U.S. tour again?
“Everybody should be focused on growing the sport,” he said. “We have the best athletes in the world who are more accessible than [athletes from] any other sport. I’ll work with everybody. I’ve talked with IMG and USA Volleyball and the AVP and we’ve offered to do events together with them. If there is an opportunity to make this sport bigger and give the players more of an opportunity, that’s not a bad thing. It’s different times now. This sport is still sustainable, but you have to make sure you are running high-quality events.
“I’m definitely open to the other tours coming under one umbrella. I’m not opposed to it. I don’t know if that’s possible or if there ever will be one tour. More than one tour can still exist. I do know we will stay steady and do it how we think it needs to be done. We feel our model is the way to go.
“I love this sport and I want to provide year-round events so these players can make a living in this country. I’m very humble about our situation. It says a lot in this economy to still be here and still be thriving. Without the support of the volleyball community, we wouldn’t be able to keep going.”
IMG Senior Vice President and Pro Beach Volleyball Series Executive Tour Director James Leitz told Volleyball his group is committed to running the iconic Manhattan Beach Open in late August and is currently working on other possible events, though nothing beyond the “grand-daddy of them all” had been finalized as of press time.
Leitz was open with his thoughts concerning the struggles the beach game has gone through in recent times.
“The sport of beach volleyball itself has never been broken and it never will be,” Leitz said. “It’s been hard for all of us. From my perspective, 2012 was way ahead of where we are now and 2013 reminds me more of 2011, if not 2010. Last year there were a lot of quality events out there and this year there’s uncertainty [as] to what everybody has scheduled.
“There’s been speculation to the point where we owe it to the players who supported the tour the last two years to give them an update. There’s no need for smoke and mirrors here. People in this industry have had enough of that. We were hoping to have better news. The Manhattan Beach Open is great news and a couple other great tournaments would be great to announce but it would be premature to do that at this point. We’re looking forward to promoting the Manhattan Beach Open and we’re hoping that leads to other things.”
The series did suffer a significant blow during the off-season with the loss of Jose Cuervo as its title sponsor. That loss is tied to Diageo, an alcoholic beverage distributor and longtime beach volleyball supporter, who decided to no longer carry Cuervo products – a move that has made international financial news headlines.
USA Beach Volleyball Managing Director Dave Williams is a veteran of the pro beach scene, having worked for years in the AVP’s front office. And like his tour counterparts, Williams was candid in his assessment of the current pro beach landscape.
“All in all there will be enough competition domestically,” Williams said. “Prize money is still soft across the board and it’s also soft internationally. Grand slams and opens are paying less on the FIVB. We’re all kind of crawling our way through this economy right now both domestically and internationally. We are coming to the end of a five-year decline in this sport. The last strong year domestically was 2007. By 2009 the bottom had fallen out of the sports-marketing universe.”
Williams also acknowledged changes in recent years in terms of how companies view sports-marketing opportunities.
“There are more and better conversations with sponsors,” he said. “Sponsors say things are picking up but the metrics of what sponsors expect you to deliver are dramatically different than they were in 2007 or 2008. There’s a different media mix now where before you had three or four components and now there could be up to 10 things you have to deliver to a sponsor.”
Leitz also feels companies are being pulled in many different directions in the sports marketplace, more so than still feeling the sting of the AVP’s recent well-documented troubles.
“We’ve dealt with the effects of the demise of the AVP,” Leitz said. “Those who continue to carry a grudge at this point, come on. What’s done is done. It’s water under the bridge. You either want to be involved in beach volleyball or not. Where are these brands’ attentions going? There are a lot of choices for brands and consumers. Sports marketing today is challenging. There are a lot of different opportunities for different brands to get involved in. We’re focusing our energies right now on rebuilding a great sport.”
Williams doesn’t see one dominant U.S. pro tour emerging in the near future.
“I don’t foresee that one master tour for awhile,” he said. “It takes a lot of money to do that and it would require a lot of sponsors to have a lot of confidence in the sport as a fit for their brands. There are still a lot of doubters out there. It will take all of us to regain that confidence.
“It may be frustrating to fans and may seem inefficient to the players and it may look like everybody is divided and fighting, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Everybody has a vision of what the sport should be and everybody is behaving like gentlemen and not scheduling on top of each other. It’s a free market and let’s go forward.”
Leitz is looking forward to presenting another top-notch Manhattan Beach Open.
“We want to be good custodians of the Manhattan Beach Open and keep it alive and well,” he said. “That is something very important to this sport.”
The U.S. will also see some international action this year, with the FIVB hosting an event in Long Beach, Calif., July 23-28.
Originally published in May 2013