An extremely murky outlook for the future of professional beach volleyball in the U.S. has taken a turn for the better in recent weeks. On the heels of the AVP’s free-for-all into insolvency and eventual bankruptcy in 2010, a pair of new entities has emerged to present feasible plans that could lead to elite-level professional beach events in the U.S. in 2011.
The plan with the most name cache features USA Volleyball partnering with worldwide event promotion heavyweight IMG to run a number of domestic events in 2011 under the Beach Championship Series banner.
USA Volleyball Beach Managing Director Dave Williams, a former longtime AVP top executive, told Volleyball plans are in the works for USAV and IMG to run events in well-established beach volleyball markets like Huntington Beach and Hermosa Beach, Calif., Belmar, N.J., Chicago, Atlanta and Ft. Lauderdale.
Williams said current plans call for 32-team men’s and women’s open events and full qualifiers at each stop. Heading back to longtime pro beach strongholds is of chief importance to Williams.
“These are all good-sized areas that can accommodate running 32-team opens and qualifiers,” he said. “It’s important for sponsors to be in markets where there is good foot traffic. These places we’re looking at have great foot traffic. We’re going to markets that have a lot of history and success in the sport. Hopefully that will help provide stability.”
USA Volleyball will work in conjunction with regional beach organizations to execute qualifiers.
“We want to work closely with the regional volleyball tours and make our events meaningful for their tours,” Williams said.
IMG, of course, is no stranger to successful event management. Among its many event successes, IMG currently runs the enormous U.S. Open of Surfing held each year in Huntington Beach.
“IMG knows how to run lifestyle events and they certainly have relationships with every sponsor in this sport,” Williams said. “They are not going to get blindsided and they aren’t going to make mistakes that have been made in the past in this sport.”
The IMG involvement has certainly caught the eye of one longtime corporate beach volleyball supporter.
“IMG is a company that doesn’t do things unless it makes financial sense,” said Julie Solwold, John Paul Mitchell System’s longtime vice president of sports marketing. JPMS was one of the AVP’s longest-tenured sponsors along with Wilson Sporting Goods. “They are an incredibly solid group that knows what they are doing. Anything that IMG would do, we would back 100 percent.”
Williams also said he does not anticipate exclusive player contracts being issued, but rather agreements to compete in single events. Williams also revealed to Volleyball that talks are ongoing with a well-known cable television outlet, which currently houses one of the four major pro sports in the country, about televising the 2011 events.
Williams classified a recent rumor making the rounds in the sport of the IMG deal falling apart as “completely false.”
The other entity presenting legitimate plans to run elite domestic events in 2011 is led by longtime pro beach player Albert Hannemann, who runs the successful Volleyball Vacations company that arranges volleyball-based trips that include instruction and interaction with top professional players at tropical destinations.
Hannemann revealed to Volleyball a plan to run eight events across the country in conjunction with existing regional beach volleyball organizations. Hannemann’s group, called the National Volleyball League (NVL), has plans to run in Baltimore, New York, Milwaukee (at Bradford Beach), Virginia Beach, Aspen (in conjunction with Leon Fell’s MotherLode), Miami and a season-ending event in Las Vegas. Another event will be held in either Chicago or San Diego.
“We want to work with what has been created instead of re-inventing the wheel,” Hannemann said. “We want to add to their events. These are the biggest volleyball promoters in the U.S. that have done such a good job. We feel fortunate to be able to work with them. It’s nice to see everybody working together.”
Hannemann said the NVL has backing from the valuation firm Marshall & Stevens (where his brother-in-law Mark Santarsiero is the president and CEO). Santarsiero and NVL Chief Financial Officer Molly Menard have been working on securing investment capital. Menard comes from the family that owns the national home-improvement retailer of the same name (Menard’s). Hannemann met Menard at a Dig For Kids youth clinic in Indianapolis.
Hannemann, who noted the NVL is in negotiations with a major volleyball manufacturer, is also looking at going the 32-team tournament route with a minimum of $50,000 in prize money per tour stop. Hannemann will hold Volleyball Vacations-style interactive events earlier in the week that will lead into the professional tournaments on the weekend.
Both Hannemann and Williams confirmed conversations have taken place between the two groups about possibly helping each other.
Another rumor surrounds a group that includes sports agent Ryan Morgan (who represents two-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh and numerous other pro beach players) interested in presenting events. Morgan told Volleyball he continues to investigate possible solutions to help reinvigorate the pro sport in the U.S.
“We’re being proactive about bringing capital into the sport, but not exclusive to anything else that is being done,” he said. “We’re trying to use our network of contacts to re-launch the sport in the U.S., but not at the expense of anything that comes in a different direction. We’re trying to help rebuild. We’re not trying to be exclusive. Myself and my clients believe rebuilding the whole sport takes capitalization.”
Other groups rumored to be interested in presenting pro beach programming in 2011 include one led by Nick Lewin, the managing member of controlling company RJSM Partners (the majority owner of the AVP) who placed the AVP in bankruptcy and then purchased its assets out of bankruptcy.
Another group with interest included Olympic gold medalist Kent Steffes.
One established entity that has already carved its niche with the lifestyle component of the sport is the Corona Light Wide Open tour, which beach legend Karch Kiraly is heavily involved with. The 2010 Corona tour hit nine U.S. cities offering playing opportunities to a wide variety of skill levels, while also engaging players and fans in a plethora of non-volleyball related activities. The open divisions at each stop last year featured a $5,000 purse. The Corona tour is the official qualifying tour of the U.S Open of Beach Volleyball—a USA Volleyball-sanctioned event.
Williams stressed that if one or more entities should succeed in programming elite beach volleyball in 2011, it will be critically important to make a good first impression.
“Well-run events will shake off some of the anxiety there is in this sport right now,” he said. “That anxiety will continue to be there until the first successful event. And once that first event is successful, the anxiety will lessen and the sport can move in the right direction.”
And until that happens, industry observers and officials are united in the belief that energies will be best served going forward focusing on the future instead of the recent bleak past.
“People tend to focus on the bad,” Morgan said. “We should focus less on the fact the AVP went bankrupt and failed and focus on this tremendous sport that is very valuable. It’s a great sport that has tremendous athletes. The fans love it and it engages sponsors. It has the ability to be successful.”
“This sport is not broken,” Solwold said. “It’s still an amazing sport. It won’t ever die. Beach volleyball is the quintessential athletic and sexy sport.”
Rolling with the Punches
With the absence of the AVP, Misty May-Treanor is taking advantage of the lull by spending more time with her husband and going back to school. Two-time Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist Misty May-Treanor is enjoying life.
“It’s nice being at home,” she told Volleyball recently.
With no concrete plans established concerning domestic competition in the U.S. for 2011, May-Treanor has been focusing her energies in other areas.
In addition to doing a number of indoor and outdoor youth clinics, May-Treanor has also gone back to school to get her master’s degree in coaching and athletic administration from Concordia University in Irvine, Calif.
“I feel like I’m a better student now,” the former Long Beach State standout laughed.
In terms of her volleyball future, May-Treanor said nothing is currently written in stone.
“There’s nothing to really gear up for right now,” she said. “I was messing around with a volleyball in Florida the other day. I’ll leave the door open, but I’m definitely not committing to anything.”
She also addressed playing on the FIVB tour and the 2012 London Olympics.
“With overseas, most likely no,” May-Treanor said. “The Olympics are still too far away for me. I can’t even think about that. From the outside looking in, a lot of things need to be settled before that.”
May-Treanor is also thrilled to be able to spend more time with her husband, Texas Rangers catcher Matt Treanor.
“It’s nice spending time with Matt,” she said. “It actually feels like we are married, which is nice. We’re not married through the Internet. It’s nice spending time at home and it’s nice to be able to unpack my bags. It’s been wonderful.”
Her husband is already gearing up for Rangers spring training in Arizona coming on the heels of the organization’s first-ever appearance in the World Series in 2010.
“Matt’s been working out and getting ready for the season,” May-Treanor said. “I was excited for him being in the World Series. I wish the outcome were a little different. But he made it there and played in it. Not that many people have the opportunity.”
May-Treanor said she has been keeping herself out of the loop on the current uncertainty in the U.S. concerning a domestic beach tour on the heels of the AVP folding and declaring bankruptcy.
“All I know is overseas is the most stable,” she said. “I’ve stayed out of the loop. Does it surprise me? No. Volleyball is such a big sport. You have to have a good plan.
In the past, the expansion button has gone on instead of just letting it be for awhile. Whatever is out there right now, they have to start out small. That’s perfectly fine. Let’s get some stability back.”
May-Treanor is hopeful her fellow players have prepared themselves for a situation like this.
“We’re all in the same position,” she said. “As an athlete you always have to have a Plan B. When I was growing up the tour would come and go. There were talks early in the  season that it might not last very long. Just that kind of talk should prepare you. Anything you do, especially when you are an athlete, you should have a Plan B because you never know what is going to happen. I feel bad, but at the same time you have to prepare.”
The 33-year-old May-Treanor is the winningest professional women’s beach player in history with 107 career victories and nearly $2 million in career earnings. May-Treanor and Nicole Branagh won two AVP titles in 2010 before the tour folded. Branagh said she will play internationally in 2011 with May-Treanor’s longtime partner Kerri Walsh.
A lot of “IFS”
In years past, this was generally the time the AVP would have its season tour schedule available for public consumption.
But with the AVP having folded within the last year, there are no finalized plans in place for an elite-level pro beach volleyball tour in the U.S. in 2011. While several entities have presented legitimate plans for programming this year, players are still left with many questions going forward.
“There are a lot of ‘ifs’ out there,” 2008 Olympic gold medalist Todd Rogers said. “Right now there is even more uncertainty. Now you have all of these fragmented pieces. It’s the most uncertain time I’ve seen and I’ve been around longer than pretty much anybody else.”
Rogers and partner Phil Dalhausser will be able to take advantage of the international FIVB World Tour. But opportunities are limited in terms of the number of teams per country and those without established resumes like Rogers and Dalhausser or women’s players like Kerri Walsh, Nicole Branagh, April Ross and Jen Kessy, will face the added burden of international travel expense.
“The international tour has something like 15 events and the prize money is like $3 million,” said Rogers. “You’ve got the FIVB tour but a very limited number of players can do that.”
Branagh, who competed in the 2008 Olympics with Elaine Youngs, will team with two-time Olympic gold medalist Walsh on the FIVB circuit this season.
“I’m focusing in on the FIVB tour,” Branagh said. “We know that tour will be over there. We’ve heard about some events that might be in the U.S., but we don’t know all the details. That will play out in the next couple of months. It’s hard. It’s even hard if you are playing internationally. A domestic tour presents a lot of opportunities like sponsors and television coverage and the opportunity to grow the game.”
Branagh said if she were only to concentrate on the FIVB tour, she would have to make a decision on possibly living overseas during the season.
“If I would play only FIVB I would probably live in Europe,” she said. “You don’t have time to be flying back and forth and it’s not good for your body.”
Rogers is taking a wait-and-see attitude in terms of his future plans with any domestic commitments.
“It’s unlikely I will make any commitments right now. It doesn’t make sense at this point and time,” Rogers said. “I want to tie myself in with anybody that has a great management group and a great investment group and someone that has all the top players on board. Right now, I don’t see it. I don’t plan on tying myself to anything unless it’s strong and has a good future and is good for the sport.”
Rogers, like many other players, is frustrated with the current state of the game in the U.S.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “The sport never seems to be able to grab hold. I’ve watched this as a player for the last 10 or 15 years. Maybe we attract all the wrong people [from a sports management standpoint]?”
Branagh, though saddened by the current scene, is hopeful U.S. fans will be able to see the top players in 2011.
“We are still pulling for there to be a tour in the U.S.,” she said. “I know people love the sport. It’s too bad that it has to go through hard times. It’s a shame about what happened.
“I’m almost speechless about it. I don’t get it. The fans love watching us and we love playing in front of them. The AVP tour helped us internationally. It helped us compete against the top teams in the world. We need to figure out what is best for beach volleyball.”
Originally published in March/April 2011