Drama on the U.S. Pro Beach Scene

The USOC building

Fresh off the kick-to-the-sport’s gut—better known as the swift and embarrassing demise of the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) last summer—the sport is now dealing with yet more histrionics in the form of infighting over the 2012 London Olympics beach volleyball qualification as it relates to U.S. athletes.

At the center of consternation are the proposed U.S. Olympic beach trials that USA Volleyball (USAV) has submitted to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). This double-gender one-time event would act as the ultimate avenue to determine who will compete for the U.S. in the XXX Olympiad in London.

USAV has long been opposed to the beach volleyball Olympic qualification process that was used in recent Games. That old system was based almost exclusively on how a team fared on the SWATCH-FIVB World Tour during a specified qualification period.

In a March 31 USAV memo obtained by Volleyball outlining the Colorado Springs-based organization’s proposed plans for the beach Olympic qualification process, USAV stated its intent is to fill all of the country’s earned places via the proposed Olympic trials process—its right under the new FIVB system. A plethora of other U.S. Olympic sports have long had control of their own Olympic athlete selection processes.

“Countries rather than individual teams qualify,” FIVB executive Richard Baker noted.

Here is how the new world of Olympic beach volleyball works.

Under the new FIVB qualification system, 16 places per gender will be awarded to the highest-ranked nations (with a maximum of two teams per nation) according to the FIVB Olympic ranking as of June 12, 2012. The official Olympic qualifying period started Jan. 1 and runs through June 12 of next year. In the old system 23 places per gender came from the FIVB process and the host country accounted for the final spot.

If a country does not scoop up its two allotted places per gender through the FIVB rankings, five additional places will be awarded through continental confederation tournaments (one place per continental confederation—meaning one place per country).

Two places will be awarded from the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Cup Olympic qualification event.

One place will be awarded to England (the host country) in each gender.

Baker’s comments illustrate one of the major differences in the 2012 qualification procedure—placing emphasis on countries and not individuals earning spots.

The USAV draft circulating in late March went on to outline when the trials would be held based on how many Olympic berths are earned. It also established eligibility criteria for competing in the trials.

In layman’s terms, say the U.S. qualified two women’s teams and two men’s teams through the FIVB top 16 rankings. An Olympic trial would then be held to ultimately determine which four teams (two per gender) would head to London.

In other words, if the women’s teams of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh and Jen Kessy and April Ross—two duos that have won Olympic and world championships—both qualified by virtue of their FIVB rankings, they would still have to go play in the U.S. women’s trials with other U.S. teams in order to qualify for the Olympics, despite earning their position as one of the top 16 teams in the world (and playing against the top teams in the world to earn that top 16 designation).

This proposed system has been met with marked disapproval from U.S. beach athletes. Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh has been outspoken about her opposition to the trials proposal (see sidebar).

“We’re definitely fighting against the qualification process,” Walsh said to Volleyball. “And we’re not done fighting, we feel like we’re just beginning.”

Walsh’s agent Ryan Morgan did not return multiple phone messages from Volleyball seeking comment. Numerous other prominent U.S. beach players have been uncharacteristically silent on the matter.

“USA Volleyball is pushing for a trials even though 75 percent of the USAV athlete pool has said they don’t want a trials,” noted one prominent U.S. beach player who requested anonymity. “USAV doesn’t give a [expletive] about the athletes, only USAV.”

One main objection from the players has been the fear of a team that has not competed and earned its dues on the international tour playing in the trials, getting hot and upsetting established Olympic-caliber teams and thus earning one of the country’s berths.

USAV Managing Director of Beach Dave Williams disputes the extent of the players’ disapproval of the trials system.

“I would say more players are for having the trials than the others that don’t want the trials,” Williams said.

Williams has heard the objections about a lower-seeded team possibly gaining momentum during the trials and earning a berth without having top 16 FIVB credentials.

“I’ve heard the frontrunners don’t want to play in the trials,” he said. “There is that possibility someone could get hot on a weekend and unseat a team. I’ve heard that that team that unseats a berth-earner might not be prepared to play foreign competition. Based on the standards of fairness through all Olympic sports, you have to make sure something like this is open to anybody and everybody that is eligible.”

Williams told Volleyball the USOC has already approved the process, but modifications are continuing to be made by the USAV board to ensure greater fairness in the process.

“My expectations were that this would all be finished in January,” he said. “What has really delayed it is we’re constantly waiting for clarification and additional issues to be resolved at the FIVB level. We kept going back to the FIVB to get more clarification on issues and gray areas. We moved as fast as we could. This is taking a lot longer than we thought it would take.”

With the FIVB season, and thus the 2012 Olympic qualification process already underway, Williams knows eyebrows are raised because there are no definitive dates or final approved procedures in place.

“I’m not sure the players fully understand the ramifications of one system over the other,” Williams said. “Put it this way, everybody wants this situation resolved quickly. We’re at the very end of the window here. It has to be finalized 15 months before the Games. We’re not the only sport in the process of being finalized. From the USOC perspective, we’re on track, but we’re getting to the end of that timeline. The players would have preferred to know everything months ago.”

Williams also revealed another delay in the process was the official autopsy of the AVP.

“Nobody was counting on the AVP going out of business,” he said. “There was a contract in place for the AVP to co-produce and operate the trials. That contract was enforceable until Nick Lewin declared bankruptcy. Up until December there was a contract for the AVP and USA Volleyball to co-produce the Olympic trials.”

Another eye-raiser is the lack of any USAV-sponsored professional events on the calendar. One of the criteria in order to be eligible to play in the trials is playing in a certain number of FIVB and USAV-sanctioned events.

USAV had previously announced a partnership with sports marketing heavyweight IMG to promote numerous events under the Beach Championship Series banner.

As of press time, no firm dates and locations had been announced.

“It’s wait and see,” Williams responded when asked about the status of the Beach Championship Series. “Every time I say something about it, something goes wrong. There have been some good, positive things happening lately. We’re very excited right now. Things are going really well.”

Williams did reveal there are three locations under consideration for the Olympic trials—all are on the East Coast in order to satisfy broadcast television windows.

In terms of television for the trials, Williams said, “TV is falling into place.” Williams had earlier told Volleyball USAV was in negotiations with a cable network to broadcast Beach Championship Series events. The cable network currently houses one of the four major U.S. professional sports.

Net Live Sound Bites

Kerri Walsh and partner Misty May-Treanor called into The Net Live radio show on March 14 to talk about their big announcement. Despite the upbeat nature of the call, there was no avoiding the sticking point of the revamped Olympic qualification process.

Check out what Walsh had to say on the topic to hosts Kevin Barnett, Reid Priddy and Chris “Geeter” McGee.

“I don’t agree with [the USAV] proposal [to the USOC] and so we’re hoping that we can come to some point of partnership. We want to get the best teams out there and win as many medals as possible.”

“Let’s revert to the old process and then for 2016 we’ll knock it out of the park. The U.S. deserves to have a domestic component as far as the qualification process is concerned. I feel a one- or two-tournament trials event really is a disservice to the country and a disservice to the players.”

“To win a gold medal in the Olympics you really need to prove yourself against the international teams and not American teams. Swimming has amazing trials and track does too, but we’re a team sport and we don’t play against clocks or judges.
We need to prove ourselves.”

Beach Bits

The 2012 SWATCH-FIVB World Tour got underway in Brazil in April. The U.S. women had four teams in the main draw—Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, Jen Kessy and April Ross, Nicole Branagh and Angie Akers and Lauren Fendrick and Brooke Hanson. On the men’s side, the U.S. contingent was comprised of Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, Nick Lucena and Matt Fuerbringer, Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb and the team of Casey Jennings and Kevin Wong.

With no firm plans revealed as of yet for the USA Volleyball-IMG produced Beach Championship Series, Albert Hannemann’s National Volleyball League (NVL) looks to be one of the main places to play domestically this summer. Hannemann’s NVL is listing six events from May through September.

The tour is slated to kick off May 20-21 in Baltimore in conjunction with The Preakness horse race. Other stops include:
Malibu, Calif. (July 22-24 in conjunction with the Malibu Surf and Sport Festival)
Virginia Beach, Va. (Aug. 26-28 East Coast Surfing Championships)
Aspen, Colo. (Aug. 30-Sept. 5; MotherLode Classic and Volleyball Vacation)
Miami Beach, Fla. (Sept. 9-11; Models, Music and Fashion Festival)
Long Beach, Calif. (Sept. 23-25; Sports Championship and Collegiate Festival)

The Miami Beach and Long Beach events will have prize money totaling $150,000, while the other four stops have $75,000 purses each. A players’ bonus pool of $100,000 will be paid out after the Long Beach event.

Hats off to Hannemann for securing endorsements from a variety of prominent former AVP players including Kessy and Ross, Fuerbringer, Sean Scott and Akers, to name a few.

Highlights of the NVL media day can be found at nationalvolleyballleague.com.

The Corona Light Wide Open has seven stops planned in 2011, with the tour slated to kick off May 21-22 in Galveston, Texas. Other stops include:
Seaside Heights, N.J. (June 11-12)
Siesta Key, Fla. (June 18-19)
Chicago, Ill. (July 30-31)
Long Beach, N.Y. (Aug. 6-7)
Hermosa Beach, Calif. (Aug. 20-21)
Cincinnati, Ohio (Sept. 2-4, the U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball Presented by Corona Light)

The first six stops are offering $50,000 in prize money, while the U.S. Open is offering $150,000 in prize money. For more information, visit coronalightwideopen.com.

Originally published in June 2011

3 Comments

Jun 10, 2011 at 04:42PM Tim Reilly

Since Mr. Williams has said all sports go through this type of trial, i will be assembling a Men's team and await the announcement for when the 2012 Indoor Volleyball Olympic Trials are. Regardless on how our athletes do in International Competition...After all both indoor and outdoor Volleyball are team sports and Mr. Williams said, ..."Based on the standards of fairness through all Olympic sports, you have to make sure something like this is open to anybody and everybody that is eligible.” So Mr. Williams of USAV, I look forward for the posting of what makes a player eligible and for the announcement so all Indoor and Outdoor players may attend this qualifier....

Jun 10, 2011 at 09:14PM Gabriel

This sounds great! Count me in on entering an indoor men's team also to compete in the Indoor Volleyball Olympic Trials. I have a great group of players all who have professional experience in the highest European leagues. We're saving money by training here at home and I think we have a great shot at beating our current national team and representing USA in the 2012 Olympics! I'm going to be an Olympic Coach!!!

Jun 21, 2011 at 03:55AM Freelancer007

Yes, this sounds like an excellent system. I mean I really would rather watch Tim Reilly ^^^ and Gabrie^^^l at the Olympics than Misty May and Kerri Walsh (eye roll.) The only teams who would be for this crazy system would be teams who have no hope of qualifying playing in the FIVB. Comon US don't be stupid. I'm not going to watch unless the teams we know and love are not playing anyway.

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