“The sport doesn’t have to be in a state of constant warring and constant friction. In fact, what we need to grow the sport is this sense of camaraderie and this culture that can be infectious and one that can be inclusive. That’s the future of growth.” — Leonard Armato
From Kaskade, who has been telling his 1.4 million Twitter followers how excited he is to be performing, to the 2017 home-soil debut of Kerri Walsh Jennings, to an AAU youth event to the start of the NVL season, the World Series of Beach Volleyball FIVB Presidents Cup July 12-16 in Long Beach promises to be quite an affair.
All of which makes for one happy Leonard Armato, who is excited about the growth of the event and addition of ESPN, not only for this year’s WSOBV, but the addition of two more events next year.
We visited recently with Armato in his Los Angeles office, where we talked about not only WSOBV but many aspects of the state of affairs of pro beach volleyball, including how the different factions in the sport could — and should — come together in a positive way.
“All stakeholders in beach volleyball, particularly in the United States, need to unite now in a way to it can be collaborative and cross-promotional and cross-supportive,” Armato said. “So that the rising tide can make the boats float higher.
“That includes everything from coordinating schedules to cross promotion to jointly selling to doing those things that can give us more of a mass reach as a sport as opposed to a fragmented group of warlords.”
And for those who haven’t followed closely, there are many components to what he said, which appeared to be Armato’s way of offering an olive branch or at least open the door for conversation.
Start with the AVP, which has had three successful stops to its 2017 tour (Huntington Beach, Austin, NYC) after an intrigue-filled preseason in which many of its athletes considered up to the 11th hour not signing the tour’s player-exclusivity contract. One of them who didn’t, Walsh Jennings (who is suing the AVP on an unrelated matter), is managed by Armato.
There is also the NVL, another tour run that is run by Al-B Hannemann, who has joined forces with Armato. Hannemann canceled the previously scheduled first two NVL events of the season and its first event is now at WSOBV.
The other “warlord,” if you will, is Donald Sun, who owns the AVP that Armato ran previously from 2002-09.
“My view and my position is that we would be delighted to work with AVP to grow the sport,” Armato said.
“There’s no reason why there couldn’t be a great, collaborative, mutually beneficial relationship with AVP. And there’s no reason why the NVL can’t survive as well. Everyone should be able to have a place and be satisfied with whatever their ultimate goals and objective are.”
Has Armato reached out to Sun about this?
“I have not reached out to him in the past few months,” Armato said, “but I have in the past.
“And I have suggested this in the past, but sometimes people are ready for changes at different times. So if he’s interested and open to having a discussion right now I am certainly willing and interested in having those talks.”
Since Walsh Jennings did not sign the AVP contract, how does that affect things since she and Armato are so closely aligned?
“The AVP has the right to advance whatever business model they believe in their best interest,” Armato said. “And we don’t have a right to either interfere with that or force them to do anything that they feel is justifiable.
“Having said that, I wouldn’t think it advisable for an athlete to sign an exclusive agreement for roughly one million dollars a year in prize money, for both genders. There should be more money-making opportunities for those athletes. If AVP only wants to offer a million or 1.2 million in prize money, that’s their prerogative and I am not criticizing them for that. And if athletes want to play in those events they should certainly be able to and shouldn’t be restricted from doing so. My feeling is there should be an opportunity for athletes to participate in a number of events on different weekends that offer them money-making opportunities, particularly if we’re only talking about roughly a million dollars or so in total prize money for the entire season and the entire tour. That’s my simple position.”
The WSOBV has had a purse in the past, Armato said, between $500,000 to $800,000, while this year “we have a smaller specialty event with fewer teams and the purse is $300,000.
“We’re not prepared to announce the purse for next year, but it will be substantially more and we will have three events.”
But back to this year. Will players who signed the AVP contract, which precludes them from playing in the NVL, be able to play in the WSOBV, which is an FIVB event?
“I’ve never seen the contract, because you’re not allowed to discuss it because people who read the contract must sign NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) before doing so. So I’m not familiar with the language, but my understanding is that the athletes are going to be permitted to participate in FIVB events, particularly if there’s no conflict with the AVP events. And there is no conflict with our event and an AVP event.”
“We don’t want to have a conflict with an AVP event. And that’s why I’m of the position that we should at least coordinate schedules to avoid them. There are always going to be conflicts with the international calendar, but you want to avoid the most important international events out there. You coordinate with the FIVB calendar, you coordinate the AVP calendar, you coordinate our World Series calendar and you also coordinate the NVL calendar.
“There’s no reason why all that can’t happen and people can avail to the benefits of all those events. The sport doesn’t have to be in a state of constant warring and constant friction. In fact, what we need to grow the sport is this sense of camaraderie and this culture that can be infectious and one that can be inclusive. That’s the future of growth.”
Regardless of how all that works out, there’s the ESPN news.
”We’ve been working on this ESPN deal for, gosh, quite some time,” Armato said. “It finally came to fruition in a way that can be a game-changer for the sport of beach volleyball and volleyball. Because Burke Magnus of ESPN, who is in charge of programming and acquisitions in the United States, believes that volleyball is a high-growth opportunity. The programming that they have devoted to the sport is very substantial going forward.
“ESPN is already a huge supporter of women’s beach volleyball and women’s (indoors) volleyball. They already carry the NCAA.”
Armato was referring to the ESPN and ESPN2 coverage of the national semifinals and championship match, and it should be noted that through ESPN3 many Division I women’s matches are streamed during the season.
“This simply takes their commitment to a whole new level,” Armato said.
He said the volleyball coverage in the future will include not only streaming, but also ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC.
At WSOBV, every match will be live-streamed in some form or fashion, Armato said.
ESPN2, he said, will televise the WSOBV finals in prime time that Saturday night and it will be re-aired at some point on ABC.
“We will have the women’s finals go on live at 8:30 p.m. (Pacific) under the lights on the beach in Long Beach,” he said. “We’re real excited about our event this year and we’ll build on it for the future.”
His deal with ESPN ties into expanding the WSOBV.
“We will have a triple crown (in the U.S.) of beach volleyball next year, adding to the existing World Series of Beach platform. We would expect to have one at the beginning, middle and end of the summer, much like the Triple Crown in horse racing or much like grand slams in tennis.”
What and where are to be determined, Armato said, but he’ll be adding two major tournaments in 2018.
“We’re still working on the format, but we know we’ll have three flagship events,” he said. “That’s the plan. And when I say flagship events, I mean festival events anchored in the best of beach volleyball. This year’s World Series is a great example of that model. That model includes the best in the world competing for the President’s Cup. And then we have the world’s largest beach competition for juniors, which is the AAU nationals, taking along side our event. We also have the NVL event, also taking place alongside our event. We’ll have open competition for co-ed fours and sixes alongside our event. And we have a music-festival component.”
And they’ll also have Walsh Jennings, who will open her season at the FIVB Porec (Croatis) event June 26-July 2 with new partner Nicole Branagh.
“Kerri is simply an icon in the sport of beach volleyball,” Armato said, “the most well-known volleyball athlete in the world, without a doubt.
“So we — the stakeholders of the sport — need to use her and ride her to success and to greater glory. We have every responsibility to develop a relationship with her that’s mutually beneficial, so that we can reap the benefits of all her great achievements. Of course, we’re her partner in growing the sport, so she benefits as well.”
Armato offered this about his friend and client, whose lawsuit involves monies owed:
“I would love to see the AVP and Kerri resolve their differences.” Armato said. “And you can put that in bold. And it would be best for the sport for that to happen. And if I could help make that happen I would be delighted to do so.”