The beach volleyball world got some stunning news early Tuesday morning when Bally’s, the casino-entertainment company, announced that it bought the AVP.
“It’s definitely bittersweet,” Donald Sun said. “I can tell you that, but I can you say it’s in good hands now.”
As a result, pro beach volleyball will likely grow in America both in terms of the number of competitions and viewership, and that betting on the sport will become the norm.
The AVP has been owned most of the past decade by Sun, who took over an entity that had nothing but its name when he bought the tour in April 2012.
“I can say that back then, when I purchased it, it was just the trademark,” Sun said. “There really wasn’t anything going on.
“It was hard work to get it to where it is today and I think that through all that and all the effort — and not just myself, obviously, but the team, the sport, the fans, the athletes, everybody behind it — after nine-plus years we’re finally at the point where the next steward of this brand doesn’t have to start where I was.
“Square one. Literally.”
Now, because of the pandemic, the AVP is somewhere between square one and where Bally’s hopes it will go.
“Our plan is to make the sport much bigger than what it is today,” said Adi Dhandhania, Bally’s senior vice president for strategy and interactive.
Last summer, the tour consisted of three tournaments, all in Long Beach under tightly controlled circumstances. This year, again impacted by the pandemic, there are three tournaments scheduled after the Olympics.
But Bally’s — which runs through Sinclair Broadcast Group what used to be called the 13 Fox regional sports networks and are now called Bally Sports — plans plenty of pro beach volleyball to air on not only its many TV outlets, but more.
(NBC Sports will show the 2021 AVP tournaments. More info is at the end of this story.)
“This something we’re talking about going forward. They’re obviously looking at bigger and better things,” Sun said. “I don’t know exactly what it is because we’re still talking about it.
“But look, if you’re going to want to gamify and bring in more revenue you have to assume that you’ll have more repetition, more everything. That’s our mutual goal.”
More tournaments mean more opportunities for all concerned, especially the players.
“That’s the goal,” Sun said. If you can generate more revenue into anything — the AVP specifically — that revenue is going to translate into more of everything for the athletes, and for the fans, too. And for sponsors and for the sport as a whole.”
“That’s the reason for the method to my madness.”
Not that Bally’s will begin to put on volleyball tournaments on its own.
“We have the infrastructure, we have the know-how, it’s the perfect timing for a company like Bally’s,” Sun said. “Clearly they have a vision with sports and gamification that it’s just the perfect package for them.”
Along those lines, the AVP management team will remain intact and continue to conduct the tournaments, which includes Sun, chief operating officer Al Lau, senior director of sport and competition Jeff Conover, and senior vice president Josh Glazebrook, and others.
“I’m still here,” Sun said with a laugh. “I’m still the acting CEO as far as I know. There’s continuity. That was a part of the deal for me, and they understood that, the continuity, and I respect them for understanding. And they’re just good, humble people.”
Why sell now?
“From my perspective, we were always looking to how to gamify the sport because that’s just now sports are now,” Sun said. “And that’s where a lot of the revenues can be generated.
“It just so happened that they reached out to me late last year to do some kind of partnership. As you know, they’re looking at a lot of acquistions, partnerships to go go into that sector full bore. I had a feeling and knew that our interests were aligned.”
Sun didn’t reveal any of the purchase terms, but said with a laugh, “It was a fair deal.”
Bally’s Dhandhania elaborated on what lies ahead.
“A lot of it is our strategy around content and gamification,” Dhandhania said. “We think very highly of the sport and we think very highly of Donald and the team and what they’ve done over the last decade for the sport.
“As we expand our footprint into interactive content and, more importantly, given our relationship with Sinclair where we have distribution across multiple platforms … we plan to leverage the reach and the beautiful sport that volleyball is on those platforms and be able to gamify it and make it more fun and interactive for all the users at home and elsewhere.”
The dictionary.com definition of gamify:
apply typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to (an activity), typically as an online marketing technique to encourage engagement with a product or service.
“It can be as simple as having fantasy games with no money involved,” Sun said. “But all the way to gamifying where you can go to a sports book anywhere for any sport and bet on a game, bet on a line, anything that’s been going on throughout the history of sports.
“It used to be kind of taboo, but now it’s opened up and I don’t think it’s a taboo subject anymore.”
Dhandhania said gamification can include trivia contests at the venues while the AVP toiurnaments are going on, or for fans to ask questions, “and you can take the same experience to linear TV, as well, where fans are watching live content.
“At tour events people will be able to participate with either a poll, trivia, a quiz, you name it, all these different mechanisms to engage with the sport. Or try their luck or skill, knowing about the sport and having a chance to win a prize or a ticket to the next game or the ability to have dinner or get your picture taken with one of the players. It’s all about having fun and being engaging and we want to bring that experience to fans both at home and in the arena so they can interact with the AVP.”
It could be app-based, Dhandhania said, but also on the internet and through mobile devices and tablets.
While Bally Sports shows multiple sports, including Major League Baseball, this is the first time Bally’s has purchased a sports league, so to speak. Bally’s also owns horse-racing tracks and two weeks ago announced a 15-year deal as the exclusive sports-betting partner of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury.
Bally’s now becomes one in a long line of AVP owners.
The AVP was founded in 1983 as a player’s union, kicking off the 1984 season with 14 events. The sport enjoyed growth through the 1980s and 1990s due to the attraction of the beach lifestyle, culminating in a 27-stop tour in 1994 featuring $4 million in prize money.
The tour was restructured by Bill Berger and Dan Vrebalovich in 1998 into a for-profit private entity following a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
It was purchased by Spencer Trask Securities in 1999, forming Major League Volleyball, which operated 12 AVP events in both 1999 and 2000.
Leonard Armato of Management Plus then acquired the AVP in May of 2001 and combined the men’s and women’s tours, peaking with 18 stops in 2007 and 2008.
Impacted by the 2008 recession, the AVP canceled its last five events of 2010, filing its second bankruptcy.
Sun purchased the AVP for $2 million April 12, 2012, just before the London Olympics from DFA PVA II Partners, LLC, managed by Nick Lewin.
Sun did not, as many think, buy it out of bankruptcy, he said. “Everyone gets that wrong,” he said, “I didn’t buy it out of bankruptcy, I bought the assets. Somebody else bought it out of bankruptcy.”
Sun worked for 14 years in procurement at Kingston Technology, of which his billionaire father, David Sun, was one of the founders. The AVP conducted two tournaments in Cincinnati and Santa Barbara in 2012.
Sun expanded the tour to seven stops, providing much-needed stability as well as increasing the footprint across the sport. The AVP purchased VolleyAmerica in 2018 increasing its reach into amateur volleyball. It also made major strides creating AVPFirst, an organization building opportunities in the sport within underserved communities.
Over those nine-plus years, Sun has stayed the course, dealt with more than his share of controversies (the well-documented legal feud with Kerri Walsh Jennings, for one), and more.
“As far as the culture of volleyball, beach volleyball specifically, we’re in a good place. There’s no animosity. I think we’ve gotten past it,” Sun said with a laugh. “It’s just confidence in the brand now. We’ve worked really hard over the last nine years to achieve that.”
Through it all, he’s persevered.
“It’s been rough, but at the same time it’s been gratifying when you’ve stayed the course and you had a strategy and your team implemented it, and we came out on the good side.”
The AVP’s three tournaments this year — August 13-15 in Atlanta, August 20-22 on Manhattan Beach, and September 3-5 in Chicago — will return to NBC Sports before going to Bally Sports in 2022.
According to NBC, “Feature matches from all three tournaments will be presented live on Peacock, with NBCSN televising highlight shows in the days following each tournament’s conclusion. Fans can sign up for Peacock here.”
The broadcast team is expected to be the usual NBC announcing crew of Chris Marlowe, Dain Blanton, Kevin Wong, and Camryn Irwin.
The past two seasons most of the AVP coverage was on Amazon Prime, but that deal is obviously no longer in effect.