When the 2001 FIVB season kicked off with a women’s tournament in the unlikely beach volleyball hot spot of Macao in the People’s Republic of China, it was historic for two reasons:
First, it was the first major international event in which the playing surface of the court was re-sized to present-day dimensions (8 meters by 16 meters). And, second, the system of registering a score changed from sideout to rally point.
In the almost 20 years — 20 years! — since, not much else has changed functionally with the international version of the sport.
In some of the bigger events, the challenge system of video review has been implemented, and incidental contact with the net is now allowed. Meanwhile, in the NBA and NFL for instance, all manner of new rules have been put in place with the goal of evolving, adapting and growing their sports. For the upcoming 2020 season alone the NFL has instituted three significant changes to the game (not counting all of the new protocols in place due to the coronavirus pandemic).
In 2016, following the Olympic Games, the AVP instituted two (at the time) controversial rules changes: 1) A freeze on match point, which required a team to “earn” the win by scoring on their serve; and 2) Also on match point a team could not win by virtue of a “let” serve. These changes were first implemented in the post-Olympic AVP event in Chicago and have stuck ever since.
The freeze rule was not universally liked by all players, chief among them Kerri Walsh Jennings, the sport’s most visible star. Her battles, legal and otherwise, with the AVP are well-documented and the freeze was just one of several grievances she had against the organization.
However, to the casual observer, it might seem odd that the Olympics and the FIVB international standard of scoring is different than on the AVP in the United States, especially at THE most critical juncture of a match.
That being said, the anecdotal evidence (there is no data to which I have been privy) is that the “freeze” has been a resounding success.
Fans of the sport, and players (with the notable exception perhaps of John Hyden and Theo Brunner after the 2019 Hawai’i Open) alike seem in favor of it. The one major downside is that it is hard for event operators and television networks to ascertain any sort of predictability as to the length of matches. If you have a live 90-minute finals window on NBC (including commercials) and a three-set battle royale ensues with a long freeze, like in Hawai’i last year, there can be some sweaty palms about concluding the match in the requisite broadcast window.
I can speak from experience on this issue having been in the production truck for major sporting events, including volleyball, when competitions have gone long and it is a real fire drill to say the least.
All that being said, the conundrum the sport faces in an extremely challenged environment is how do you grow the game, better the ball if you will, beyond where it is right now? In other words, is there something that can be done to the game itself which can enhance the popularity of beach volleyball beyond a once every four-year phenomenon among the general sports fan?
It is questions like this which vex Sinjin Smith, who was the driving force behind the “short court” being adopted 19 years ago. And, not coincidentally, he is also the second winningest athlete all-time with 139 titles in a playing career that lasted a whopping 24 years. Smith has always had the sport’s best interests at heart.
Fundamentally, to make beach volleyball more interesting to all of its international constituencies, Smith is attempting to eliminate what he sees are the flaws in the game that make the end of matches too anti-climactic. Specifically with the FIVB and Olympic rules:
- Currently a team can win a set or match on a missed serve or a regular sideout
- If a team is one point ahead when they reach 20 and the other team is serving, the team receiving serve will score 70-80% of the time
- If a team is more than one point ahead and receiving serve, they are almost assured of winning the set or match
“A small change can make the end of a set and also the match more exciting,” Smith argues.
Specifically, he advocates for the following which is similar to current AVP rules but with some notable differences:
- The score for both teams should freeze when either team reaches 20 points in EVERY SET
- Each team must serve to score a point at that time (sideout scoring)
- You need to win by only ONE point
- The set ends when the first team reaches 21 points (don’t need to win by two points)
- Match ends by winning two out of three sets with the eventual third set to 15 points
The end result is to potentially triple the amount of drama and erase the matter-of-fact manner that ends many sets currently. An Olympic gold medal should not be clinched by a service error for example.
Smith has a fellow advocate in high places, Marco Tullio, a Brazilian, who is an FIVB Board of Administration member and first Vice President of the South American Confederation. Tullio himself was a player whose best finish on the FIVB tour was a second in Almeria, Spain in 1991 with Marlos Cogo.
“These (proposed rule changes) will make the game more exciting, create a ‘drama’ (which) will be great for TV and spectators on site,” Tullio wrote in an email. “Players and coaches normally don’t like changes, but I believe the best teams will keep winning in the same proportion. It was different when we reduced the court size, that changed the strategy and they (the players) adapted.”
The most significant difference according to Tullio is, “A comeback, or the games that are close in score at the end, are much more exciting for the fans. If we make the game less obvious (italics mine) and the spectators feel that weak teams can win we will engage the fans until the end.”
An underlying reason for making these proposed changes, and a good one, is to generate more revenue from beach volleyball internationally. In theory, the more drama, and better the fan experience, the more potential to drive income from sponsors and media companies that then could stimulate more events on the world tour and consequently more prize money for the players.
So, what comes next?
“The first step is to make the beach commission propose this rule to the (FIVB) board in the next (few) days,” Tullio writes. “I will personally talk to the President (of the FIVB, Ary Graca) and the FIVB director to understand what they think about that.”
Smith has already laid some of that groundwork himself.
“I’ve pushed it out to a handful of people including the president (Graca), who I am close with. He understands and gets it, and I know that he does. He was a player, and the president of the Brazilian federation. He understands volleyball, he understands what works, and doesn’t work, and it is not hard to understand if you know volleyball how this makes sense and can help the game overall.”
If the FIVB board approves, there is a possibility that limited testing could take place before the end of this calendar year, but what makes that tricky is the coronavirus and what actual events will be available to conduct such an experiment. No permanent changes would take place before or directly after the Olympic Games.
But it is possible we could see a change in 2022 or ’23.
For it? Against it?
We would love feedback from you, the reader/player, on what you think about these potential rule changes. Do you think it will make the game better, more dramatic? Please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. Your feedback could make a difference.