After two decades, beach volleyball needs some new rules, including an international freeze

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FIVB rule changes 8/29/2020-Karla Borger
Karla Borger lays out for a dig at the FIVB World Championships in 2019. Sinjin Smith is proposing FIVB rules changes similar to the AVP freeze/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

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: tcfeuer724@gmail.com and let me know. Your feedback could make a difference.

Tom Feuer, a four-time national Emmy Award winner, is a veteran volleyball writer and producer. He has worked 11 Olympics for NBC Sports, most recently as a producer for beach volleyball at the Rio Games in 2016.
Feuer has also worked for Prime Ticket/Fox Sports West as an executive producer where he produced AVP broadcasts in 1989-1990, and later, pioneered the popular “AVP Classics.”
While at NIKE in 1997, he was event director for the first FIVB World Championships of Beach Volleyball. Feuer has also won 15 regional Emmy Awards and, most recently, won the Grant Burger Media Award from the AVCA. He is also a contributing editor for DiG Magazine. An avid player, Feuer finished second with Pat Powers at the 1981 Estero Open.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Surprisingly, I kind of like it. I’ve long thought the AVP should have the freeze at the end of each set, but obviously that’s not a feasible strategy when it comes to keeping a tournament on time. Removing the need to win-by-two might solve that issue. I haven’t been around that long, did side-out scoring have the win-by-two rule back in the day?

    I’d like to also see them take the let-serve rule out during the freeze, since that’s almost equally as unappealing as having a missed serve end a match. But one thing at a time, I guess.

  2. I, a former professional player for over 20 years and once an El Salvador national team player, don’t really like the idea. I agree drama is good for the audience, but volleyball is already difficult to understand by non-players and changing what counts as a point in the middle of a set will make it very confusing. Having people not understand what’s going on drives the audience away from the sport.

  3. Drama should be an emergent quality of the match, not one put on top of the regular rules. Having a different mode for set points or match points than with regular points is a weird distinction – points aren’t equal anymore. Adjusting the rules to keep matches more interesting is advisable, but the freeze or this modified freeze are not healthy solutions, because they don’t improve the “sport side” of the rulebook. I’d suggest to go back to the drawing board and come up with new rules that enhance the drama indirectly, but also improve the sport itself, like the smaller court did 19 years ago.

  4. I like the basic idea of the freeze, both to add drama to the end of the match and to give the team that’s behind a chance to mount a comeback. However, there’s a major problem with it: it actually HELPS the team that’s AHEAD, especially in a close match. Think about a pure side-out battle. After 40 points, 20 side-outs for each team, under FIVB rules, the score will be tied 20-20, which is appropriate, as neither team has demonstrated that they’re better. However, under the AVP freeze rule, the score will be 20-19, as the first team to benefit is the team that serves under the freeze, and the first team to serve under the freeze is the team that’s ahead.

  5. The so-called “drama” is not going to bring in any new fans. Either people enjoy watching the fundamentals of the sport or they don’t. You could change the rules so every game ended up 21-21 and it wouldn’t make my wife interested in watching.

  6. I’m all for it. I ran the inaugural season for a grass doubles league this summer, and we used a slight variation, where only the team in game point is stuck in the freeze, while the team who is down is still scoring in rally until they reach game point as well. We’ve had mixed but generally positive remarks about it.

  7. I’m not opposed to the changes but don’t confuse what’s good for the sport with what’s good for pros and corporations. They represent less than 5% of the worldwide player base (admittedly the top five). Just remember when FIVB got rid of net touches and all the injuries that followed suit. All instituted for the benefit of the pros, not the community. Widen the focus to include all levels, you’d be better served. Great example of a positive rule change? Allowing touches below the waist (i.e. foot and leg digs) and double touches on a driven ball. Those made the game more exciting, not arbitrary scoring changes.

  8. I like the freeze, both because it makes comebacks more possible and because it can draw out the suspense at the end of a close game. For both these reasons, I think there should be a 1-rally delay after a team reaches game point before the freeze kicks in. This would shift the advantage conferred by the freeze from the team that’s ahead to the one that’s behind, which further promotes comebacks and suspense. With a normal freeze, in a game tied at 19, the winner of the rally cements its lead. With the “delayed-freeze,” if the winner of the rally fails to convert on the ensuing game point, they then receive serve at 20-20 with sideout scoring.

  9. The biggest problem for the sport is, that it is too complex. A first time watcher has no chance to follow the rules because of all the technical errors which occur. If you add the freeze, it is getting even more complex. Additionally a big problem of Beachvolleyball is, that large guys are so in favour. This excludes the majority of people. Make rule changes so that the Game is less complex and I will vote for it!

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