When we first were introduced to Donald Sun, we learned he was a beach volleyball player from Southern California who had a future in his father’s business, Kingston Technology. Cool gig to make some money and live the SoCal life.
Beach volleyball beckoned, and so did opportunity. The Association of Volleyball Professionals disbanded operations on the eve of its signature event, the Manhattan Beach Open, in 2010. The AVP had gone away. From the moment it was born with Karch Kiraly, among others, walking the picket line for the players in Redondo Beach in 1984, the AVP produced the best beach volleyball on the planet.
It’s a significant brand to this day, no matter how many trials and tribulations it has endured, and no matter how much money it has gained or lost. Along the way, the AVP produced Olympic medalists and enduring memories and the USA cheered and cherished those heroes, from Kiraly to Holly McPeak and Elaine Youngs to Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor, Dain Blanton and Eric Fonoimoana, Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser.
The Olympics have always had the AVP stamp. Yet in the international game that it has become, that stamp has been overshadowed by the quest for gold from the rest of the world, and we’re not just talking about Brazil. The men’s gold medalists from London 2012 and the women’s gold medalists from Rio de Janeiro 2016 are from Germany.
So America has some catching up to do. It all starts with the proving ground that is the AVP, but as Sun is quick to remind you, the tour is not just a tour that blows through your vicinity once a year.
Nor is it just an American-only entity. In 2015, the AVP hosted the FIVB Grand Slam in St. Petersburg, Fla. In 2016, it ran the FIVB Cincinnati Open, a critical tournament for Olympic hopefuls.
How does the Sun rise with the AVP? There is AVPNext, AVPFirst, and a burgeoning lot of beach volleyball clubs.
Sun, 41, is quick to smile, a favorite among athletes, is a player who can’t stand the trickler ace, and a CEO of an enterprise that doesn’t always make the money it seemingly should — at the moment — and at the same time will consider all options to grow the sport.
Sun was a guest of Beach Majors CEO Hannes Jagerhofer at the Fort Lauderdale Major two weeks ago and he is quite at home discussing the future of worldwide beach volleyball with the world factions. The AVP has listed eight tournaments in 2017, but don’t bet against the odds that coordination with other promoters could add a date for this year and beyond.
The tour begins May 4-7 in Huntington Beach. We caught up with Sun last week for this extensive Q&A.
VBM: What is the state of the union of the AVP?
Sun: We ran eight events last two years, but technically seven were AVP and one was FIVB. Going into this year and next year at least at a minimum we have eight full AVP events. As you know, looking at the schedule we’ve dropped a couple but gained a couple that look to be along the same lines as all the other ones we’re trying to establish in as a long-term value proposition play, which being Hermosa and Austin. I feel confident Hermosa is going to be great. We haven’t been back since 2010, I believe (editor’s note: Correct, Dalhausser and Rogers won). And Austin, I’m hopeful that will be a big hit and a mainstay on our tour.
As far as the planning is involved at least for the tenure that I’ve owned the brand, operationally we’re light years ahead of where we’ve been the last few years in terms of planning, organizing and getting everything ready.
I feel like the momentum, especially from last year, I felt like we’re on that cusp again of being really great and I feel like this year we’re going to ride off the coattails the entire season of last year.
The momentum’s growing. We’ve got not just the AVP Tour, we’ve expanded our AVPNext, our AVPFirst, the junior side in terms of tournaments, frequency, nationally in terms of people who want to participate and play compete and try to get on the AVP Tour whether you’re 15 or 18 or 22, you’ve got opportunities everywhere.
Both have well over 70 events people can play in, not to mention starting our junior academy program. We’ve launched our Orange County academy, we’ve launched one up in Redwood City. Those are our two inaugural locations but we are in serious talks with probably 10-15 other locations across the U.S. which is really exciting.
I feel like now we’re definitely headed in the right direction.
VBM: Why is televised coverage of the AVP Tour so inconsistent?
Sun: First of all, I definitely value the relationship we’ve cultivated with NBC. They’re a great partner. In terms of TV partners, they’re the greatest you can have, of course, because they do own the Olympics for a thousand years. Beach volleyball is pretty important in their portfolio and they definitely see the value of working with us and vice versa.
The challenge – we’re not football or any of the top five or six sports even, so getting time slots for events can be a challenge, but we definitely work hard to fit stuff together. But I understand and acknowledge that is a challenge, especially if you’re trying to watch it on a linear form. But that’s just going to be how it is until otherwise. That’s fine. We’ve already figured out the window. It’s just a matter of us formalizing our agreement with NBC so we can start marketing the times. Now going to which one should we show, men or women, it’s always Saturday afternoon (results). We’ve got to see which one is the best matchup or potentially the better rating.
On linear TV it’s always going to be a toss-up and we have to make our calculated decision Saturday afternoon as the tournament winds down to see which is the best pairing to put on TV. There’s no other way to do it unless you give us additional time to put on both finals, then that’s not a problem. But if we have to choose, that’s what we’ve got to do and that’s our process now.
VBM: You changed a couple of rules for the season-ending AVP Championships in Chicago 2016, the most noteworthy being a re-serve for a trickler ace and freezing the scoring to go to sideout scoring at game point. Will the entire 2017 season be played under those rule adoptions?
Sun: We haven’t finalized, we’re still getting input from some of our other partners to see if either they’re OK with and/or they understand it and want to try it out.
The rules come into effect only on match point. Within each match it could potentially happen two times, but at least one time. The trickler rule is only in effect during match point. The rest of the time, if it happens, it happens. That’s from our own observation from Chicago. It was good to test things out. There are quite a few professionals who hit the net when they serve and it does make the game a little bit herky-jerky we have to (re-serve). That’s not to say it’s wrong. We just feel the flow could be a little better but at the same time, the reason we want to implement this is to have more of that compelling ending. We’re not reinventing any kind of rules, we’re just potentially implementing rules from the past that have worked and we take the best of both worlds and if we run it for a whole season, things may change. Who knows – if other groups see that it makes sense and benefits, they may change. Or we’ll see if it doesn’t do anything we can always change back. We’re flexible that way.
We’ve talked about a lot of different scenarios; there is something to be said about keeping the pace going but at the same time in certain situations, it’s nice to slow down the pace let’s see what happens. We’ve decided on match point, when it matters.
VBM: How can the AVP integrate with the international organizations, such as FIVB and Beach Majors?
Sun: I don’t have any problem with that and as you’ve seen, we’ve really started to develop a good relationship with FIVB the last few years. There is a certain respect level on both sides. I would love to continue to partner and have deeper commitments with them so it’s easier to integrate AVP with FIVB with all kinds of stuff so it becomes more unified. I wouldn’t have an issue sharing content. It’s volleyball at the end of the day. It’s a sport that I think everyone has a vested in and if something cool that happens with either someone taking it from the Red Bull (Beach Majors) side or some random FIVB event, there no problems to promote that as long as they’re willing to do some cool stuff that we capture, or the methodology we use to capture that content. We can always share ideas on how to do it.
Uniformity across the globe is always best but in the meantime we’ve been talking about over the last few months of how to capture it and what type of content to capture that would just elevate the sport of beach volleyball and the brand to another level.
We’re going to experiment on a lot of stuff digitally and social media-wise too and hopefully that can engage a different demographic and crowd.
VBM: How close are we to another shared FIVB/AVP event or even starting a Beach Majors/AVP event?
In terms of FIVB, we’ve got the go-ahead to run events for them this year and going forward. They’re just waiting on a proposal from us. We talked about it four weeks ago and they gave us the OK because we gave them a proposal on what we would contribute in terms of an FIVB event within their star system. Then in terms of the Red Bull side, I went to Fort Lauderdale and spoke to Hannes at length and had a few conversations and formal meetings just to discuss future involvement. In fact, to be quite honest, we’ve been talking for four years. It’s just everyone’s got their own directions and now it’s kind of culminating a little bit and so I can’t really disclose much right now, but let’s just say there’s been some interesting conversations.
I’m hopeful we’ll be able to do something next year if not the year after. But they’re all very promising and they’re all very friendly. It’s all good. Otherwise he wouldn’t have invited me (laugh).
VBM: So we could have an AVP/Major in the USA next year?
Sun: That’s the idea, or a few of them. I don’t know if it will be tied with FIVB but I made it very clear that if we’re going to do something, it would be AVP and (Jagerhofer) seemed to have no issues with that. Again, these are all preliminary conversations but the hope and goal that we can actually – he has assets and ideas that he can clearly bring to the table that would enhance any event. It doesn’t even matter if it’s volleyball, it could be swimming it could be something. For us, we’re in all the major cities, we have a 30-plus year brand, history, we do have a following, we’re building that following, so that’s what I feel is our give back. The synergy is there, we have to figure out how to basically marry those two together. And if it makes business sense for both sides.
It’ll probably be in a city that we’re currently at. We’re in pretty much all the major cities so it would probably be easier to take one or a few and amp that up. It would be exciting for everybody if that happens.
VBM: How do you market certain tournaments when the top AVP players are playing internationally?
Sun: Because we do have a good relationship with FIVB, we have been working with them from a scheduling standpoint and just to be clear, the AVP did submit our schedule about a month or so before they came out with theirs to give them the head’s up, and we said ‘Can you kindly just review ours, this is what we’re going with for 2017 and beyond, can you try not to schedule major events on the FIVB on top of ours?’ They try and of course I believe they’re not trying to undermine the AVP. I think there have been perceptions in the past, and it’s probably reality, I don’t know, that maybe there was some kind of undermining going on but I truly and firmly believe that’s not happening. I do know it’s extremely challenging for us to work, find a location, talk to the city officials, figure out an NBC date that works, find a date that works for everybody and how that fits in the entire master schedule. We’re controlling that for AVP so I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be sitting in Lausanne (Switzerland, where FIVB headquarters are located) and doing this and speaking with various countries and their promoters and their time frames available.
I think most people don’t understand, not like they should understand, that’s just the reality of it. At the end of the day, I ask them too: “Hey, how did you guys do this or that?” They all have plausible reasons. The best thing we can do is have dialogue going forward. At the same time, their goal is to grow the sport internationally and they have the new star system, 1-5, they’ve got 70-something events, there’s going to be conflict, it’s unavoidable. We have to bank on the fact that our brand is strong enough for our fans. What we provide is obviously the athletes but if certain athletes do not show up, it’s still OK because it’s a great time. Other top athletes are there, and let’s not forget about them. But it’s still a fun time, it’s an experience.
And we’re doing some additional things on site like a participatory aspect, like getting your everyman to go out and enjoy themselves, playing in a fun tournament and then also putting in a junior tournament or other things as part of the overall beach volleyball festival where people can participate and enjoy, not just sit there and watch but also be active.
VBM: Will the AVP have foreign players again? Emanuel Rego, Jose Loiola and Jackie Silva had enormous success on the AVP Tour.
Sun: As long as they’re intent on getting their green card to becoming a citizen, we’ll evaluate their situation and yeah, we’d love to have people like them. It just adds to the international. And not to mention increasing the talent.
I don’t know, to be quite frank, if your casual fan even knows team No. 5 (in the standings) and we’re going to do a better job in promoting. But what they bring, their flair and athleticism and those things, can only enhance the experience.
VBM: The Olympics were the centerpiece of the 2016 beach volleyball experience. This year, Chicago will be the final world event on the world calendar. Is that an advantage for the AVP?
Sun: I didn’t even think of it that way. We are the last, which is cool. What we’re going to do is everything we can do to hype up the experience that is AVP that comes to your town. And not just that, but making sure that anyone who can’t be there, they can feel it, they can understand what the experience can be like. Hopefully we get it to such a fever pitch that even by then it does or does not matter that there was a World Tour Finals. I think most people don’t even know about a World Tour Finals anyway. What we’ll be trying to do is build on the momentum from the previous seven AVP events that culminate in Chicago.
Last year (in Chicago), that was one of the best feelings I’ve gotten at an AVP event in the past few years. It just felt right. I think we’re on that cusp. The crowd felt good, great energy, great weather and we’re just going to bank on the fact the previous seven events leading to Chicago are going to be authentic and real and people are going to go nuts over there. People will spontaneously combust because of the pure excitement! (laugh)
VBM: What is the biggest challenge of running a tour the year after the Olympics?
Personally I don’t have any post-Olympic experience because when I got (the AVP), it was right after London. I had a good four years of a clean slate. Personally In don’t have that potential fear of “Oh no, we’re coming off an Olympic year.”
We had a really good year from an AVP standpoint and we’re going to build off of that. Eventually I would hope that in general, beach volleyball isn’t an every-four-years sport. I can’t change that perception, but I know what we can do and that’s continue to enhance AVP and its followers to make it feel like what’s going to happen next year and the year after that and then you say, “Oh, by the way, the Olympics are here? That’s cool.”
But it’s what’s going to happen with AVP going forward.