By Phil Collin and Lee Feinswog
They’re called the “Chicago Rules,” but two new changes starting with the AVP Championships in Chicago have become a public-relations disaster for the organizers after the sport’s brightest star said she will have none of it.
That ace that hits the tape and trickles over for a point? Gone.
At match point and needing only a sideout to advance? History.
And that doesn’t sit well with Kerri Walsh Jennings, not only greatest player beach volleyball has ever known, but the face of the sport internationally.
Wednesday, she announced through a statement on her Facebook page that neither she nor husband Casey Jennings would play in Chicago.
“The short reason is because there is a major disconnect between AVP ownership & the players and it affects the legitimacy and integrity of our sport,” Walsh Jennings wrote.
“I want to take this chance to explain myself and to share my perspective, because it is A VERY BIG DEAL for me to choose to miss an event.
“Basically, the AVP has decided to use the event in Chicago as a “TEST” event for two new rules they want to try out.”
After listing the above rules, she continued.
“Now, I am not a fan of either of the rule changes, but that is not why I am sitting out. I am BOYCOTTING because of the fact that the AVP ownership decided to change the rules of the game WITHOUT honestly or meaningfully discussing it with the Player Committee or the athletes on tour.
“This has never happened since I started playing this game 15 years ago (for good reason), and it’s crazy to me that the AVP would choose their “Championships” to test out some new rules. I wonder how the MLB athletes would respond to the rules of their game being changed for the World Series. This is obviously not a fair comparison, but you get my point! It doesn’t make sense.
“In my opinion, this is utterly disrespectful of each and every athlete who virtually pays to work for the sport we all love and it is utterly disrespectful to the game itself.”
On Thursday, Walsh Jennings posted again and said that she addressed the concerns in an email to the AVP she sent on July 23 before leaving for the Rio Olympics, where she and April Ross won the bronze medal. In a tournament that is ripe with new partnerships, Ross is playing with Kelly Reeves.
“To the fans who bought tickets and who are taking this extremely personal, I feel you, I hear you and I am sorry.” Walsh wrote Thursday. “You guys make my job so inspiring and fun. I am sorry to let you down for this weekend. I, too, am taking this thing very personally and am doing what I believe is right. I am thinking more broadly than just this weekend. This is not for me. This is for the sport.
Thank you guys for reading, engaging and for your words of support for myself and for beach volleyball. I appreciate all of it.”
The rules changes were inspired by AVP Managing Partner Donald Sun, who said that the new rules are permanent. That was before Walsh Jennings decided to go public and boycott.
First, the ace rule: If a serve hits the tape and falls to the sand on the opponent’s side of the net, a let serve will be called and the server gets one more shot to put the ball in play without it touching the net. A second net touch, even if the ball falls in, would be a fault.
The match-point rule kicks in when a team hits match point and the scoring freezes and reverts to sideout scoring, meaning the winning team will have to earn victory by scoring when serving, the way it was before rally scoring.
Not everyone is against it.
“I think it’s going to be fun, more exciting,” said Olympian and AVP veteran Brooke Sweat. “I think you have to earn it. I think the trickle ace rule is going to make the game a little better. I’m looking forward to it. Earning your last point –- and it’s only the last point — it’s not like the whole match is that way – it will get the fans engaged a little bit and talking volleyball.
“Adding one or two (rules) like what he did is fine for the sport, so let’s see how it goes in Chicago and get some good feedback one way or the other. We’ll see. It should be interesting.”
Many players hate the trickle ace, others see it as part of the game.
Sun, a longtime player himself, has one opinion on it:
“I hate it,” he said.
Two other proposed rules changes were rejected. One would be earning two points for a clean ace, a serve that hits the sand without being touched. Another would have moved the out-of-bounds antennae atop the net out about the width of the ball, enabling hitters to expand their angle. Maybe next year for those.
Three-time Olympian Phil Dalhausser, a 48-time winner on the AVP circuit is 50-50 on the changes.
“I like the net rule because I hate the dribblers,” said Dalhausser, who happens to be one of the top servers in the world and has benefited from more than a few tricklers in his day. “The dribbler is such a stupid rule, there’s no skill involved. The other rule I’m not that big of a fan of.
“I think 20-19 sideouts are exciting. That’s when the pressure’s on. I don’t think they need to mess with the scoring. Our sport is the only sport is the only sport that changes major rules consistently and it drives me nuts. How do you describe to the fan who doesn’t know much about volleyball that wait, now the score freezes? It would be hard to explain that rule.”
Someone who will be busy trying to do just that is Mark Schuermann, the public address voice for the AVP. But he’s not too concerned than he’ll be forced to issue constant explanations as fans grow accustomed to the changes.
“People might be confused at first, like ‘What’s that all about?’ but once you hear it once and you see it happen, people are smart enough, they’re going to get it,” Schuermann said. “I’ll have to say it throughout the day a few times but I don’t see it as much of an issue.
“Understandably, people already have come up and said that to me, ‘What’s this all about?’ I think it’s going to create a mixed reaction. I don’t think we really know how it’s going to work until we see it happen. I’m interested to see the reaction from everybody when it actually happens.”
The departure from the rules will also be under scrutiny. Already, there is a major difference between the AVP and FIVB and that’s the Wilson ball versus Mikasa’s. But some believe straying further from FIVB regulations might be a little tricky.
“Am I supposed to tell you the politically correct answer or how I really feel?” Kim DiCello asked with a smile. “I don’t like the domestic tour going in the direction that deviates from the international tour.
“As a player that’s competing internationally, I think we need consistency in the sport and it can cause confusion among the fans, it changes the way you train for the sport. I personally would rather the domestic tour lines up with the FIVB Tour, at least with the technical rules.
“I can understand the trickler rule because it does feel like cheap points. A match shouldn’t end like that so I can see them doing it on match point. (The sideout rule) is going to favor some teams more than others. The strong defensive teams are going to be favored by that. I think we (with partner Kendra VanZwieten) are a strong defensive team so it could favor us.”
The sideout rule has the potential for a major drawback. Since teams still have to win by two points, a match that might have been finished could drag on and cause a backlog in the schedule.
“That terrifies me,” AVP tournament director Jeff Conover said.