Men’s pro beach volleyball has a problem. Especially in America.
Last month, I read with great interest about Travis Mewhirter’s interview with Volleyball World’s Finn Taylor. Taylor was on the SANDCAST podcast with Mewhirter and Tri Bourne. And a couple of things stood out to me, one symbolic, and one financial. A lot came out of that interview to discuss here as pro beach volleyball moves into 2022, a pivotal year for the sport.
Say what you want about former FIVB head Ruben Acosta, but he had a vision for the beach game, and the result was that it became included in the program for the first time in the Olympic Summer Games in Atlanta in 1996, an amazingly quick trajectory for a sport that did not take hold internationally until really the decade before. Moreover, he also gave his blessing to the first ever World Championships at UCLA in 1997 (broadcast live on NBC) which was a resounding success.
What significant developments have aided the growth of the sport since then? Well, the answer is bupkis.
In fact, as we have all seen, the number of “elite” tournaments (those with a preponderance of the world’s best athletes) shrank by an alarming number over the years, and with it so has the prize money.
In 2007, the No. 10-leading earners on the FIVB tour were Franco Neto and Pedro Cunha at $89,950. A king’s ransom, no, but still pretty good coin. In 2019, the last year before COVID, and a World Championship year to boot, 10th place on the yearly list got you $58,500. That’s a reduction of 35%.
The best players in the world are making relative chump change. Take for example, German Julius Thole, one of the most promising stars in pro beach volleyball.
This past October, Thole retired.
At age 24.
Two years after he won a silver medal at the last FIVB World Championship, in his home country, under the bright lights.
That was among a number of accomplishments in his short career, which included a fifth in the Olympic Games in Tokyo playing with Clemens Wickler.
Thole has decided to pursue the German equivalent of a law degree. Nothing wrong with that to be sure, especially when you make only around $9,000 in prize money in an Olympic year.
However, at the least, it’s rare that a “professional” athlete in any sport quits at the height of his/her powers to pursue a completely non-tangential career.
Granted, some of these players cobble together sponsorship deals that make things more lucrative. But the problem with beach volleyball is that there are not a lot of “natural” product tie-ins. Once you get past apparel, balls, suntan lotion and sports drinks (and in Bourne’s case beer), there ain’t much there.
To play professional beach volleyball is expensive. The international travel costs are ridiculous and the top players are also paying for their coaches and physiotherapists.
No easy entry for the next tier of players
So, if you read about Mewhirter’s interview with Finn, the $300 million “financial shot to the vein” to the FIVB/Volleyball World was mentioned. That is fantastic, but given the history of the sport, what is the allocation of funds to the beach vis a vis the indoor product? How much are the administrative costs? How much goes to television/streaming production? Prize money for the nine Elite 16 events in 2022 is $150,000 per gender. You would think more of that $300 million could get in the players’ hands, and not just the top-tier players.
My overriding concern is that there is a barrier to entry to get to beach volleyball’s highest levels and this applies mostly to the men’s game.
Look at the Tokyo Olympics: Pablo Herrera, five Olympics and 39 years old; Jake Gibb, four Olympics, 45 years old; Phil Dalhausser four Olympics, 41; Martins Plavins, Alison Cerutti, Adrian Gavira, Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai three Olympics apiece; Nick Lucena, 41 years old. There is not a lot of turnover at the top.
Some might argue that is because these players are all legends of the Tom Brady/Roger Federer/Gordie Howe/Karch Kiraly ilk. I think it is because there is so little money in the sport we are not getting the best of the next generation of athletes.
Which brings us to the formats of the Volleyball World tournaments themselves: 16 teams, presumably the best in the world, determined by a point system. So, the great underdog runs we have seen in past tournaments, which make the game so invigorating, are kaput. In 1979 in the first round at the World Championships in Redondo Beach, the “A” rated team of Rocky Ciarelli and Tom Wade defeated co-favorites Andy Fishburn and Dane Selznick, the No. 2 seeds. As the upset was unfolding, no new matches were called up to the outer courts. Instead, EVERYONE was clustered around the Fishburn-Selznick vs. Wade-Ciarelli match. The underdogs won in as massive an upset as the sport has ever seen (For you hoopsters, it was like Chaminade defeating Virginia with Ralph Sampson).
But, in the sideout era no less, Fishburn and Selznick plowed through the losers bracket (no PC “contenders bracket” back in those days) and made it to a double final, losing in OT to Karch and Sinjin 18-16.
But that’s not all. Who could also forget Daniel Cardenas and Chris Hannemann defeating Karch and Kent at the height of their powers in the first round of the AVP Chicago in 1993?
Or the 2006 Hermosa AVP when the 27th seeds John Mayer and Brad Keenan finished third after 11 matches in three days with Mayer having to sprint to the airport to catch a flight to the World University Games right after because he thought there would be no way he could advance to Sunday?
Or FIVB Gstaad 2002 when Brazil’s Benjamin and Marcio played 12 matches as the 23rd seed among the qualifiers and then advanced all the way to the finals to take second?
Happenings like that are way too rare in today’s game.
How long will it take a team bubbling under the top 16 playing in the “challenge” tournaments to make it up to the “elite” level? I know that as a fan, I would love to see some fresh blood playing for medals, like the dynamic Swedes Jonatan Hellvig and David Ahman, or the young Brazilian talents, the brothers Renato and Rafael Lima, and the USA’s Miles Partain.
Bring the sport back to the fans in attendance
Finn Taylor correctly points out a problem of our sport is presentation. But we are not in alignment on how to fix this. Beach volleyball was built on player accessibility and personality. The enormous FIVB and AVP stadiums are most assuredly not the answer. I have always been told that the “sponsors” request their VIP areas, but the sport has never been about that and WHAT sponsors are we talking about here?
There can’t be too many sponsors out there if there are so few events and such little prize money.
Tear down the walls.
We need the hecklers and other assorted (or maybe we should call it sordid) personalities back in the game. That’s part of the allure and atmosphere. Remember “Rosie’s Raiders?” Drowned out in a stadium, but on a side court, pure magic. Gary Hooper and Steve Obradovich had their own dysfunctional band of followers. I should know — I was one of them. After a long week at school or the office to cruise down to the beach to see their sublime play and listen to their banter was pure nirvana. You never knew what to expect. Pure Gold.
We also need lots of courts with play going on simultaneously. I appreciate Taylor’s ideas about keeping costs down, and reducing the all-expense paid FIVB army, that while very competent, drills a hole in the pockets of promoters. But, all that being said, if you have a crummy game on stadium court, and you are sitting up in the rafters, it can get boring pretty fast.
In 2010 when the AVP went belly-up, a Manhattan Open was still held in August. No bleachers, no walls.
It was fabulous.
Hecklers all over the place. You could watch four matches simultaneously. The biggest crowd may have been when Brent Frohoff and Scott Ayakatubby were playing to the accompaniment of a trumpeter. Austin Rester wore throwback Karch Kiraly pink short shorts and 5-9 Dana Camacho played with 6-9 Bill Strickland and they took second place. At the time, even though he was not one of the top players, Camacho was one of the most well-known players on tour despite his unorthodox play and equally unorthodox lifestyle. He was Adrian Carambula before Adrian Carambula.
That was beach volleyball.
Now, of those nine 2022 tournaments on the Volleyball World “Elite 16” circuit, guess how many of them are in the U.S.?
Nada, noonka, none.
That’s a big miss.
Get the game going strong in America
The Olympics are coming to Los Angeles in 2028, and the sport, paradoxically needs to be reinvigorated here. There are big-time sponsors in the U.S., and there is a beach-volleyball fan base here to support it. And the U.S. events need to be played in Santa Monica, at Annenberg, where the Olympics will be held, or Ocean Park, where there is plenty of parking.
A couple of months ago USA Volleyball and the AVP entered into some sort of “strategic alliance.” The announcement was filled with platitudes for both organizations but short on details of what it all means. First order of business should be figuring a path for development of men’s beach volleyball players. In the Volleyball World “Elite 16” tournaments, the USA will initially have one team represented, Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb. This, from the country that invented the game. I cannot imagine a more pressing issue. The Olympics in Paris are now two and a half years away.
The AVP has to enter into the equation.
It’s nice that the AVP was sold to Bally’s. I have heard that eight tournaments are a possibility in 2022. That would indeed be better than the total of six from the last two COVID-affected years. But young players cannot afford housing or living expenses in hotbeds like Southern California or Florida with such a limited amount of prize-money opportunities.
Additionally, it would be nice to see the AVP piggy back on sites that work at a grass-roots level. For instance, the Motherlode in Aspen and the Seaside, Oregon, tournaments should be “blown out” with the professional players. Built-in crowds, built-in atmosphere and events not played in stadiums.
Bally’s also has acquired the former Fox Sports Regional Sports Networks (RSNs). In its 1986-1997 heyday, the AVP was shown on tape delay on Monday nights for 20-plus weeks per year on what was known back then as Prime Network. So, in a sense returning to the RSNs is an interesting concept. However, the world has changed since those halcyon days. Bally’s was in 52 million homes at the end of 2020. It is reasonable to assume with cord cutting that they are under 50 million at this point. Moreover, if they air AVP events live, they will likely, in some markets, run into conflicts with MLB, NHL and/or NBA games. I hope that Bally’s has plans to distribute some of the bigger events to a broadcast network such as NBC, ABC, CBS or Fox which are in 114,848,000 homes, essentially over double the amount of Bally’s patchwork network.
The leaders must engage and listen
Finally, beach volleyball’s leadership at almost all levels that I have dealt with needs desperately to listen to voices outside the inner circle. There are a number of people who could make significant contributions who are being shut out, due to one perceived transgression or another. Or, they were affiliated with this tour or that, or this promoter or that. The best thing a leader can do is engage and listen, even to people who might not share the same POV.
I think we need to hear candid thoughts from veterans like Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith, Kerri Walsh Jennings, Holly McPeak, Kent Steffes, Mike Dodd, Tim Hovland, Chris Marlowe, Eric Fonoimoana, Steve Obradovich, and Dax Holdren. Ask their opinion on the state of the game and how to fix it. I fear and feel that these greats are not being regularly solicited for their input.
There are two documentary projects in the works right now, both dealing with the sport’s early history and golden era. It would make sense to listen to some of those people who were involved in growing and making this game great in the past.
All that being said, in no particular order, here is what I would like to see:
— First off, transparency in financial matters. World Athletics (the international track and field federation) does a very good job with this. It would be nice to know how much of the Volleyball World $300 million will go in each expenditure bucket. If you are going to make a big deal about this infusion of capital than you have to know there will be follow up questions on how it will be spent. More money to beach, and quickly, please.
— We need to entice people to engage with our product, and not push them away. As such, we need to tear down the walls and fences around the courts, get rid of the stadiums and roll out the welcome mats. I have heard, uncorroborated, that the infrastructure costs, including the personnel cost of these stadiums is north of $500,000. We need to redistribute and get that money in the player’s hands.
Steve Obradovich once told me, “The only person who ever made any money in beach volleyball was Karch Kiraly.” That might be an exaggeration, but there are a number of ex-beach volleyball players who have made a ton in the private sector. It is time for businesses to step up and sponsor individual players. I know a few wealthy folks in track and field who have underwritten the travel and expenses of Olympians (my brother-in-law was one such recipient). There is psychic gratification to know that you helped the career of an aspiring athlete. And maybe you get some souvenir swag along the way. I am in, are you?
In 1992, I attended a “Meeting of the Minds” at NIKE’s Beaverton, Oregon, campus. The idea was to take all the stakeholders in track and field, get them around the same table, and discuss collectively the best way forward for the sport. It was a brilliant idea and extremely effective for one primary reason: dialogue. People who could not stand one another walking into the place had a much better understanding on the way out. The common thread: Love of the sport.
I propose a similar meeting for beach volleyball at a neutral location. Let’s get a cross-section (just like the Meeting of the Minds) of people in the sport with an agenda to drive: 1) Development and financial underwriting of elite U.S. men’s players; 2) Game presentation; 3) Marketing our elite players. For this meeting I would cap the group at 30 to include current and former players, promoters, officials, AVP, FIVB, USAV and allow some media for transparency.
— A rules change: We need a freeze — that has worked so well for the AVP — for every game, win by one. Sinjin Smith floated this idea, and as far as I know it has gone nowhere. But we have had no rules changes on the international level in 21 years, and in that time the game has had a decline in popularity. Let’s give it a shot. What is there to lose? To have that “tension” at the end of each set would contribute more drama.
— Volleyball World must host at least two tournaments in the U.S. every year leading up to the ’28 Olympic Games. This must happen no later than 2023.
— Finally, we need the AVP to work with and be sure its biggest events are shown on broadcast televisionand/or ESPN. Bally’s, and its patchwork quilt of networks, and declining subscriber base that is more attuned to watching these networks for stick and ball sports, is the wrong way forward. At the very least, let’s get the big events — Hermosa, Chicago and Manhattan Beach — on the biggest platforms possible.
Men’s pro beach volleyball deserves it.