This write-up will be different, though I do believe it to be absolutely necessary, looking at the climate of the beach volleyball world today. Typically, my post-AVP reflections are sunny-side up, looking towards growth while remaining grounded in reality.
The only similarity between my usually-beatific reflections and this one is that they are both brutally honest. And it is with that brutal honesty that I must directly address everyone who is in the qualifiers alongside me, and the dozens who were left out of the qualifier in Chicago because of the 42-team cap.
There is a lot of whining from this demographic, one in which I reside.
“The draws are too small!” so many cry. “They need to expand it!”
“Can you believe they capped the qualifier?” others bawled on social media. “How is that growing the game?”
Amid this cacophony of complaining, the only thought that I really had was this: Shut up.
All of you.
Every last one of you, including me, is in the qualifier — or not making it into the qualifier — because we have not yet earned our place in main draw, or in the qualifier. Beach volleyball is a meritocracy. It’s one of the fairest systems there is.
You can sign up for any tournament you’d like. AVP? Go ahead. AVP Next? You’re more than welcome. AVP Gold Series? Come on, then. AVP America? Right on.
The more wins you get, the more points you get. The more points you get, the better seed you get. The better seed you get, the better your chances are of being straight into main draw, or into the qualifier.
The only thing this system — a meritocratic, objective, completely unbiased system that rewards one thing: winning — asks is that you play. Play AVP Huntington Beach. Play AVP Next Colorado. Play AVP New York City. Play Seaside. Play Pompano. Play Virginia Beach.
Beach volleyball is a meritocracy. If you don’t want to put in the work, the travel, the time, to get better, don’t expect the sport to do you any favors. It won’t. And it shouldn’t. If you have a job that limits your travel, that’s a bummer, but the ones who are living in vans, in garages, working six part-time jobs to make it work, are going to rightfully take your spot.
If you don’t have the money to travel, find a way. Can’t find a way? Sorry. Somebody else will, and they’ll be the ones the system justifiably favors.
Yet somehow, this system seems unfair to an astonishing percentage of athletes outside of the main draw, and outside of the qualifier this weekend. Those living outside of Southern California are irate that the AVP has three events there, but just one in Chicago.
Because it’s the unofficial worldwide capital of the sport. It’s where 40 of the top 50 players on the men’s side and 43 of the top 50 on the women’s side live. It’s lifeblood for the fans there. There’s a reason the Manhattan Beach Open is considered to be the greatest event in the sport.
It’s because it’s in Manhattan Beach.
It’s steeped in tradition. It’s where fans know more about Reid Priddy’s record than Reid Priddy. It’s where the sponsor row is 30-some tents deep, and where I’d expect the viewership of Amazon Prime’s broadcast to explode.
So, yes, that’s where the AVP, which is headquartered in Costa Mesa, a lovely little town southeast of Huntington Beach, will wisely host several events. Yes, that’s where, if you really want to take this sport seriously, save for a few exceptions — Tim Bomgren, you are a Minnesotan superhero — you should probably live.
Ryan Doherty road-tripped from New Jersey to Costa Mesa and worked as a pizza delivery boy to make it work. Jake Gibb uprooted his new Utah-based family and moved to Huntington Beach to give it a shot. Logan Webber packed his Toyota Camry and drove from Michigan to make it happen. Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena made the move to Santa Barbara from Myrtle Beach to train with Todd Rogers, Dax Holdren, Sean Scott.
There are two themes here. The first is obvious: They did what the sport required of them to be the best they could be. The second may be less so: They didn’t whine about it.
You know what team didn’t make it into the capped Austin and New York qualifiers this year? Zana Muno and Crissy Jones. You know what they didn’t do? Whine about it.
Instead, they did something totally unthinkable, totally radical, totally crazy you might just call them insane: They worked harder. They got better. Then they traveled to Colorado and won an AVP Next Gold Series, assuring themselves a main draw berth into Manhattan Beach. Before they’d even play in that main draw, they made another, in Hermosa, where they finished third.
For that reason alone, they’re one of my favorite teams on tour right now.
Before we go much further: About those Gold Series tournaments. The winners received main draw bids into Manhattan Beach, along with a boatload of prize money, the equivalent of a ninth in a main draw.
So guess what happened, with all that money on the line? Some lower-tier main-draw teams made the trips, as they should have. Teams on the cusp of main draw and qualifiers don’t make much money, and, if their mindsets are right, they’re constantly looking to get better. So what’s a team to do, with lots of prize money on the line, and good competition in the Gold Series fields?
They’re going to travel, and they’re going to try and win those tournaments.
Imagine that: Beach volleyball players playing as much beach volleyball as they can, for money they rightfully deserve.
And if they win, guess what? They earned it, and that main draw bid goes to them, should they need it. Sometimes they needed it, sometimes they didn’t, to the great ire of the social media champs in the fields of those tournaments.
How could the AVP allow main draw teams to compete in AVP Next tournaments with main draw money and main draw points on the line?
On top of that, a team that won two AVP Next Gold Series — Delaney Knudsen and Katie Spieler — made their biggest career paychecks not in main draw, but in those AVP Nexts. They won the AVP Next in Chicago, which at the time was Knudsen’s biggest paycheck as a player. Then they won Seaside, which doubled that paycheck, therefore doubling her career-high.
Why wouldn’t they play?
Grant O’Gorman, who will be representing Canada in the 2020 Olympics, played Seaside, and he couldn’t even play Manhattan. Does that mean he shouldn’t have played? Hell, no. He did what any beach volleyball player should do: He saw an opportunity to compete, to get better, to make some money, and took it.
As should everyone who pretends to take this sport seriously.
And here’s the thing: If you can’t beat a lower-main draw team in an AVP Next, what makes you think you deserve to be straight into main draw, anyway? What makes you think you deserve to bypass the qualifier if you can’t beat the teams you need to beat?
It is not the AVP’s job to hand out participation trophies. Those are for little leagues and soccer moms or, better yet, the garbage can.
This is a professional sport, with the lowest barrier to entry of any professional sport I know. Even golf requires a minimum of a 2.5 handicap to enter a U.S. Open qualifier. In beach, you don’t even need a AA; you can just sign up and lose 21-3, 21-3, and (incorrectly) tell your buddies you played in a professional beach volleyball tournament.
And now some are asking, begging, for that barrier to be lower?
As for my fellow qualifier brethren: No, the draws do not need to be expanded. In a perfect world, sure, that would be awesome. The talent level is rising, and quickly. Qualifier teams are proving they can do the damn thing in main draw.
But while the supply of highly talented beach volleyball players may be rising, the demand for them is not. It’s basic economics. So when people — and this happens largely in Southern California — demand that the draws be expanded, and I shrug and say, ‘OK, where’s the money going to come from to pay for those bigger draws?’ there is invariably a frantic sort of response. They don’t know. It’s not their job. That’s for someone else.
In part, yes. But there is an accountability on us, the players, to create a product that sponsors, advertisers, consumers will buy. Make a better product, and the demand for said product will rise. When the demand rises, then comes the revenue.
Why do you think Casey Patterson’s board shorts host more sponsors than Ricky Bobby’s car?
Because he creates the best product. And here I find it also critical to note that Patterson played, and lost, in qualifiers for five years before he didn’t have to bother with them.
So until the demand rises for our sport, let me offer one very practical piece of advice to everyone not content or happy with their place in beach volleyball: Get better. Win more matches.
You’ll be amazed at what happens when you win.