The domestic professional beach volleyball world got a jolt on Friday when the National Volleyball League (NVL) announced that it is joining forces with former Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) CEO Leonard Armato and launching its tour at his World Series of Beach Volleyball tournament in Long Beach July 14-16.
The move represents a partnership that will see the NVL raise its season-long winnings purse from $300,000 to $450,000 total.
It also happens at a time when top players are trying to re-negotiate the players contract they have with the AVP.
“I wanted to work with Leonard to increase players benefits, opportunities, and prize money,” said NVL CEO and co-founder Albert “Al-B” Hannemann. “We have big plans this year and in 2018 and all players are welcome to play in all of our events.”
The most recent AVP contract, which was put into effect when Donald Sun took over the tour in 2012 and lasted for four years, demands that players only compete in AVP events. A new contract is in place for 2017 and the players, who are independent contractors and don’t get benefits from the AVP, must get permission to play in any other kind of beach volleyball event, especially the NVL. There is also a non-disclosure clause for everyone who signs it.
Last week, in a different issue, beach icon and superstar Kerri Walsh Jennings sued the AVP in Los Angeles Superior Court looking to recover $150,000 she said is owed to her as part of a three-year contract she signed with the AVP in February 2013 for the company to use her name, likeness and “other indicia” of her identity in exchange for $450,000.
The complaint stated that the AVP made two $50,000 payments to Walsh Jennings each in 2013, 2014 and 2015, but did not remit two $75,000 payments in 2016.
But when she talked to VolleyballMag.com, Walsh Jennings also alluded to the contract situation.
“With regard to the player contract, we are currently preparing to negotiate the terms,” she said. “As of now, the contract is un-signable, but I am hopeful the players can come to terms that result in a win-win for the tour, the athletes and for the future of the sport.”
When asked to comment further for this story, Walsh said, “I am not the spokesperson for the athletes and I don’t want people to make this an issue of me versus the AVP.
“That is not the case, yet it tends to get positioned that way. We (a solid group of athletes) are simply in the process of preparing to negotiate the player contract.
”I’m not at liberty to share specifics, but again, the intention is to come to the table ready to negotiate a great contract for all sides.”
Accordingly, last week there was a meeting of top pros who have asked other AVP players not to sign the contract until they meet with the AVP next week. There was another meeting scheduled Friday night at which more of the top men’s players were expected to attend.
One top women’s player said it was important to know that “It is not Kerri who is driving this train,” using the term “collective bargaining” and added that “Kerri is definitely an important piece in the matter.” It was added that counsel from outside of volleyball was brought in.
“I think it’s great that the players are coming together and figuring out how to have one voice so we can all communicate more and everyone thinks as a whole,” said one veteran men’s player, who requested anonymity. “I think the players have a certain power and deserve to have that voiced. We’re the product, but there’s a fine line and we can’t abuse it. We have to make sure we have players from both sides of the spectrum.”
It should be noted that Armato, who ran the AVP from 2002-09, is now representing Walsh Jennings. According to a Los Angeles Times story from when Armato left the AVP, “the tour has been mired in financial difficulties and has not turned a profit since 1998.”
“Our philosophy is not to work with one organization at the exclusion of another,” Armato said. “Our belief is that all organizations should work together towards mutual benefit. The rising tide makes all boats float higher.”
VolleyballMag.com asked the AVP and its CEO, Donald Sun, for a comment but had yet to get one as this story was posted.
The NVL had previously announced its schedule starting May 11-13 in Dallas, followed by a stop in San Antonio June 15-17. Hannemann said those events will still include developmental NVL Adult Rize tournaments to gain NVL pro points and that the other stops on the NVL schedule, August 10-12 in Hermosa Beach, August 25-26 in Virginia Beach and September 14-16 in Port St. Lucie are still on.
“We are working on more tournaments to extend season though the fall,” Hannemann said.
Hannemann said there is more coming to the new partnership.
“We’ll have more announcements to come soon,” he said. “This is all we can talk about right now.”
The AVP is set to open its season May 4-7 at Huntington Beach, the first eight stops of a tour that last year offered purses of $575,000 for the men and $575,000 for the women.
A major argument players have is in today’s beach-volleyball world is that there are not enough lucrative events to simply play on one tour and make a living.
“I haven’t seen the player agreement yet, in order to obtain it, I have to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and once I sign that, I can’t discuss it with my fellow players, so that’s counter-productive,” said veteran beach pro Mark Burik, who earned $10,850 on the AVP and a total of $5,450 on the FIVB and Norceca combined in 2016. “What the players want is to be able to take advantage of volleyball opportunities.
“Last year there were seven AVP events. If you were, for example, the No. 10 team, you probably made around $7,000 for the season, and had to pass up numerous volleyball opportunities around the country.
“Is that worth a year of your volleyball life? I understand that having access to top players is important for the tour and sponsors, but as players, we want to be able to compete in as many tournaments as possible, and banning players like Brooke Niles and Travis Schoonover for life for playing NVL isn’t the solution.”
In their cases, Niles, married to beach star Nick Lucena and now the head coach of Florida State’s beach team, and Schoonover were banned for four years by the AVP for playing in an NVL event, Niles at the end of the 2012 season and Schoonover in 2013.
Niles is seven months pregnant with her second child and isn’t sure when she’ll play competitively again. Schoonover, who plans to play in the AVP event in Huntington Beach now that his ban is over, acknowledged that “there are a lot of players who are not happy.”
“The whole purpose of the contract is so people won’t go play NVL,” said Schoonover, who played an NVL event in Las Vegas after playing the AVP in Manhattan Beach in 2013 and then was banned.
“I know the contract is an issue for the players,” said Sinjin Smith, one of the faces of the sport from the late 1970s into the 1990s. “The AVP needs some kind of players that they can sell the sport to sponsors, but to have a contract that prohibits the players doing anything outside the AVP is a mistake.”
The AVP this week announced its sponsors for 2017, and the list includes Boston Beer’s Truly, Kona Deep, Frontier Communications, Rox and Klenskin. The WSOBV has not announced its purse, but its sponsor list includes ASICS, Michelob Ultra, Otter-Pops, Barefoot wine, FIVB, iHeart radio, Dick’s Sporting Goods, TruMoo, Wescom, Frontier Communications. More are coming, the WSOBV said.
“I don’t like the idea of complete exclusivity,” Smith said. “I don’t think that’s the right thing in this day and age. With the amount of money the AVP is putting out there to the players, it doesn’t make any sense.”
Smith said when he played in the 1970s and ’80, prize money was guaranteed and “it was a completely different thing.
“There was enough money, so we didn’t want to do anything else. And there were enough events. This is a totally different situation.”
Not everyone agrees with the players, some of whom have already signed the AVP contract.
“This is just my opinion, but because this is a professional sport you are not owed a living. Why do you think Donald or anyone else owes you anything? It’s his property. If you want to be a part of it he should be able to demand some allegiance in return when there are people constantly trying to undermine what he’s doing,” said one person in the sport who asked for anonymity.
That person added, “You can make a living in this sport. You just have to be really good at it. It’s unfortunate that five people from each gender can make a living at this sport. No one’s stopping you from trying.”
That person decried the protesting players’ attitude, saying that “I’m put off by the arrogance and sense of entitlement of the beach players. I think it’s not a bad idea to consult your players, the people you employ, and do your best to make sure they’re happy, but what blows my mind is that people who are good at playing volleyball somehow equate in their minds that a) they know what’s best for the sport as a whole, and b) that they have any idea of how to run a business.”
That person was asked about the example of a player who is marginal and happens to qualify at an AVP event and then has to sign that exclusivity contract.
“That’s the only pertinent example of why a player wouldn’t want to sign that contract.”
Regardless, things are changing. Walsh Jennings and just a handful of others can make enough through earnings and endorsements to live off beach volleyball.
“It is time for all stakeholders in the sport of beach volleyball to work together to grow more opportunities for the athletes and provide more value for fans,” said former beach star Holly McPeak, not only Armato’s wife but also a TV commentator for the sport. “So any cooperative arrangement among tours or sanctioning organizations is positive.”
“There should be a new world order of looking at the sport,” said Armato, Shaquille O’Neal’s former player agent. “It should be an order based upon cooperation, collaboration, cross promotion and a collective desire to grow the sport. Put aside past differences, factions, all of that should be eliminated.”
Friday the NVL and WSOBV had a new release that included the following:
“This is an exciting time for our sport,” said NVL CEO and Founder Albert “Al-B” Hannemann. “Partnering with WSOBV creates a tremendous opportunity for growth and gives us the ability to build more impactful events, develop new brand partnerships, increase prize money and create year round opportunities for players to make a living playing the sport they love.”
The NVL is a league built on a mission to create a sustainable future for pro beach volleyball in the U.S., and as part of that mission it will increase the size of prize purses for athletes in 2017, totaling $450,000. The strategic partnership with WSOBV will also help further NVL’s vision of creating additional high-profile opportunities for athletes. The two entities will work together on marketing partnerships, grassroots growth and other initiatives focused on increasing the sport’s footprint in the U.S.
“Volleyball is one of the fastest growing sports in America and its full potential has yet to be tapped,” said WSOBV CEO and Founder, Leonard Armato. “Our partnership with the NVL is based on a collective desire to create an atmosphere of cooperation, aggregation and high growth for the sport. We hope to increase collaboration among every key stakeholder in the volleyball world and create more value for those stakeholders, the fans, the volleyball community and the athletes we serve.”
VBM’s Ed Chan and Mike Miazga did some of the interviews in this story.