It was at 5 in the morning on July 1 when the first ball for any sport in the Netherlands was put into play in the year 2020.
Wilco Nijland was no different than any other organizer of professional sport around the world: He had plans for the upcoming season: 15 Dutch Tour tournaments, a couple King of the Court events. Covid had other plans.
It was in March that the government ordered all professional sports be postponed until, at the earliest, June. So Nijland adapted, adjusting the schedule, the media, the sponsors, the venues. One month later, the government moved the goalposts again, bumping the start date for sports to September. Again, Nijland, and his team at Sportworx, a start-up sports company based in Utrecht, adapted.
And then, abruptly, the government changed course. At the beginning of June, “the government said ‘We are releasing everything on the first week of July,’” Nijland recalled on SANDCAST: Beach volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
One more time, they adapted, adjusting the tour schedule to begin on July 1 in Zaandam, at a most unusual time of 5:24 a.m. The first ball would be served exactly at sunrise.
“We wanted to be the first sport in the Netherlands to start,” Nijland said. “So we did it when the sun came up. It was a surrealistic thing. Everybody was there at 4. At 5, we started the tournament, and two hours later somebody asked me the time, and I said ‘Oh, it’s 6:30.’ It was good stuff.”
It’s quintessential Nijland, finding a way to put a unique stamp on things, zigging where others might zag. He’s the CEO of SportWorx and the brains behind the upstart King of the Court Series, a high-octane, fast-paced twist to the standard two-on-two game of beach volleyball that debuted as a professional sport in Utrecht in 2018 and will host the first event of 2020 on September 9-12 in Utrecht.
Little, if anything, Nijland creates falls into the traditional boxes of sport. He expands, innovates, adds and readily adapts to a rapidly-changing world.
“We work with leading international sports organizations to develop new and exciting formats to push the boundaries in performance and entertainment,” SportWorx’s website proclaims. “We are investing in our ideas to showcase what the future of sports can look like… to develop the sport and create unforgettable and innovative sports experiences for athletes and audiences alike and inspire future sports generations.”
It is with that mindset and ability to stretch beyond the standard limits of beach volleyball that Nijland created an event that captured an entirely new demographic in the sport. Suddenly, with five of the best teams in the world on a single court, in a 15-minute sprint of a match, with only eight seconds between points and a race to score more points than the other four teams, the 18-34 year-old demographic was in. Suddenly, he was able to bridge the gap between the FIVB and AVP, running events in 2018 that piggybacked on both tours.
He befriended Al Lau, the longtime COO of the AVP, to run a King of the Court alongside AVP Hawai’i. He worked with the FIVB, to the point that the FIVB actually bought the King of the Court, putting it under the international tour’s umbrella of events.
“Thumbs up for the FIVB that they’re supporting us,” Nijland said. And Nijland is doing his part to support a world starved of not just sport, but business, entertainment, normalcy.
The sponsors for King of the Court were justifiably hesitant to throw cash to put their names on an event. No matter. He organized for Inntel, a hotel in the Netherlands, to give 325 free nights for King of the Court players and staff. The watch company, Maurice Lacroix, donated watches rather than cash — the watches run up to $5,000, so it’s no small sum. Nijland is looking to the future for King of the Court, and for sport in general.
“The hotel business has five or ten percent of the people in their hotel in the last month,” Nijland said. “They need something new, something good for themselves. That’s the thing: Why are we doing it? We’re doing it because we want to make it happen for everybody. We want to bring joy to the lives of everybody while they’re panicking. This is something, if you have the opportunity, we go for it.”
He’s going for it. There is no doubt about that. And, per Nijland style, he’s doing it with a flair. Covid restrictions in the Netherlands are similar to that in the U.S., with protocols on how close individuals can be to one another. Every other major sporting league has adjusted by holding events devoid of fans. Nijland could have followed that path, too, but this is Wilco Nijland, the guy who scheduled a serve to coincide with sunrise, the man who essentially created his own sport out of the raw materials provided by beach volleyball.
Since when has he done what everyone else is doing?
Rather than fan-less events … how about skyboxes? Stacked on top of one another? Where there’s an excellent view of the event, food and drinks can be delivered, and viewers will only be in contact with those with whom they arrived?
“We thought ‘We can keep on crying about what we cannot do, but let’s focus on the things we can do.’ So we developed a special stadium for King of the Court,” Nijland said. “It’s a stadium where everyone who is coming gets their own skybox. There’s a total of 50 skyboxes.
“You have your night out with your friends: Volleyball, music, entertainment, drinks, your food in these crazy times. Let’s focus on the things you can do.”
What Nijland can do is host the only international event of any kind in the Netherlands, the first FIVB-run tournament since the Doha four-star in March. He can provide an international audience for his sponsors, competition for the players who need it to make a living — the field is not yet fully released — a little joy to those in the skyboxes.
“We’re taking the opportunity to be one of the few events,” Nijland said. “We’re taking advantage of that one. It’s one event.”