HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Almost a year ago to the day, Finn Taylor, the freshly-appointed CEO of Volleyball World, the company charged with a full rehabilitation of the FIVB’s way of operating international beach volleyball, discussed what was then the upcoming schedule for the inaugural Beach Pro Tour season.
“We don’t have a cap on the number of events that we want. I tell my team that there are 52 weekends in a year,” he said then. “Be patient. You’ll have more events than you know what to do with. Trust me.”
He wasn’t wrong: Volleyball World’s Beach Pro Tour schedule featured 45 events, beginning in March in Mexico, going literally until New Year’s Eve in the Netherlands. A little more than two months after Taylor’s appearance on SANDCAST, the AVP sent a similar message, boasting a 16-event schedule that would begin in May and stretch, eventually, all the way through December. It was the most tournaments in a season since 2009, and it went later in the year than any in the Tour’s 38-year history. If it were beach volleyball that players wanted to have this season, and if it were beach volleyball that fans wanted to see, they had it in spades.
“This year was really a cool year for fans, coaches, players like,” Keller said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “New things, different things happening, new organizations running the various pro leagues. That’s a big part of this end of season reflection: Where are we? Did things improve? From a fan’s perspective, the two tours, from a players perspective, from revenue, can you make a good living doing this? There’s a lot going on right now. It’s pretty intense.”
Keller has one of the most unique perspectives in the sport of beach volleyball, a man who has seen, up close and in person, beach volleyball through multiple eras, owners, and styles of play. The 46-year-old was never a great player, per se, something about which he is comically candid.
“I want to make this clear, I was never a very good player,” he said. “I barely scraped AAA, won a couple first round matches in a couple qualifiers, and I play four-man.”
But where he fell shy in the talent department, he more than atoned for in enthusiasm and zeal for the sport. When, in 1997, he moved to Hermosa Beach on the strand at 8th Street, he saw, as he recalled, “this one guy, a kid, and he’s the skinniest you’ve ever seen an upper body and his quads are the most giant, craziest quads and he’s doing things you’ve never seen. He’s jumping chest high over the net and everyone’s like ‘That’s Rosie.’”
That was the day Ed Keller became beach volleyball’s superfan.
He traveled up and down the coast that summer, riding shotgun with a 17-year-old Sean Rosenthal, watching Superman before he became Superman. Before anyone had any clue what Rosenthal, now a Hall of Famer, would end up becoming, Ed Keller did.
“There’s no other player I can remember myself saying ‘I’m going to go to everything he plays. I don’t care if it’s a four-man, if it’s a AAA tournament, if it’s a drunk draw, I’m going to go to everything he plays,’” Keller said.
Rosenthal hasn’t played in a professional tournament since 2020. But that hasn’t kept Keller from criss-crossing the globe, traveling to nearly every relevant tournament on the schedule. Eighteen tournaments did Keller see this season, nine on the Beach Pro Tour, nine on the AVP. There is only two players on the planet, Emily Stockman and Tim Brewster, who went to more events than Keller this year (15 Beach Pro Tour events, five AVPs; 11 AVPs, three Beach Pro Tours, six NORCECAs, respectively). So Keller, in 2022, will have to settle for bronze in number of events seen.
“Should have been more,” he said. “But I guess that’s OK?”
Yes, Ed, 18 events is OK.
What all of this traveling, since he was a teenager bumming up and down the coast with Rosenthal up through today, where he is now a successful businessman with the financial freedom to travel the world with the best, has done is provide Keller with a rare holistic, and relatively objective, perspective on the sport. He has seen the best of the sport’s halcyon days, watching the likes of Kent Steffes and Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith and Mike Dodd, Randy Stoklos and Mike Whitmarsh, and also those who have trudged through its financial struggles. He’s seen the rise of Phil Dalhausser, slept in his car in Vegas to witness Rosie’s Vegas Line. He remembers when folks called Nick Lucena the Greyhound and when nobody could understand a word Jose Loiola said.
He’s watched the AVP change ownership multiple times. He’s seen more systems than most know even existed, from when the AVP had a qualifying tour — the Wilson Qualifying Series — to the FIVB’s popular and simple Grand Slam and Open tiers… which preceded the star system… which preceded today’s Elite 16, Challenge, and Futures. He’s seen what’s worked and also a lot of what hasn’t.
“It’s funny, because you see the last two Elite 16s in South Africa and Brazil, and there was no women’s qualifier,” Keller said. “Think about running an event, which is supposed to be the highest level in the world, when only one or two of the top 10 teams even show up, and you’re supposed to have 16 teams in a qualifier plus 12 main draw teams. Normally, there should be a wait list. That is telling in and of itself. That tells the whole story.
“Wouldn’t it be better to have bigger tournaments, with just Elite, maybe 32 with a bigger qualifier, and there’s 15 of them, rather than having 42 tournaments split among three levels? It gets confusing as a fan, because I go see Qatar win a Challenge and then not show up to an Elite 16 a week later. It gets confusing. There’s mixed signals.”
And if it’s confusing to Keller, suffice it to say, it’s confusing to everyone. American players will often resort to asking Keller, a math whiz, for where they stand on points. It was Keller who broke the news to Bourne that Adrian Carambula had rekindled his partnership with Alex Ranghieri. It’s Keller who has had his finger firmly on the pulse of the sport since the 1990s, perhaps now more than ever.
“We need to get this sport to the point where the leagues are viable financially and the players financially get rewarded for the work you put in. It’s a full-time job,” Keller said.
How the sport gets there has been the question, for both tours, everyone has been wanting answered since the AVP went bankrupt shortly after the 1996 Olympic Games. There are few certainties, financial or otherwise, in this sport. But what’s certain is this: With Olympic qualifying set to begin as early as February of 2023, there will be events. Lots of them. And Ed Keller is going to be there.
“I’m expecting to work heavy until March or so then back to the events as much as I can,” he said. “Another qualification cycle so quick!”