Finn Taylor doesn’t understand.
It’s a head-scratching business, beach volleyball. He’s seen the numbers: more than 800 million fans across the globe — the fourth highest among any sport — an Olympic viewership that commands 2.6 billion hours of watch time, making beach volleyball the most-watched of any event every four years in the Summer Games. And he’s seen the sport itself which, massive untapped market aside, is the most appealing factor to him, one of the primary reasons why he accepted the job as CEO of Volleyball World.
All that considered, Taylor has constantly been wondering these past several months: Why isn’t it bigger?
“The first thing we realized really quickly is that the sport itself is fantastic,” Taylor said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “It’s not like we wanted to reinvent beach volleyball and come out with a whole new system and change it. The sport itself just needs to be showcased better.”
This is where Taylor comes in. He’s the freshly-minted CEO of Volleyball World, a massive digital media enterprise aimed at capitalizing on beach volleyball’s mostly untapped commercial appeal.
“It’s an amazing opportunity. No one realizes outside of volleyball how big volleyball really is. And that, for us, is where the potential lies,” Taylor said. “I look at sports like tennis and wonder why beach volleyball can’t get as big as that. I don’t understand why not. When you think about how we can grow a business around a tour and how we can highlight the athletes and bring them to a stage I think they deserve to be at, it’s all in front of us, really.
“That was part of the attraction: Realizing what a sleeping giant it really was, and being able to grasp that opportunity to say: We’ve got a great product, indoor and beach knock it out of the park in terms of the athleticism, the skill level, the excitement. But the packaging needs improvement, and that’s the entire packaging, not just what’s happening on the court but the fan experience of buying a ticket, getting to the venue, figuring out what’s all around the match itself. That, for me, was a real attraction.
“The sport is just bananas strong. My job really is just to give people the opportunity. What we’re doing is about providing fans the opportunity to experience volleyball at the top level and we believe volleyball will sell itself.”
All of this, of course, has been heard before. The AVP has changed hands half a dozen times since 1996, each new owner bringing with him a new set of promises and garish plans. In the past 10 years alone, the United States has seen two upstart tours come and disappear with the NVL and p1440. Which begs the question many are either asking now or have asked Taylor and Volleyball World since the company was formed: What’s different?
The differences are many: Volleyball World is not an upstart tour but a promotional vehicle for the biggest tour in the world in the FIVB, and it comes with a $300 million financial shot to the vein courtesy of CVC Capital Partners. Abundant resources aside, tactically speaking, the primary difference is that Taylor is tackling the issues he cannot fathom still remain issues.
Why, for example, has beach volleyball been given away for free at virtually every event since its inception?
“The first thing we’re doing is charging for tickets. Wild concept, but we don’t believe that beach volleyball is worthless,” Taylor said, laughing. “It’s a wild concept, and I don’t believe how wild a concept it is, but you don’t give away your crowned jewel right? This is something we’re very insistent on with organizers around the world. Even if it’s 5, 10, 15 dollars, it has a value. There is an intrinsic value to the athletes putting in the effort and putting on a show. So that’s a big part. There’s a cultural thing in beach volleyball is that it’s free, which I don’t understand.”
There has been, as you may have been able to guess, little pushback from the event promoters, whom Taylor has prioritized valuing in this new endeavor. In October, Volleyball World announced a new three-tiered system of international volleyball that will replace the star system, which included five different levels of events. Among the many issues with the star system — fans couldn’t distinguish the difference between a five-star and a four-star, there really weren’t any two-stars, the schedule seemed haphazardly thrown together year after year — was this: As the events grew bigger and more expensive, the promoters putting on the events were increasingly finishing deeper and deeper in the red, to the point that the biggest and best events virtually disappeared altogether.
In establishing a three-tiered system, where each level is easily distinguished — Elite 16, Challengers, Futures — and by reducing the number of teams at the top level to just 16, Volleyball World is adding by subtraction. Here is a system that is easy to understand, cheaper to implement, and easier to reap value.
The Elite 16’s, for example, no longer need a minimum of four courts. The reduction of necessary space means a promoter could put an event in virtually any location to showcase their country, say, in the middle of a city center. The first event the FIVB ever held outside of Brazil, in 1989, was held in Jesi, Italy, a town of just 40,000 then, featured just one center court, in the middle of the city, where all of the matches were held at night. It was a smashing success. The Elite 16 format makes events such as that possible again.
“We had to make an event with a format that allows the organizers to make money. The reason that we had inconsistency in the previous decade was that the events were getting bigger and bigger and more expensive to run and people didn’t want to run them. We wanted to make a format that was smaller in grandstand size, smaller in infrastructure,” Taylor said. “We pulled a lot of bureaucracy out of the organization. So in terms of reducing the number of officials that had to visit an event, reducing the number of courts, number of infrastructure, the specific changes in format were designed to reduce the number of courts and grandstands and bathrooms and nights at hotels. So the organizer still got an amazing tournament, still got the best athletes in the world, has a fully produced TV production, and global exposure, and had a path to make money where they’re selling tickets, local sponsorship, food and beverage, merchandise — this is something we worked very hard on early.”
The events themselves are one element of Volleyball World’s endeavor. Like any other sport, however — perhaps more than any other sport — content remains king. And Volleyball World is intent on producing more content than the sport has ever seen.
“We’re going to broadcast every single match on the tour, which has never been done before. But if we want to create a narrative and we want people to be able to follow their superstars and create context in these matches, you need to be able to commit to understanding how those teams fought through the rounds to get to where they are,” Taylor said. “For us, when talking about developing the product, we were really keen on not changing the sport itself; we wanted to build on that, and we wanted to be able to create a tour and events that highlight the level of athletes and provide a good opportunity for sponsors and beyond those that are sitting on the court and the hardcore dedicated fans.”
The events and the content go hand-in-hand: Content cannot be made without tournaments. In 2022, thus far, there are 18 tournaments on the schedule, nine of which are Elite 16’s. It’s a number that has been unsettling to many of the players on the World Tour, particularly those below the Elite 16 threshold.
How can they make a living competing on just nine weekends a year?
“The good thing is that they want more matches, which is exactly what we’re working on,” Taylor said. “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, and maybe we’ll take Christmas off. Realistically speaking, it’s about opportunity. And 16 events across 12 months does not create a legitimate product for the broadcasters, it doesn’t create continuity. We will have more events coming on as often as we can.
“For us to be able to create a consistent message for the fans, we want them to know: Every Sunday we’re going to watch beach volleyball. And if they go on Volleyball TV, they can watch it all the time.
“Be patient. You’ll have more events than you know what to do with. Trust me.”
Taylor and Volleyball World aren’t simply trying to put on as many events as possible for 2022, compiling a slapdash schedule year after year. They’re trying to build long-term events, no different than tennis and golf. Anyone who has ever picked up a sand wedge, for instance, knows that the Masters is held at August National every April. They know when the British Open and U.S. Open are held.
Already, Volleyball World has signed long-term contracts with several promoters, some of which extend up to six years. The idea is to build a consistent schedule, so players know where they’ll be playing, the fans know where to watch, and the sponsors know exactly what opportunities exist throughout a calendar year.
“This is quite a big change in thinking in terms of how do we create sustainability year to year, not just looking at 2022 and thinking ‘How can we do the best that year?’” Taylor said. “I want to get us into a situation where the athletes know every August they’re in Canada, or every March we’re in Mexico, and now we can build a routine, so the broadcasters know that every March we’re in Mexico and every August we’re in Canada, and then the sponsors know that. We start to get traditions, we start to get history, and we start to get recognition so that we’re not changing every single year. Everyone knows when Wimbledon is. Everyone knows when the Australian Open is. We want to have that sort of legacy in the sport.”
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