MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. — That’s more like it.
All of it.
The stands that have been virtually nonexistent this year on the AVP Tour? Back to their full size in Manhattan Beach, with a packed VIP section, drinks flowing, and a line that snaked all the way to the Manhattan Beach Pier, weaving around a thick sponsor village that remained full of inquiring fans all weekend. Maybe the best part? Those fans began arriving early on Friday morning, the first day of main draw of last weekend’s Manhattan Beach Open. So crowded was the Gold Series event on Friday morning and afternoon that many of the players wondered, with amusement, how so many people were in attendance during normal working hours.
Because people take off for holidays, that’s why. And the Manhattan Beach Open is a holiday for fans and players alike.
The volleyball delivered, as Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb alas regained their swaggering form, sustaining it throughout an entire tournament en route to a second consecutive Manhattan Open title. Sara Hughes, whose first Manhattan Open came as a 10-year-old volunteer with the same, swishing blonde ponytail, won the title she seemed almost predestined to win, in an epic come-from-behind fashion. Down 10-13 in the third set to Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint, Hughes and Kelley Kolinske scored five straight, in a wonderful display of heart and grit.
That right there: That’s AVP beach volleyball.
Yet, of course, questions remain from the fans of SANDCAST. The thousands who were not able to attend all asked a version of the same question for us to answer this week:
Please, please, please talk about the AVP not streaming all courts. It’s really pissing the fans off.
- Jeff Dittman
Any insight into why the stands are smaller at the events and court two is not being streamed?
- Me Gusta Tacos
The most important element of my answer is this: I don’t know. What follows is just speculation. But if I had to guess, I’d imagine the answer could be summed up in a single word: Money.
At this point in the season, the first under the ownership of Bally’s, it’s not an altogether shocking insight that Bally’s seems to be tightening what already appeared to be a fairly tight budget for its newest asset (or liability). Streaming is expensive. And it’s especially expensive when hardly anybody is watching the matches.
It’s easy for me to empathize with Jeff Dittman and our taco loving fan. I, too, want to see all of the courts streamed. I, too, want to see matches happening on the outer courts, where much of the magic has happened, such as when Tim Brewster and Kyle Friend stunned Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander in Atlanta. Alas, there is no record of it. It wasn’t streamed. I don’t know what happened in that match, and neither do you, and that’s a shame.
But when you look at the numbers of the livestream viewers, and you take it with a dose of financial reality, they’re dismal. Even for Manhattan Beach, where the attendance and viewership was at its highest of the year, you’d have to add up the total views from both finals and all four semifinals just to breach the 100,000 viewership threshold. Since we all love to play what my good friend and co-author Kent Steffes calls Sports Roulette, comparing beach volleyball to other, more successful — i.e. more money — sports, here’s a comparison: Last year, 72 college football games attracted at least 3.5 million viewers. Those weren’t championships, as Manhattan Beach is; they were regular season games.
Manhattan is often considered the beach volleyball equivalent of Wimbledon or the Masters, so a few more comparisons: The Masters peaked with more than 13 million viewers in the final hour this year; Wimbledon hit 53.8 million viewers.
And the Manhattan finals? They attracted, at the time of this writing — YouTube will continue tacking on viewers as the matches are replayed — just 25,000 and 24,000 viewers, respectively, for the men and women.
So when you look at it from the perspective of how many people are — and, more importantly, are not — watching the matches, there is very little incentive for the AVP and Bally’s to add another stream that very few people will watch, especially if Bally’s is looking at matters from a pure ROI standpoint. The same argument holds for the stands, which are considerably smaller than in years past. Even in Austin and New Orleans, where they were at their smallest, they didn’t fill up. Fort Lauderdale, Hermosa Beach, and Manhattan, yes, they could have doubled, even tripled, the size, and it would have filled up, especially the latter two. But the precedent set at the beginning of the year was that nobody was showing up and nobody was watching.
To be sure, there’s also an element of quality. If Bally’s were to invest more in the quality of the stream, would more people watch? Probably. But the quality of the stream has almost been as poor as the number of fans watching it. There are matches labeled with the wrong teams. The lack of commentating in some of the biggest matches — such as a semifinal on court one of the Manhattan Beach Open, between Cheng and Flint and Zana Muno and Brandie Wilkerson — is astonishing. But again: Money. Amazon and Peacock put out tremendous products when they provided the streaming services, and neither Amazon nor Peacock are hurting for money. They also aren’t streaming AVP matches anymore.
The more important question, in my mind, is not why the stands are smaller, or why there isn’t an additional stream, but what we — the athletes, the fans, the organizers — can do to give Bally’s and the AVP a reason to add an additional stream and bigger stands. How can we attract more viewers, more fans, more return on their investment? Is it the quality of the play? The narratives being told? How well it’s being communicated to the world outside of the beach volleyball niche?
I’ll answer that with the same three words I began this ramble: I don’t know.
But I’d sure like to figure something out.
Talk about Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint winning Hamburg!
I talked quite a bit about it on the broadcast for VolleyballWorld.TV. They were awesome. Are awesome. When every team split up after the Tokyo Olympics, it was reasonable to expect that each new pairing would take a small step back before regaining form and perhaps even improving upon their previous teams within their first season. Cheng and Flint are there. They’ve made five AVP semifinals in six events, winning in New Orleans and very nearly putting their names on the Manhattan Beach Pier. In Hamburg, they dominated, winning all six matches while dropping just a single set, against the stiffest competition in the world.
They aren’t the only ones beginning to find their form, either. Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske have a Challenger gold medal to their name and are now Manhattan Beach Open champions. Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon have a Challenger bronze medal, a top-10 at the World Championships, and the AVP Hermosa Beach crown on the resume. Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth needed no rebuilding, and they are as good as ever, with a Futures and Challenger gold and an AVP title in Austin.
I believe every American team has hit its bottom and has found its footing in their new partnerships, and results like Cheng’s and Flint’s in Hamburg are, in my mind, going to become more and more common.
Are Trevor’s guarantees as good for the team as they are the AVP?
Epic Joy Volleyball
If we’re going just on sheer math, they appear to be pretty dang effective for the team, as Bourne and Crabb have won three out of four tournaments in which Crabb has thrown down a guarantee. His guarantee in Atlanta can even come with a small asterisk on it, as it wasn’t as well thought out as his others have been; that was an adrenaline-fueled, spur-of-the-moment, someone-shut-this-guy-up guarantee. Still: Four guarantees — 2020 Porsche Cup, 2021 Manhattan Beach, 2022 Fort Lauderdale, 2022 Atlanta — and three titles is one hell of a batting average.
Beyond the pure math of it, yes, I believe they’re great for the team. Bourne and Crabb play to the size of their container, so to speak: The bigger the moment, the higher the pressure, the better they play. Sometimes they’ll snooze through the opening rounds of tournaments, losing sets or even matches to teams they shouldn’t, because the sense of urgency on which they seem to thrive just isn’t there. But when they’re across the net from, say, Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner? Or Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander? Or Troy Field and Chase Budinger? Or when Crabb declares a guaranteed win? There’s pressure and urgency from the first point to the last.
When there’s something bigger on the line, they play better. They played some of their best volleyball at the end of the Tokyo Olympic race, somehow surviving all three Cancun tournaments and another Sochi without getting knocked out of contention, pushing the race to the final tournament, in Ostrava. In the biggest tournaments — like Manhattan Beach — they play their best ball. It’s why they’re on the Pier twice as a team, and Crabb thrice as an individual. The bigger the moment, the bigger they play.
How good is Miles Partain?
Generationally good. There is no player in the United States who makes teams more uncomfortable than Miles Partain. The most common refrain from teams who play him is this: “We couldn’t stop him on two, so we started serving him, and then we couldn’t stop him on three.”
He is the closest equivalent we have to Swedes David Ahman and Jonatan Hellvig, who recently dethroned Anders Mol and Christian Sorum to win the European Championship. They’re ushering in a wild era of jump-setting and creativity that the sport has never seen before, not from Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak, not even from Adrian Carambula and Enrico Rossi. Partain is doing something similar in the United States, leading every single tournament in total attacks despite most teams opting to serve Paul Lotman.
He sets remarkably well (he is, of course, the setter for the UCLA men’s team and was the MPSF player of the year), has a hitting window the size of a garage door, serves tough, and plays the mental chess match as well as anyone, making all the right moves at all the right times. I could go on for thousands more words about the kid, who is as magnificent off the court as he is on it, but the simple answer to the question is that Miles Partain is as enormous of a talent as we’ve seen enter the AVP since Phil Dalhausser and Jake Gibb.