HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — As Kona beer sprayed and Sarah Sponcil, Terese Cannon, Chaim Schalk, Theo Brunner, and their collective coach, Scott Davenport, hugged and smiled for photo after photo, and thousands of fans poured off Hermosa Beach and into the awaiting bars at Pier Ave., it marked an inexact midpoint to this 2022 beach volleyball season.
There have been no shortage of changes to the sport this year: New owners, both for the international and domestic tours, new formats, new rules, new teams breaking through. As such, there was also no shortage of fan questions in our semi-monthly SANDCAST mailbag. We did our best to get to all of them on the podcast itself, in which Tri Bourne and I were joined by our talented co-host, Savvy Simo, both of whom just landed in Espinho, Portugal, for a Challenger event, Bourne with Trevor Crabb, Simo with Emily Day.
The most oft-asked questions were, of course, centered around the AVP.
Thoughts on the tier system so far? Does an AVP Tour Series count as a real main draw or no?
How has the AVP been ran so far under new owners?
What are your thoughts on the new Tour format so far?
How have you liked the new season format?
All of these questions are not only being debated in YouTube comments, chat boards, and social media amongst fans, but they also dominate conversations between players. It was interesting to see, in Muskegon, Michigan, the reactions from players who made their first main draw in a Tour Series event, which is the lowest rung on the new AVP ladder. Some celebrated it as their first main draw; some shrugged it off as a good accomplishment, but not a real main draw, whatever that means these days. The reactions were split almost exclusively on which players had previously attempted to qualify under the old system, in which an AVP Tour Series was essentially an AVP Next Gold — and not, therefore, a main draw — and which players were being introduced to the new, in which an AVP Tour Series is being purported as a legitimate main draw.
Personally, I don’t think it really matters either way. The qualifiers for the Tour Series are legitimately stiff, and when players do qualify, they should be immensely proud of doing so. In Denver, for example, Jake Dietrich and Hagen Smith failed to make it out of the qualifier. One week later, they took a fifth in a Pro Series in Hermosa Beach, upsetting top-seeded Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb and following it up with another one over Billy Allen and Jeremy Casebeer.
Tour Series or not, these qualifiers are as brutal as they’ve always been, and there are a ton of good players and teams who have been knocked out in every Tour Series qualifier thus far.
A common, almost unanimous gripe, with the new system, however, is the points. A win in Waupaca, for example, which collided with Hermosa Beach, is the points equivalent to a third in a Pro Series. This is exactly why Rafu Rodriguez and Dave Palm spurned a main draw berth into Hermosa, inarguably the best stop on Tour so far, and instead went to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, of all places: The points and money, against a far lighter competition — Phil Dalhausser, Taylor Crabb, Taylor Sander, Schalk, Brunner, Casey Patterson, Bourne, Trevor Crabb, Allen, Casebeer, Paul Lotman, Miles Partain, were not at Waupaca — were too good to pass up. Logic prevailed, and Rodriguez and Palm won their second Tour Series title of the year, raking in $8,000 in prize money and oodles and oodles of points. It was a smart move by them.
But it probably shouldn’t be the case. The points are, frankly, absurd, and as a player who fits right into the Tour Series competition and therefore stands to benefit the most from it, I can say that with a fair amount of credibility. A win in Muskegon, or Denver — Denver is a small exception, since it was by far the most talent-rich field in a Tour Series — or Waupaca is not anywhere close to as difficult as a win in Hermosa, or Austin, or New Orleans. Which brings us to our next question:
Why aren’t more main draw players playing the Tour Series? Players always look back and talk about how many tournaments the 90s had and how they toured the entire country, and now we have Bally’s demonstrating investment in the Tour with what seems like a pretty good expansion roadmap and we’re missing a lot of domestic pros. What would you change? How would you improve the situation? Does the situation need to be improved?
- Graeme Wren
It’s a fair question but an unfair comparison. In the 90s, there wasn’t a thriving international tour, nor was there an Olympic Games — qualifying didn’t begin until April of 1995, in Marbella, Spain — that forced players to play overseas. They didn’t have to pick and choose which events to play: The AVP came out with a schedule, and they played. There was no tier system. You just played. It was pretty simple. Nearly half of the events were also hosted on the West Coast, which made travel easier and cheaper. Now, a ticket to Atlantic City, host of two AVPs this season, is going to run a California-based player no less than $600, with hotels charging $500 a night. You’re almost guaranteed to lose money playing.
All of that aside, it’s also a bit risky for the top players to play in the Tour Series. Why, if the points are so good? Because the money isn’t. It would be dangerous for the top players to demonstrate that they’re willing to travel for a $25,000 tournament. It would send a message to Bally’s, which seems pretty tight on budgeting, that they don’t need to pump in six figures of prize money when just $25,000 will buy all of the top talent. It’s why many of the top players sat out of the USA Volleyball King/Queen of the Beach a few years ago: They didn’t want to make competing for less than $50,000 the norm.
So now you have a situation where the top players are torn: Do they travel — expensively — for low prize money but abnormally high points? Or do they stay put and stick to the Pro and Gold Series events and jet overseas when the situation calls for it?
It’s not an easy choice.
The Tour Series is an excellent idea. Personally, I’ve loved all of them. The events have been exceptionally well-run, better attended than Pro Series events in Austin and New Orleans — Denver especially showed up; I hope the AVP comes back — they’ve felt professional, and the prize money, for players at my level is great. I skipped a Challenger in Espinho, Portugal, to play in Waupaca and Atlantic City for that very reason. Should they double as a qualifier while also being touted as a professional event? I’m not sure. It’s all a bit confusing, even for a player, which makes it doubly confusing for a fan. It’s new, this system, so it’ll have its kinks, which is fine. To expect a perfectly smooth ride in year one would have been unrealistic; I’ll be interested to see if changes are made in year two, or if, as Tri suggested on a previous podcast, the Tour Series will become labeled what it really is: The Qualifying Series. In that world, the top players not only wouldn’t have to make the choice to travel, they just wouldn’t be allowed to in the first place, similar to how the top six teams on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour cannot compete in Challenger events.
AVP business strategy vs. FIVB business strategy? The FIVB product right now is superior.
I don’t know the specifics of the AVP and the Volleyball World business models. Those are for the higher-ups. But in terms of product, yes, Volleyball World’s is, in my mind, superior. Their stream is excellent, and their app, which was once maddeningly confusing, has been streamlined and, I think, easy to navigate. With the backing of CVC Capital, it seems Volleyball World isn’t sparing a ton of expenses in terms of the digital experience for the fans, from the streaming to the app to the commentary teams who are on for every qualifier match all the way to the finals (except for Gstaad, which I found strange). Is it working, financially? Who knows. They could be bleeding money, but Volleyball TV could also be raking in the membership fees. I love the fact that they created their own television network, are requiring subscriptions for it, and are giving subscribers a product that’s worth, in my mind, every penny. From what I gather, the subscriptions are substantial.
The AVP’s strategy at the professional end of things seems to be different, with a low-budget stream and dwindling original online content — but better prize money. The players stand to make more money playing on the AVP than on the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour, which is an enormous credit to the AVP, and it’s why we probably won’t see many, if any, players skipping AVP events for Volleyball World events the rest of the year.
The player experience, for the most part, is probably better on the AVP; the fan experience is likely superior when it comes to Volleyball World.
But the AVP also has a massive grassroots market, with thousands of memberships on AVPAmerica, juniors tournaments all across the country — expensive to register for; minimal cost to run — and a booming market of new athletes competing. Volleyball World doesn’t necessarily have that, though it does also oversee professional indoor volleyball, which no doubt provides a boon. As much as we like to pit the AVP against its international counterpart, given that they’re competing in space of professional beach volleyball, they’re almost too different to really compare.
What happened to the U.S. at the World Championships?
I don’t think anything really happened to the U.S. at the World Championships. Chaim Schalk and Theo Brunner performed exceptionally well, finishing fourth and narrowly losing a bronze medal to George and Andre, who are currently ranked No. 1 in the world. Tri Bourne and Trevor Crabb, who slipped into the World Championships because of an injury to Sweden’s David Ahman and Jonatan Hellvig, had to forfeit a winnable match against Estonia’s Kusti Nolvak and Mart Tiisaar because of COVID, and took ninth. Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander, a new team in which the latter is playing a new sport, pushed Austrians Phillipp Waller and Robin Seidl to three in their 17th place match.
Emily Day and Emily Stockman were knocked out by fellow Americans Sara Hughes and Kelley Kolinske, who went on to knock out Switzerland’s No. 1 pair of Tanja Huberli and Nina Brunner. Sarah Sponcil and Terese Cannon won their pool, beating Australians Mariafe Artacho and Taliqua Clancy, then lost a tight one to Germans Svenja Muller and Cinja Tillman, who have flown up the world rankings.
Kelly Cheng and Betsi Flint lost a tight one to World Tour Finals champs Karla Borger and Julia Sude.
I look at all of that, and I don’t see any ugly losses in there. And I look at it and also think that to expect much more in a transition year for the U.S. women would have been a bit much. With April Ross and Alix Klineman not competing this year — not yet, anyway; I don’t know if they have plans to — every single one of those teams are brand new. Sponcil and Cannon are only now just beginning to hit their stride; Stockman and Day were a bandaid partnership, and both are now competing with different players; Kolinske and Hughes have already proven they can win at the top level; Cheng and Flint have shown flashes of brilliance amidst some inconsistencies, which is to be expected with a new team.
The only women’s team with any type of longevity, at the moment, is Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth, who have an argument as the best team in the country, and they missed out on qualifying by less than 100 points.
I’ll go on the record and place a bet to Bally’s or whomever that the U.S. won’t be left off the podium when the World Championships hits Mexico in 2023.
We laughed out loud at this one, because we didn’t really know what to do with it. So we simply sang the praises of the Three Js of the AVP’s Holy Trinity: Josh Glazebrook, John King, and Jeff Conover. I’d say what their jobs are, but all three of them seem to do so much that to label them would be akin to limiting LeBron James to a single position in basketball: They do it all. All three.
Glazebrook is, technically, the Senior Vice President of the AVP, and is respected and appreciated by every AVP player I know. Watch him at an AVP, and you’ll see him do a little bit of everything, from physically setting up the event to managing players to helping with the stream to keeping the live scoring updated to picking up trash, walking your dog, and saving a cat from a tree.
King is the head ref, the one every player wants on the stand, because they know they’ll get a well-called, well-managed match. But he’s also the one running the AVP Tour Series events, the guy who’s sunburned and windburned and is still out there at 7 in the morning till 8 at night, making sure things are running as smoothly as possible, which is not an easy feat.
Conover is the Senior Director at the AVP, and is the contact for players who need to figure out injury and pregnancy points, what to do in terms of subbing a player in for their partner — any finer detail of competing on the AVP, Conover is your guy.
They’re great, all three of them, and they do an excellent job of putting a — usually smiling, often tired — face to the AVP.