SANDCAST: Riley McKibbin, and the rise of one of beach volleyball‘s most influential voices

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Riley McKibbin was on the job at AVP Chicago/Michael Gomez photo

Riley McKibbin knew that what he was about to say was a little bit crazy. That the odds of him fulfilling the loftiest of goals are so low they venture into the realm of impossibility. That it’s something many have tried, and failed — and failed and failed — over the years since beach volleyball became a professional sport in 1976.

“But,” he said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, “I think it’s doable.”

Because when have the odds ever stopped Riley McKibbin from doing anything?

Yes, McKibbin did make the bold proclamation that “it would be cool to be a part of the group that changed everything in volleyball and beach volleyball. ‘Those guys made it happen. This is what their strategy was. They’re case studying it.’ It sounds lofty and impossible, but that’s what we’re trying to do.”

He’s never been one to buy into the long odds, McKibbin. That’s been his life, and also the life of his group of childhood friends, an absurdly gifted cluster of Hawai’ians who have gone on to reach the highest levels the game of volleyball can provide.

Who could have reasonably predicted, for example, that a 6-foot-nothing outside hitter would one day become the best player in college volleyball, an Olympian, and now one of the best defenders in the world, as Taylor Crabb did?

Who would have guessed that Maddison McKibbin, injury-plagued since committing to USC, would take a shot on the beach and become an AVP champion?

That Tri Bourne, who skated through high school without a single collegiate offer, would overcome an autoimmune disease and return to compete in the Olympics and win the Manhattan Beach Open?

That Trevor Crabb would commit to play basketball at Puget Sound, transfer to Long Beach State to ride the bench — then become one of the best beach players of his generation?

And who in their right mind would have pegged Riley McKibbin, perpetual youth benchwarmer, the kid who was “afraid to make an error, afraid to disappoint his friends, afraid to embarrass himself,” would rise to become a captain of the USC team as a sophomore, a member of the U.S. National Team, who would compete in Italy’s top league?

Long odds? They’re nothing to these Hawai’ians. And they’re nothing to McKibbin, who has continued to climb mountain after mountain in this sport, in a manner no other player before has. Alongside his brother, Maddison, Riley has become one of the most recognizable faces in beach volleyball. The pair, with their viral YouTube channel, are almost inarguably the two most influential presences in the sport, despite never having made an AVP semifinal together.

Because they’re more than players. Far more. They see the limitations of this game not as boundaries in which to be confined, but opportunities to exploit. When they began transitioning to the beach, they searched for tutorials on YouTube. When they found nothing, they didn’t complain about that dearth — they simply started their own. In doing so, they filled a gap the beach world didn’t realize it had and stumbled upon a world they maybe hadn’t even intended to discover.

“One of the advantages with our sport is there are a lot of opportunities to be made and a lot of gaps to fill,” Riley said. “That’s super rewarding just mentally and creatively that it’s hard to balance our energies.”

As the videos progressed, so, too, did the McKibbins’ abilities to create them. Now, 184 videos later, they have a bigger platform and exponentially more audience engagement than the actual organizations who are putting on the tournaments. That moonshot progress, however, came with its own set of drawbacks.

“You can get stuck in this perpetual phase of growth: I’m growing, I’m growing, I’m growing, I’m growing. At what point do you need to get out of that phase?” McKibbin said. “You sacrifice a lot for that phase, but sometimes you just need to stop. ‘That’s built now. Let’s spend time here. Let’s take a break.’

“Maddison and I, we grinded for so long and I told him: ‘Dude, at what point are we going to be satisfied?’ When you first start out on YouTube, you’re super stoked on 10,000 views, then it’s 100,000 views and a few have a million. Now we have a presence of mind to say let’s stop with that obsession, let’s switch to something that’s meaningful.”

A little more than eight months ago, the switch began: They weren’t necessarily finished with tutorials, but they were focusing more on storytelling, digging into the inspiring and winding tales of some of the best players in the country. It’s another area in which the sport was lacking, and an area the McKibbins found meaningful to create.

“We have an unfair advantage in that all of our best friends are in the top 10 in the sport, so we know all the backstories, and my mom, as bad a camera person as she is, happened to have all this old footage,” McKibbin said. “So we have this giant library of me, [Tri Bourne], Taylor [Crabb], Trevor [Crabb], Maddison. So we have the ability to make all these videos without having to send a bunch of emails, mining through footage. We have it all.”

Soon, they were pumping out weekly documentary-style videos of Riley, Maddison, Taylor Crabb, Tri Bourne, many of which eclipsed the 100,000-view threshold. Now, with momentum gaining on their storytelling, they’re beginning to delve into the next realm of creating: Putting on events.

In two weeks, the McKibbins, alongside SharpeVision, will host a four-man invitational tournament at Moontower Saloon in Austin, Texas. They’ll be charging admission, $30 per ticket, admission that sold out in 24 hours, causing them to move to a bigger venue where they could sell even more tickets. They’re covering all of the athletes’ expenses. Divvying out prize money.

Where many saw a glaring hole in the sport — a severe lack of events in the United States — the McKibbins again saw only opportunity: What if we created our own?

“We no longer have brainstorming meetings,” McKibbin said. “We have execution meetings. It’s easy to come up with good ideas. It’s what’s next. That part is so hard.”

That’s the part that would make Riley McKibbin achieve what he’s set out to do: Becoming “a part of the group that changed everything in volleyball and beach volleyball.”

He’s already doing it.

Why stop now?

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