Volleyball during a pandemic?

The question we heard the most was, “Without volleyball, what are you going to write about?”

A lot, as it turned out.

And, thankfully, you read what we wrote and we appreciate the heck out of it.

The numbers are fantastic.

In 2019, VolleyballMag.com surpassed one million page views for the first time in our history, 1.285 million-plus.

Pandemic be damned, because for 2020, with four days to go, we’re at 1.105 million-plus. And that’s without the NCAA Tournament, our most viewed month of stories during the year.

It’s a good feeling to know that through it all, we wrote, you read, and we can look forward to bigger and better things. We have a lot of great stuff planned for 2021.

But first, some reflection on 2020.

A couple of weeks into the pandemic, probably in late March, co-publisher Ed Chan and I set a goal of making sure that no matter what, Monday through Friday, we would have at least one quality story per day. There were a few weeks in there when that was a challenge, but between the two of us and regular writers Travis Mewhirter, Megan Kaplon, and Mike Miazga, and video interviews by Rob Espero, we kept pace. And we got some incredible contributions from new writers, not the least of which was Tom Feuer.

Tom Feuer

When the AVP held the first of its three-tournament series last summer, Tom got ahold of me and asked if he could write some post-competition analysis. His stuff was a big hit, and then, after the third tournament, Tom suggested a piece about beach volleyball rules changes.

It turned out to be the most clicked-on story we posted in 2020.

I asked Tom to tell me how the story came about.

“About 15 months ago, during the good old days,” he joked, “I was asked to write a story on the greatest brother teams in the history of beach volleyball. This was prompted by how successful Taylor and Trevor Crabb had/have been over the last few years. In the course of writing that piece, I reached out to Sinjin Smith to ask him what it was like playing with and against his brother Andrew. As usual, Sinjin was a quote machine and just before we signed off our conversation, he said, ‘What you really need to write about is this idea I have …’ ”

The idea, which Tom explained so well in the story, was to convince the FIVB to adopt the freeze that was popularized by the AVP, but with a couple of enhancements.

“Sinjin wanted to see the freeze on all end-of-set/game scenarios and, in concert with that, scoring that would require a team win by only one instead of two points so as not to have matches drag on so long.

“The place from where I was coming from in writing this story was that beach volleyball on the international level had seen no rule changes in 20 years. The NBA and NFL fine tune their sports every season. Most recently, at the dawn of this new season, the NBA has made coaches challenges a permanent part of their rule book.

“Perhaps more importantly, I have been concerned that beach volleyball has plateaued as a spectator/media covered/streaming and television sport. Yes, it does well every four years at the Olympics, but other big events such as the World Championships, and the Beach Volleyball Majors are not the attractions they should be internationally. Something needs to change to reinvigorate interest.”

Tom knows that beach volleyball needs more drama at the end of the match.

“You see it in the NBA and NFL when the clock gets under two minutes, and the same in international soccer where if you turn your eyes away for even the briefest of moments you could miss a critical play,” Tom said. “By contrast, in beach volleyball the match can end on a blown serve, or a ball hit out or some other anti-climactic moment. The beauty of the freeze is that match point has to be earned by the serving team. Much more compelling than a mistake made by the other side.”

Not long after the story posted on August 30, Tom’s email blew up.

“Boom! The reaction was instantaneous. All sides weighed in, including one extremely aggressive national federation head who copied FIVB President Ary Graca on his response,” Tom told us. “Let’s just say he was not supportive, and wondered in essence, who died and left me boss.

“Outside of that email and a couple of others, the feedback was remarkably well thought out. I would say more were in favor of a rule change than not. And, in talking with Sinjin and FIVB Board of Administration member Marco Tullio, had the coronavirus not reared its ugly head, there may have been some end-of-year competitions when the FIVB could have experimented with the format and gathered data.”

We had other beach stories rack up big numbers, too, and we’ll get to those in a bit.

The most popular post we’ve had since Ed and I bought the old Volleyball magazine is our TV and streaming links listing. I’d be lying if I said compiling it wasn’t a pain in the ass, but thanks to Lauren Olds, who works tirelessly at it, we’ve been able to keep up and we know from the numbers you appreciate it.

Sometimes people go to our site looking specifically for a category. In our case, NCAA women is No. 1. Accordingly, the second-most-read story of 2020 was Mike Miazga’s NCAA recruiting rankings.

“One of the many things we at VolleyballMag.com are proud of is the continuance of many sport award/recognition staples, some that date back more than four decades,” Mike said. It’s worth noting, too, that Mike was the editor of Volleyball magazine from 2003-09.

This year, Minnesota, Kentucky, and Texas topped his NCAA recuiting list that ranks the top 10 with quotes and analysis, and this year Mike added an honorable mention.

“Each year, a panel of NCAA coaches come together to vote on which schools produced the top recruiting classes both on the men’s and women’s side of the sport,” Mike said, “and in 2020 we debuted our first NCAA women’s beach recruiting class rankings.”

Speaking of which, Mike is our lists guy.

He puts together both the Girls Fab 50 and Boys Fab 50, both of which were in our top 10 of most read stories.

“The cornerstone of VolleyballMag.com’s many annual awards are the Girls and Boys Fab 50 lists that honor the top 50 senior-level boys and girls players in the nation, again voted on by a panel of distinguished NCAA head coaches and recruiting coordinators,” Mike said. “In 2020, we added a third product to the Fab 50 brand with the debut of the Girls Beach Fab 30 (to become Fab 50 in 2021), an addition that was met with much interest and fanfare.”

Indeed it was. I was skeptical of the idea, but the beach readers loved it.

Mike also puts together our All-Americans, the boys list and the girls, and he chooses the top coach and the top team.

“While there is much ballyhoo about our longstanding Fab 50 lists, also of great interest are the equally long-running girls and boys high school All-American awards that highlight the top high school players in the country based on their high school seasons, as well as the player, coach and team of the year,” Mike said.

“Look for the 2020 fall girls All-American awards shortly, and those states playing COVID-19-adjusted schedules in the spring will be honored separately.”

Mike also came up with a new one in 2020, the Under-40 Coaching Hotshots. That list of hot coaching prospects from across the country — they simply had to be nominated by their schools — in women’s Division I, men’s Division I-II and women’s college beach, and was not without controversy, which I enjoyed.

“Look for this popular feature to return again in 2021,” Mike said. You can bet more coaches will be nominated and Mike’s job will get harder.

I write more about NCAA women than anything else and a few of my stories, I hoped, had an impact. The two that did the best were the direct result of the pandemic, a story on August 9 that pretty much marked the beginning of the end of the fall season, and then a story on November 11 that took a deep look at the recruiting dilemma that NCAA programs, coaches, and high school players find themselves in. I think the recruiting story really struck home for a lot coaches, players, and parents.

One NCAA story that did really well was about the new coach at Ole Miss, and not so much because it was Ole Miss but because it was about Kayla Banwarth, the Olympian who played and coached at Nebraska. Nebraska volleyball fans read about their own.

And I was particularly proud of the story that ran in June with the headline: “#BLM: Black NCAA volleyball coaches share their personal stories”

I thought that story was important, am indebted to the coaches who opened up when they didn’t have to, and hope that it made an impact. In addition, I learned a lot and took to heart what they said.

Travis Mewhirter
Travis Mewhirter/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

One story we really had fun with was when Travis listed the top 50 places to play beach volleyball in the United States.

For that matter, beach geography worked well for Travis, because his essay about beach volleyball in the Midwest did really well, too.

“It’s always fun writing on beach volleyball outside of California, because every beach volleyball fan outside California wants you to know that, yes, beach volleyball exists outside of California,” Travis said. “And not just exists, but thrives. Every little city and site has its own culture. It doesn’t mean every single person who plays beach there abides by it, but there are little themes everywhere — the kindness and enthusiasm in the midwest, the up-and-coming niche in Tennessee, and, yes, the lively atmosphere in Florida.

“Florida was where I discovered the game. I lived there for a year and a half, developing into a lower-level open player I hadn’t been back since I moved to California in 2015. When I returned for Fuds, the epic four-man tournament that was the first tournament I ever played, I did so wondering if I’d want to move back. I stayed in the state for three weeks, with my good buddy, JD Hamilton, and played up and down the state. What I found was similar to what I left: A very fun place to play volleyball, but probably not the one for Delaney and me just yet.”

Travis wrote another story about the pros and cons of beach volleyball in California vs. Florida. And then Kim Hildreth, a beach pro who lives in Florida, offered a rebuttal.

“Kim Hildreth, a good friend of mine, had a fun back and forth about the dichotomous cultures of California and Florida. She wasn’t wrong about anything in her piece, I don’t think I was too far off the mark in mine,” Travis said.

“In a year where we weren’t allowed to play much volley in California, it became one to identify the next best places to do so. Fun Florida? Lovable midwest? Dakota? Wyoming? It was fun to uncover every nook and cranny of the country this sport is played.”

Two stories we didn’t even produce did really well in 2020. One has a life of its own and keeps getting page clicks year after year, headlined “Building a Fitness Program for Beach Volleyball.” It posted on the old VolleyballMag.com website on May 21, 2015, but we’re not sure when it was originally written.

Another was about the late, great Wilt Chamberlain and it has a posted date of November 21, 2013, on the website but was actually published in the magazine in 1999 after Chamberlain died. It had the headline “Wilt Chamberlain’s Lasting Legacy,” with some great photos and anecdotes about Wilt. Why it trended in 2020 is beyond us. It was written by another former Volleyball magazine editor, Don Patterson.

“The sport of volleyball was certainly lucky that someone of Wilt’s fame and popularity loved the game, played it and was willing to promote it,” Don said. “Like Tom Selleck, he brought new fans to volleyball and helped raise its profile in the U.S. for many years.”

Chamberlain was an avid volleyball player and fan.

“A lot of the top volleyball players from that era and the previous era were friends with Wilt because he played both indoor and beach volleyball, so I called a bunch of them and collected Wilt stories, of which there were many,” Don said. “By all accounts, he was an offensive force like no other, but if you needed a good pass or dig, Wilt was not your guy. Not surprisingly, he was a huge draw when he played in the IVA. The joke among owners in that league was that if one of the franchises was struggling to put fans in the seats, the solution was to trade Wilt to that team and boost interest.”

When it was all said and done, no one from VolleyballMag.com missed out worse in 2020 than Ed. He lives for beach volleyball and normally would have been at a handful of AVP events, had plans to be at the FIVB event in Cancun and then the big one in Rome where the final Olympic qualifications would have taken place, and he was going to Tokyo for the Olympics.

“I had great hopes for 2020,” Ed said. “My first trip to Gulf Shores for NCAA beach (the first time they didn’t conflict with the men’s championships), then off to Virginia for the NCAA men’s championships.”

Alas, there was no travel in May.

“2020 was the year that I wrote about what didn’t happen, and a year where I became accustomed to phone interviews,” Ed said.

That’s for sure. Ed was creative, from writing quite a few personality features to one about weird on-court volleyball happenings, to, “as an incurable romantic,” interviewing seven married beach couples about how they met, first dates, proposals, weddings and more.

Ed did sneak in some travel as he made it to Wisconsin, and his story about the Waupaca Boatride in July was a big hit. And then in November he went to Florida for a pro beach event.

Avery Drost/Ed Chan, VBshots.com

“My sanity was restored when I was able to attend a couple of amateur events in Wisconsin and Florida,” Ed said. “The Waupaca Boatride, albeit a limited Boatride by normal standards, is always a boatload of fun. I hadn’t been back for a few years, and it’s always nice hanging out with the Midwest volleyball brethren.

“The Florida region of USA volleyball was kind enough to host the Best of the Beach event, organizing one of the best first-time events I’ve attended. Florida region executive director Steve Bishop assures me that they’ll try and put one together for 2021, and I look forward to going back.”

And remember that part about having a good story a day? Ed had four in a row in May about volleyball movies. Some of the movies were terrible, but the stories were great.

“I got the time to work on some fun writing projects,” Ed said. “Not many have seen all 12 volleyball movies, but not only have I seen them, but enjoyed interviewing directors, actors and volleyball doubles for our series of four articles.”

By the way, those movie-story links are here: The first story was about Spiker, Miracle Season, and Girls With Balls; the second about Top Gun, Cloud 9, and Miles; the third featuring Side Out, Impact Point, and Air Bud Spikes Back; and the fourth had Beach Kings (Green Flash), All You’ve Got, and Kill Shot (P.C.H.).

We all are hoping for more volleyball in 2021. For us, it could be a madhouse with the NCAA women, NCAA men, and NCAA beach all basically happening at once. But we’re on it.

Who knows what the AVP and FIVB schedules will look like, or what we’ll be able to cover. But we’re on it.

Hopefully when we write the 2021 year-end recap, we’ll be able to tell you about more visitors to VolleyballMag.com, about the fun stories we wrote, and that the best of them were actually about volleyball matches and tournaments.

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