On March 17, Melissa Humana-Paredes reached out, asking a quick favor. This was during the opening event of the 2022 pro beach volleyball season in Tlaxcala, Mexico, which was also the debut of the Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour, the new look of the international scene. where digital media hedge fund money meets sport.

Like many of the players — and readers and viewers — of this sport, the friends and family of Humana-Paredes had questions.

“As I was trying to explain to my boyfriend and his family the new tour and new system, I could see they were so confused with my explanation of it that I even started to get confused,” the Canadian Olympic defender, and one of the all-time good people in this sport, wrote. “I thought there must be a better way to explain this.”

They are far from alone.

Over the past few months, dozens upon dozens of questions have poured in for Tri Bourne and me to answer on SANDCAST about the new tour and system. As we begin to answer them, we often confuse ourselves, ending most with “Well, I think that’s how it works?”

Now that we are three events into the international season, with one event of each tier — Elite 16, Challenger, Future — having been played, many of the questions are much more readily answered. This is a sort of Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour 101, answering not all, but at least the most basic of questions, with enough detail to give you proper understanding of the sport and its new three-tiered system that is still a bit wonky but becoming slightly more clearer by the week.

What’s an Elite 16?

It is not exactly as it sounds. Initially, the Elite 16 was just what the name suggested: The most elite 16 beach volleyball teams in the world competing in a tournament. But a push by the International Beach Volleyball Players Association added a qualifier to the Elite 16, making the tournaments really an Elite 12 plus four out of a 16-team qualifier. So, 28 teams in total compete during an Elite 16.

This addition of a qualifier was, in my mind, a wonderful addendum, as the qualifiers — absolutely nasty affairs — will add new blood to the mix, like young Italian defender Sam Cottafava, now partnered with Paolo Nicolai, on the sport’s biggest stage, or, you know, the gold medalists in Rosarito on March 27, the Netherlands’ Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam, who emerged from the qualifier to win.

Raisa Schoon-Katja Stam-Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour
Raisa Schoon and Katja Stam after winning in Rosarito/Volleyball World photo

How do athletes get into the Elite 16?

Points are the golden currency in beach volleyball, and they’re earned in every tournament you play, on a sliding scale depending on the level of tournament. Elite 16s offer the most points, followed by Challengers, and then Futures. At the bottom is the continental system, such as NORCECA — North America, Central America, Caribbean — but that is another discussion for another day.

The better you do in each tournament, the more points you get; the more points to your name, the higher your seeding. Boost your seeding enough, and you can be seeded into the coveted top 28 and compete for a spot in the main draw of the Elite 16.

Challengers offer roughly 67 percent of the points of an Elite 16, and Futures offer roughly half of the points of a Challenger.

If you win a Challenger, you’ll earn 800 points as a team, which is better than a fifth in an Elite 16, and if you win a Futures, you get 400 points as a team, which is equivalent to 17th in an Elite 16. The goal of each Challenger and Futures team is to earn at least more points than are offered at the lowest level of the Elite 16: 360 for last. That’s how many points teams earn for a silver medal in a Futures event, and for 17th in a Challenger. Continue to stack those finishes, and you’ll find yourself nudging into the top tier.

Bartosz Losiak-Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour
Bartosz Losiak attacks against Vicente Dorguett/Volleyball World photo

How are a team’s points totaled?

Until this year, a team’s points were based on the combination of each individual player’s top four out of their most recent six finishes. Volleyball World, however, amended that, making it your best three out of your most recent four finishes. This will produce far more mobility between tiers, as no longer can a team cling on to a massive finish from, say, World Championships, and sit on it for months on end (a common practice not too long ago).

In order to make money in this sport, you have to play, and the more events teams play, the more volatility you’ll see in the rankings, which was the basic premise of switching it to your best three out of four finishes.

The only exception to this rule is the continental tours, which can only help your total as a player; they cannot push out a higher finish. If Taylor Crabb and Taylor Sander, for example, play a NORCECA — as they are next weekend in the Dominican Republic — and they win, splitting 320 points as a team, that finish can only help them. It will not push out an event; it’ll simply remain there for 365 days as a hedge against a rough stretch.

Taylor Sander-Taylor Crabb
Taylor Sander and Taylor Crabb celebrate a point in Itapema/FIVB photo

Can teams play in tiers below their ranking?

Mostly yes. Beginning in mid-May, the top six teams in the world will no longer be allowed to play in the Challenger events; they’ll be locked into the Elite 16 tier until they fall below it. This was done in an effort to keep the mobility between tiers at its highest, because if the top Elite 16 teams continued to place the highest in the Challengers, little would change in terms of what teams were making it into the Elite 16s, and the Challenger athletes would be stuck in place.

However, and perhaps this is more suited for our Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour 350 classroom, teams of countries hosting Futures events can play with no fear of losing points.

So Australians Chris McHugh and Paul Burnett, for example, who are currently ranked No. 38, could have played in the recent Futures event in Coolangatta, Australia, with no fear of losing points. The idea is that the host country should be able to promote that the best teams in their country are competing, therefore bringing more attention to the event, without that team getting dinged for it in points. It’s why Anders Mol and Christian Sorum played in one-stars hosted by Norway, and why Ahmed Tijan and Cherif Samba won a gold medal in the Doha, Qatar one-star a year ago. They inarguably made the event bigger and better, and didn’t have to worry about sacrificing a finish in the name of promoting their home country.

Cherif Samba-Ahmed Tijan
Cherif Younousse and Ahmed Tijan of Qatar celebrate winning in Rosarito/Volleyball World photo

Are Futures events limited to younger players?

No. Futures are open to players of any age, such as 46-year-old Adam Roberts, who played last weekend in Coolangatta, Australia. But because it’s the lowest level on the World Tour, and will feature players who are attempting to break in, the average ages of the players will inevitably be lower. The oldest male player to win a medal in Coolangatta, for example, was 28-year-old Canadian blocker Alex Russell, who won silver with Jake MacNeil. 

Both the men’s and women’s gold medals were awarded to players who had never played an international event before — Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth of the United States, Izac Carracher and Mark Nicolaidis of Australia — and whose average age was a hair over 22 years old. So it is not required that you are young to play a Futures event, it’s just more likely.

Kristen Nuss-Taryn Kloth
Kristen Nuss and Taryn Kloth win gold in Australia/Volleyball Australia photo

The next second Volleyball World Beach Pro Tour Challenge event is in Itapema, Brazil, April 14-17 (at the same time as a Future competition in Thailand). In Brazil, there is a 32-team qualifier from which eight pairs on each side emerge and move into Friday’s main draw. There is modified pool-play for the 24 teams and 18 pairs make it to Saturday’s elimination round, with the medal matches Sunday.

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