A Tale Of Two Beaches: Pro Volleyball Leagues Have Different Approaches
It's overcast and a comfortable 72 degrees the morning of the 2014 National Volleyball League's Hermosa Beach Championships main draw. "Perfect volleyball weather," assures announcer Alex Kutsy over his mike.
Swimsuit-clad male and female pros congregate under the player tent facing the main court. Some sprawl out on outdoor sofas, refueling on make-it-yourself PB&J sandwiches and tangerines, while others stand around tall tables swapping sandy high-fives and shoulder massages. Nearby, at a secondary court, three young women arrange their towels and plop down to watch a match, having stumbled across the tournament during a midmorning walk. The vibe of this championship -- the second-to-last event on this NVL season's six-city tour -- is laid-back, welcoming and intimate, with a smattering of spectators coming in and out of the stands.
Thirty-three miles south in Orange County's Huntington Beach, on the same weekend, the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) Championships are underway. From the Pacific Coast Highway, it looks as though the circus has come to town. The sun beats down on an impressive grandstand, making it difficult to make out the score on the JumboTron. The pier is packed, with passers-by taking in an elevated view of the rallies unfolding among the three feature courts below. A mother and her tween daughter make their way through the lineup of interactive sponsor tents before popping inside the pro shop to carefully deliberate over which souvenir -- visor versus volleyball -- three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings should sign after her second-round match later that day.
Growing the game certainly doesn't seem to be top-of-mind when two of the largest domestic pro beach volleyball tour companies share a championship weekend on separate beaches, dividing fans and players. Coincidence or competition?
For decades, the AVP was the most successful pro volleyball tour in the country, attracting media attention, heaps of sponsorship dollars, and a fan base that packed stands to see the sport's premier personality players. Through it all, other associations popped up to challenge it, and ultimately all boats sank -- even the AVP itself. After a series of mismanagement issues, the iconic brand went bankrupt, for a second time, in 2010, leaving the pros without a home. In steps Albert "AL-B" Hannemann -- a seasoned player on the AVP circuit for 18 years -- offered a new type of pro tour to his peers. His vision was to focus on building the sport from a grassroots level and promoting the laid-back lifestyle aspect of it.
"When I first started the tour, it was a lot to overcome with the AVP having gone bankrupt twice, making sure we could build something that was going to be sustainable," Hannemann says.
For two years, he worked to steadily increase the league's visibility and recognition. Then, in April 2012, the AVP was given new life when it was purchased by Donald Sun, 39, a former tech exec with a strong appreciation for beach volleyball.
"I'm really fortunate to have the opportunity to carry the torch for them," Sun said. "With the three pillars of lifestyle, athleticism and the sense of community, there's a lot of branding I can associate with those."
In the months following the revitalization of the AVP, many players who had been playing in the NVL were lured back to the legendary brand. Some by nostalgia and hope, others by attractive purse prizes. A number of players bounced between the two leagues until it was made known through a social media scuffle that players would need to make a choice. The AVP has asked their players to sign exclusivity contracts, though they can ask permission to play outside the league. Much to the players' and fans' dismay, confusion and disappointment continued to afflict the two leagues afterward, and the first event overlap occurred during the 2013 season.
When yet another overlap was announced -- the dueling events in SoCal this past weekend -- it was met with groans. The NVL's tournament was on the calendar weeks before the AVP announced its date. In the end, the AVP says, it had to contend with a scheduling conflict initiated by the Federation of International Volleyball (FIVB), the governing body for the sport.
FIVB rescheduled its Brazilian Grand Slam for AVP's original championship date. Not wanting to risk losing the top-ranked players from the final event of the season -- FIVB tournaments offer Olympic qualifying and more prize money -- Sun moved his tournament up one week, to NVL's date. "I wasn't even thinking about anything else that's going on, because to be honest, it's a different class, a different category," Sun says. "If there's any sort of controversy that people are trying to stir up ... I didn't really think about it, because they're not even on my radar."
Back in Hermosa, Hannemann weaves his way through the sandy path between the player tent and main court, his gait matching the beat of a Jack Johnson song even though Jay Z is pumping through the loudspeakers. There's business to attend to in the makeshift production hub, an oceanfront top-floor suite inside the boutique Beach House on The Strand -- the perfect perch to view his tournament in action and plot his next move.
Reflecting on his company's obstacles and accomplishments during these past four years, Hannemann is most surprised about how fast his junior tour is growing. "We had 5,000 members sign up within a couple of months," he says. His latest venture is a partnership with Club Med to develop world-class training facilities. He recently relocated from Hermosa to Port St. Lucie, Florida, to oversee the operations of the first U.S. beach volleyball academy. "From the beginning, we can really develop these kids not only as athletes, but provide them with a well-rounded education and opportunities beyond that," Hannemann says.
Sun and his team are also paying close attention to the opportunities that lie outside elite-level pro tournament events. With AVPNext, AVP's official developmental program, they hope to host 16 regional events for up-and-coming players next season. "The goal is to touch every region, whether it be small or medium, so that people can understand what the brand is, be involved and compete," Sun says. "I want to make sure that whatever we're doing is going to bring great value to whoever wants to participate."
Until recently, beach volleyball has been relatively untapped in the youth market. But now that sand volleyball is officially the fastest-growing sport in NCAA history, with 45 Division I and II schools attached, according to the organization, it's poised to gain even more popularity -- especially if a vote for funding is passed in January, which would make sand volleyball a legit new outlet for scholarships come June 2016.
Pacing the tent in Hermosa, Hannemann, surrounded by about 50 of his players, watches as Pri-Piantadosi Lima and Karolina Sowala battle it out with another local team in the women's finals. The attendance isn't what he hoped for, but he's OK with that for now. Filling the stands will come. "The people who came to support this event were great," he says. "It's nice to have the support of the community."
Meanwhile, across town, every seat is taken in the grandstand for the AVP's women's finals. But it's silent. So silent that the only sounds you hear are coming from center court. The grunts from the four women left playing. Their committed shouts of "It's mine, it's mine," followed by a loud thwack that sends the ball over the net with lightning speed. Automatic "oohs and aahs" break the trance. We're getting close to the end. Announcer Dustin Avol engages the crowd. "All right everybody, you know what time it is. It's slow clap time!" They follow suit. Any true 1980s movie fan would be proud. And then, with a match point, the experience is over. Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross have not only won, but have made history with a complete sweep of all seven AVP tourneys.
The crowd -- families, teens, seasoned players, new players -- are out of their seats, feeling they witnessed something special. The buzz in the air is undeniable.
Jessica Shobar contributed to the reporting.
Jenni Renee Sullivan is a freelance writer and copywriter specializing in sports, fitness and lifestyle. She is the former Senior Editor of American Cheerleader magazine.