AS THE FIRST AVP tournament of 2017, the Huntington Beach Open May 4-7, loomed nearer, Walsh Jennings says players were mostly dug in on two points related to the contracts. The first was that players were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, in order to receive the contract. That meant those who signed the NDA were unable to discuss its contents with players and counsel who did not. The second was the exclusivity.
"If you make every Sunday in the AVP, that means you will play 24 days of competition, yet the AVP wants 365 days of exclusivity," Walsh Jennings says. "Some athletes won't make it past Day 1, so they'll have eight days of competition for 365 days of exclusivity. If you take home eight third-place finishes, you bring home $27,000. If you win every event, you take home just over $50,000 and that's before you deduct travel costs, expenses and taxes. It's not sustainable. I want our sport to be professional, and right now it's a hobby."
While the specific language within the contracts is not public, Sun says exclusivity is a necessary component to rebuilding the AVP brand. "We want AVP to become the preeminent tour for professional beach volleyball," Sun told espnW via e-mail through the AVP's communications department. "Currently, there are several tours, all competing to attract the top players. Our goal is not to get caught up in what other tours and affiliated individuals are trying to accomplish. We are solely focused on what's best for the AVP, because, in turn, that is what will be the best for the players and the fans. The most pragmatic way to accomplish this is by exclusivity."
Sun also reiterates that the exclusivity is not absolute. "I wish it were as simple as some individuals make it seem -- that we are the greedy ones trying to diminish the other tours and oppressing the players into our exclusivity," Sun wrote. "However, that's far from the truth. The reality for our situation is the same as it is for any other business, it's simply a matter of trying to garner the best players so that we can all benefit by making this platform work. We are simply trying to build a brand, and this really shouldn't be an issue."
“Kerri seems to come off as perfect on TV and she's not. She's the sweetest, softest person on the planet, and yet she has teeth and she can bite.”
According to several players, as negotiations stalled, Sun gave players a deadline of April 27, a little more than one week before Huntington Beach, to sign or said he would be forced to shutter the tour. "There was zero negotiation," Walsh Jennings says. "It was no, no, no on every single point."
In the meetings at her home, she used the examples of the U.S. women's hockey and soccer teams to illustrate the power in standing unified. If they held out of the Huntington Beach tournament -- or even threatened to do so as a group -- she believed the AVP would be forced to meet the players at the negotiating table.
"It was all of us trying to come to the understanding of how much strength we have as a unit," Casey Jennings says. "Some wanted to hear it, some were scared and some thought, 'I don't think the sport is worth any money. I don't think I can make a living at this sport. I'm just going to play it for fun and have a job.'
"The other vibe was that me and Kerri had a backdoor agenda," Jennings says. "That was the hardest part. The most hurtful thing that Kerri and I had to go through was convincing people that we didn't have a check from another tour and weren't prospering from getting everyone on our team."
Perception, as they say, is reality, and because Armato, the man behind the World Series of Beach Volleyball, is also Walsh Jennings' manager, players were skeptical about her intentions in protesting the AVP contract.
In 2013, Armato, the former CEO of the AVP, announced his return to beach volleyball with the WSOBV, the first FIVB-sanctioned World Tour event in the U.S. since 2003. In 2015, the WSOBV kicked off the qualifying process for the Rio Olympics. A year later, the series was held post-Olympics, and in 2017, it returns to Long Beach July 13-16 with the President's Cup -- a tournament of 16 top American and international teams. (ESPN is partnering with the WSOBV to air the President's Cup live as well as additional WSOBV events in 2018.)
Armato has plans to expand to three events in 2018 and in April, he announced a partnership with the NVL, which will hold its first of four tour stops in Long Beach the same week in July. The partnership also allowed the NVL to increase its annual prize purse from $300,000 to $450,000.
"Leonard's her manager. That totally complicates things," says 2004 Olympic bronze medalist Elaine Youngs, who retired in 2010. "You want to hope she's doing this because she cares about the sport. But I would question her motives. That's how it's always been in the sport. It's an individual sport. Everyone is fighting for every last dollar and there's not a lot of trust between players to stay together and fight for everything we want.
"I love Leonard. His wife was my partner. He did so much for the sport and I think he's great for beach volleyball. Under him, we had a strong domestic tour. The level of play has gone down because our domestic tour isn't as strong. But it seems slightly shady that they are working together."
Further complicating matters, on April 11, Walsh Jennings filed a breach of contract suit in L.A. Superior Court against the AVP for $150,000. She says back in September 2016, the AVP determined she had breached her contract by writing that Facebook post and, in turn, did not pay her for the final year of a three-year personal services contract to use her name and likeness and make media appearances. She says she tried to persuade the AVP to make good on the payment, but in the end, she was forced to sue the tour.
"We have a court date set for 2018," Walsh Jennings says. "It's a nightmare. All of this is really disappointing. But I was willing to put all of this aside and fight for what I thought was right and negotiate a great contract for myself and the athletes."
There were days, Jennings says, when the frustration was so overwhelming he suggested his wife acquiesce and sign the contract, put her head down, collect her winnings and finish her career with a gold medal in Tokyo. "She said, 'I will never do that,'" Jennings says. "My wife is losing two endorsements, prize money, the opportunity for more endorsements. But she's not worried about herself. She's worried about the 12-year-olds coming up."
Still, the pushback from within her sport weighed heavily on Walsh Jennings' mind. While most of the comments she received from fans on Facebook and Twitter were supportive, she knows some players began to view her actions in the way Youngs did, with skepticism. "My character was called into question," Walsh Jennings says. "That absolutely devastated me because it came from people who have known me for 15 years."
Those who know her, she says, should know that when she believes in something, she fights for it with all her heart. Fans of the game, however, and sports fans at large, might have a tougher time embracing her in the roll of disruptor. "Kerri seems to come off as perfect on TV and she's not," Jennings says. "She's the sweetest, softest person on the planet, and yet she has teeth and she can bite. I love that about her."
She is the yin to her own yang, the type of woman who uses descriptors like "beautiful" and "blessed" to describe the ugly moments in her life and then swears like a longshoreman when discussing her favorite spiritual gurus. She refers to her relationship with Jennings as a 16-year love story, yet is open about their struggles as a couple. When asked about the legacy she would like to leave in her sport, the all-time winningest woman in beach volleyball recalls a story from 2003.
She and Jennings were in Chicago for the AVP's Chicago Open and had stopped at an ATM near Oak Street Beach. "I turn around and see Michael Jordan walking down the street," Walsh Jennings says. "Michael Jordan. He's got his dope-ass hat, he's got a cigar in his mouth." Frozen, she points out the legendary Bulls player to Jennings, her boyfriend at the time, who yells, "Michael, Michael!" Jordan stops, turns around. "And Casey goes, 'You are a badass m-----f-----,'" Walsh Jennings says, accentuating each syllable of those last two words.
"How rad is that?" she says. "That's what I want. When people see me, I want them to think, 'There goes a bad m-----f-----. And she was also a really wonderful person.'"
As the deadline to sign neared and a boycott of Huntington Beach appeared imminent, a group of players met with Sun at the AVP offices on April 24. The next day, Casey Patterson, a 2016 Olympian, posted a photo on Instagram of himself and seven other players standing in front of the AVP logo.
"Met with Donald and the AVP associates yesterday to gain more knowledge, clarity and future direction of the tour," he wrote in the post. "It was such an enlightening experience with honesty and issues expressed by all. The AVP is focused on the future of the sport at all levels and providing even more opportunities for its players. Our experience was so positive and we can't wait to compete in Huntington Beach."
Over the next two days, players began to break ranks with the group and sign the contract. Walsh Jennings believes they were worried that if they didn't, the tour would cease to exist. When the deadline passed, only the Jennings, Summer Ross, Brooke Sweat, Bill Kolinske and Robbie Page had not signed. After missing Huntington Beach, Ross and Sweat eventually signed.
"It wasn't just Kerri and Casey. That's the way it gets painted, and that was not the case," Branagh says. "We were having meetings and discussing what we could do and the players were all together. Other players were definitely in charge. That's the truth. At the end of the day, I don't know what happened. I think people were scared."
THIS WAS SUPPOSED to be a recharging year. Instead, Walsh Jennings found herself without a partner. Ross had signed the contract, saying, "The AVP met us in the middle to my satisfaction. I know they have a big vision for beach volleyball to grow and be as successful as possible."
As Walsh Jennings looked around the sport, she began to eye up-and-coming player Sara Hughes, a three-time All American at the University of Southern California and one of the first crop of players to graduate since beach volleyball was named an NCAA championship sport in 2015. "All I wanted to do was play with her," Walsh Jennings says. She reached out to Hughes on multiple occasions and even flew to Gulf Shores, Alabama, to watch her compete with her partner, Kelly Claes, in the NCAA championships in early May, but Hughes declined.
"That would have been a smart move for Hughes, playing behind Kerri's block, having automatic points in the main draw, playing with one of the most experienced players ever," says Dane Selznick, Walsh Jennings' and May-Treanor's former coach and the recently appointed beach development rep for USA Volleyball. "Kerri's the kind of player who can win with anybody. She can take a player and make them the best they can be. It would have given Sarah a jump on her career. But I guess she has patience and wants to wait."
A few weeks after returning home from Gulf Shores, Walsh Jennings met her coach, Marcio Sicoli, at the 14th Street courts for a scrimmage against one of the Canadian teams. Knowing Walsh Jennings would need a practice partner, the Canadian coach reached out to Branagh to join the scrimmage.
A former Olympian, Branagh had given birth to her second child 10 months earlier, hadn't played internationally in four years and planned to play only in local AVP tournaments in 2017. But after the scrimmage, Walsh Jennings says she "had chills for hours" because of how well she and Branagh, her teammate for a brief stint in 2011, clicked on the court. That afternoon, they began talking about rekindling their partnership. "When I think of two mommies with five kids between us traveling the world and chasing Olympic dreams, I'm like, game on," Walsh says.
She and Branagh have committed to play the 2017 season together and then re-evaluate for the future. But the plan, they both say, is to see this partnership through to Tokyo.
"I just want to play," Branagh says. "When I started the season, this scenario did not enter into my mind. I didn't think about the possibility of being Kerri's partner. But what do I do, say no to Kerri Walsh? It's a great opportunity to do something amazing. But I signed the contract. I have to ask permission to play in any tournaments or events or exhibitions with Kerri. She's not playing in the AVP and for me to fully commit to what we're doing, I'm at risk of being banned by the AVP."
MIDWAY THROUGH MONDAY'S practice, Sicoli calls for a break. Walsh Jennings and Branagh grab water bottles and towels and Walsh Jennings sits down cross-legged on the sand. It's the third week of their new partnership.
"You guys look great together," says Youngs, Branagh's partner at the 2008 Olympics, who is in town from San Francisco to help Branagh and her wife move into their new home. "Like no time has passed. Kerri, how's your shoulder?"
"It feels great," Walsh says.
"What do you mean? We're still 20!" Branagh says, and then reaches down with both hands to pick up an invisible load. "But now we work out by lifting our kids. My son's a tank. I do squats while holding him."
Holly McPeak, a former teammate of both Branagh and Youngs -- and Armato's wife -- is on the next court over coaching two women who recently graduated from USC, a daily reminder for Walsh of the young players for whom she is fighting. It's a small community, beach volleyball; everyone knows everyone, so relationships are important. Today's competitor could be tomorrow's teammate. For Walsh, that underpins the need for players to remain unified in support of the next generation.
"I want to focus on what I want in life," Walsh Jennings says, rubbing a charm that hangs from one of three necklaces she wears every day. "It says, 'Don't Trip,'" she explains. "Don't sweat the small stuff." Instead, she has figured out what is big enough to fight for and has dug her heels into the sand.
A few hours after practice, Walsh Jennings receives a Google alert when the AVP announces it will turn three of its 2017 events, in New York, Manhattan Beach and Chicago, into a "Gold Series," offering more prize money and points for competing athletes. She and Branagh say plans for a Gold Series were never communicated to players during negotiations. "When I got the email, I had a big smile," Walsh Jennings says. "It's working. That makes me proud. I felt like it was a win for our little Rogue One team who had the courage to rock the status quo, and it was a win for all the athletes. But it's not enough. I hope the trend keeps happening."
That night, other players texted Walsh Jennings with the same sentiment.
"I can't wait to see the end of this," Jennings says. "Whether she gets the attention or not, she's done enough. She can hang it up right now. But I hope one day, a lot of people come up to her and say, 'Thank you.'"
They might say that thing Jennings said to Jordan, too.
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for espnW, ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. (follow @ESPN_Alyssa on Twitter).