Kerri Walsh Jennings wants to disrupt beach volleyball with new tour
It has been a little over a year since Kerri Walsh Jennings, the all-time winningest woman in beach volleyball, parted ways with the AVP and split with her 2016 Olympic partner, April Ross. A lot has happened in those 365-plus days -- or, more relevant to Walsh Jennings' story, 525,600-plus minutes.
She rekindled her partnership with Nicole Branagh, a player with whom she last partnered in 2011, and played in three tournaments before suffering a crushing setback. At a FIVB tournament in late July 2017 in Poland, Walsh Jennings dislocated her right shoulder while going for a dig and, after returning home to Manhattan Beach, underwent a sixth surgery on that shoulder. (Seven months later, in February 2018, she had surgery to address a nagging injury in her right ankle.) Around the time she injured her shoulder, the NVL, the start-up domestic tour Walsh Jennings threw her support behind after leaving the AVP, canceled the remainder of its 2017 season.
"This past year was tough," Walsh Jennings said. "But there was so much promise."
While recovering from surgery and facing an uncertain future, Walsh Jennings focused on a mantra that guides her life: Each day is made up of 1,440 minutes, or 1,440 opportunities to choose how to spend 60 seconds, so choose wisely. Just because she was on the sideline didn't mean she couldn't use her minutes to keep fighting for her sport. In August, she and her husband, Casey Jennings, flew to Hawaii to visit longtime friend Dave Mays and his wife, Kasia, and discuss an ambitious idea to create a mold-breaking event series and digital platform that's equal parts professional beach volleyball tour, music festival and health-and-wellness expo. It's also, Walsh Jennings believes, the infusion of opportunity and support her sport desperately needs.
The first p1440 event takes place Sept. 28-30 in San Jose, California, and will be followed by events in Las Vegas, San Diego and Huntington Beach, California. Four stops are scheduled for early 2019. Tickets for the San Jose stop go on sale in mid-June, the music lineup will be announced in July, and the p1440 digital platform will launch this summer.
How does p1440 fit into the global beach volleyball landscape, and what sets it apart from other U.S. domestic tours? espnW caught up with Walsh Jennings and her managing partner, Mays, to learn more about their vision for the future of beach volleyball.
espnW: Before we get into p1440, how is your recovering going, Kerri?
Kerri Walsh Jennings: I feel so strong, and I want to stay that way. The way I can service p1440 is by being the best ambassador I can be, walking our talk and winning. I want to win so badly. I am really working on letting go of my fear of getting hurt again. At this point, that might mean the end of my career, and Nicole and I are so capable of being the best team in the world. I want to walk off proudly and strongly when I retire.
espnW: You returned to competition last month at the Xiamen Open in China. How did it go?
KWJ: It felt really good to be back out there. We lost to the No. 1 seed in the tournament, a Canadian team, but we had plenty of chances to win. The world is good, the world is deep, but the world is very beatable. It's primed for some butt-kicking.
espnW: Give us your elevator pitch. What is p1440?
KWJ: We don't have an elevator pitch! We're so much. Our festivals will be 10 acres. There is the tournament itself, concerts, a health-and-wellness village and a personal development area for morning yoga, meditation, TRX training. Our technology platform will have live-streaming, tutorials, interviews. We're curating the best experts in the mindfulness and nutrition space, and we want to be a go-to resource. We'll provide rich behind-the-scenes content and storytelling. Although we will announce a TV deal soon, a huge component of what we're doing is streaming. We want to be everywhere the people are.
Dave Mays: We are taking the sport and enhancing the experience by a multiple of 10. It will be more comprehensive, more entertaining. We are going to incorporate more lifestyle features that will allow people to enjoy pro beach volleyball at a much deeper level. Everybody wants to be more active, healthier, more entertained, more social, and we will present that to existing and future volleyball fans.
espnW: Why have other domestic tours failed?
KWJ: Leadership has been an issue in our sport. You have to have a business mindset, and you have to have a vision and execute it. Also, we've never told the stories of our athletes, and the storytelling capabilities in our sport are beautiful. Marketing has never been a priority.
DM: I don't know of any other fringe pro sports leagues that have free admission, so it starts with that. The financial commitment attendees make to the sport has been traditionally low, and sponsors were not getting a return on their investment. We will be a pay model, unlike the AVP. Also, when you have events on public beaches, you're restricted in what you can do. We are bringing the beach to the stadium. What we are building is not possible on many public beaches.
espnW: Why will p1440 succeed? How important is it that you succeed?
KWJ: We have a very big-picture vision of the sport and where we want to take this, and it's much bigger than the current situation. It has to be. The current situation is not sustainable. I had the luxury of having an amazing career on the beach because the tour was so strong. Without the tour I played on, I wouldn't have been sharp enough to take on the world at the Olympics. I want the next generation to have that opportunity.
DM: There is a bit of a crisis at the moment, with international teams accelerating their competitiveness and the U.S. going in the opposite direction. p1440 doubles, if not triples, the economic opportunities for players, which will allow them to focus on their sport, need fewer part-time jobs and make ends meet. That will allow us to compete better internationally and win more medals in the future.
espnW: Who is your audience?
KWJ: There are 25 to 40 million people in the U.S. who play volleyball and 800 to 900 million globally. That's ginormous. Our goal with p1440 is to have 75 percent of the people on site at our events and on our technology platforms be non-volleyball players because of everything we offer outside of volleyball. But if we just service the sport, the athletes, the fans, that will be incredible. We are a global sport. We want to talk to people in Malaysia. We want to affect change globally and hit markets that might seem unconventional.
DM: We will stay domestic with our events for the first two years, but long-term plans of international expansion are there.
espnW: Since you announced p1440, what has the response been like within the sport?
KWJ: Ninety-eight percent has been amazing, special, "Oh my gosh, we love this, we love where you're going, we love the other components you're bringing in." From the American side of the sport, it makes people uncomfortable, and we've been hearing that a lot. "Don't rock the boat." People are afraid the AVP will go away. And that is not our intention at all.
espnW: Players are afraid that what you're creating will gobble up the AVP?
KWJ: Yeah. And we're new. We're not known yet. Largely, we hear, "We'll believe it when we see it." As a competitor, you hear that as a challenge. But those are the hard days, when you hear your peers saying, "We don't believe in you" or "Let it be." The questioning of my integrity has been the hardest part because I feel like I'm candid to a fault. I have my perspective, certainly, and I don't have the perspective of the other person because I'm not that person. But for people to think I'm being shady and don't have integrity, that's really hurtful. It was really sad at first, but I realized it's not about me. People need to do what they need to do to feel comfortable, and I'm making them uncomfortable.
espnW: Will AVP players be allowed to play in your events?
KWJ: As of now, they're not allowed to play. They have an exclusive contract to play on the AVP for four years. But I'm not worried about it. There are many great American athletes not on the AVP who are coming out of the college ranks. We've gotten so much outreach from around the country and globally. We want to be a global sport and an international tour. The best in the world need this just as much as we do here.
espnW: International players will be able to come and partner with U.S. players?
KWJ: That's the goal. I think it's going to take some time, especially since Olympic qualifying starts this September, which is earlier than normal. But ultimately, we want the international mix. We can't be country vs. country. The FIVB owns that format. We want to be the best against the best. But I think it will take some time for the paradigm shift in players' heads. This is super disruptive because we've only had the way it's been for so long. It's not bad disruptive. We need to evolve as a sport.
espnW: How does p1440 fit into the Olympic landscape?
KWJ: My initial thought was that in order for the athletes to come, we need to have Olympic qualifying points on this tour. And then I was like, no. We cannot. Then we'd be beholden to their branding, their rules, their balls, and we'd still be in the system that is keeping the sport small. There is this whole world of athletes who are not being served because we're only chasing medals. Ultimately, we want to partner with the FIVB and collaborate. We don't know what that looks like yet, but we have a great relationship with them. When I had that epiphany, that we have to be outside of the Olympic system, I almost threw up. The Olympics have made my life, but I realized this has to be about more than chasing medals.
espnW: You said you can best serve p1440 by winning. How much added pressure are you putting on yourself to win tournaments?
KWJ: The pressure comes from having to wait until the end of September to debut our events. I just want to be an asset. I don't love being a polarizing figure, all this damn drama. I feel like a whistleblower, and I don't want to be that.
espnW: You used to be known as Six Feet of Sunshine.
KWJ: And now I'm Darth Vadar. But we believe in this. We can't half-ass things. If we believe in better, we're going to fight for better. The most hurtful thing we've heard is that this is all self-promotion, and this is me being selfish and sticking it to the AVP. It's like, you guys have no idea. Life is too short.
espnW: What are your ultimate goals for your beach volleyball career and for p1440?
KWJ: For p1440, my dream is to have the live events be sellouts before we open the gates. The goal for our technology platform is to have four million paid members by the end of 2021 at around 5 bucks a month, which will make us very desirable for what will be the next phase of development and globalizing. For my Olympic career, I want to win a fourth gold medal. I want the fairytale ending.