Volleyball league debuts at Pimlico

BALTIMORE, Md. -- It's midday at Pimlico Race Course, and in a court plunked smack-dab amid the drunken chaos of the Preakness infield, the National Volleyball League is wrapping up its' first ever official event.

The NVL is the newest player of the pro beach volleyball scene, a fledgling revamp that was founded after the now-defunct Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) ran out of money last summer. With six tournaments worth $75,000 to $150,000 per event scheduled to take place this year, the league is a refreshing draw to players after an uncertain winter of sponsorship negotiations and contract disputes.

Lisa Rutledge -- one of the players who was looking for a job outside of competition last winter -- launches into a power serve with muscles rippling, hands slapping the ball as she jumps to drive over the net. Her opponent, fingers splayed, is powerless to prevent the rapid-fire spin. She goes down flat and Rutledge smacks palms with her partner, Annett Davis, in a victory salute. The team will advance to the finals and they're grinning at each other over that accomplishment -- but most of all, they're just happy for a chance to play.

"We're really lucky that the NVL stepped up and decided to put on a professional tour for the athletes," Rutledge, 29, said. "None of us really knew what was going to happen this year and everyone was kind of trying to figure out other things to do instead of playing volleyball."

The players look up to charismatic frontman Albert "Al-B" Hannemann, 41, a dynamic innovator and leader of their sport. The longtime pro and winner of the 2009 U.S. Open of Beach Volleyball, a U.S. Olympic Festival Gold Medalist, launched the NVL and branded it with a crisp corporate image after retiring in 2010 from an 18-year period spent on the AVP circuit. The CEO's marketing savvy shines through in this partnership with the Preakness, where crowds of more than 100,000 traditionally gather to spend all day before the evening race. His predominant goal of involving the fans and remaining relevant to them is apparent in promotional material and media outreach efforts.

The NVL doesn't have marquee athletes like Olympic gold medalists Misty May-Treanor, Kerri Walsh, Phil Dalhauser and Todd Rogers -- the sport's primary moneymaking names -- who are all overseas training for the London Olympics at FIVB (Federation Internationale de Volleyball) World Tour events in Prague or Myslowice. But Hannemann's marketing plan, to hold his initial U.S. tournament at a well-known major sporting event, enables his lesser-known players to shine while developing a new fan base.

"That's the beauty of it, the existing crowd," Hannemann said, watching the action from a courtside tent emblazoned with Under Armor logos. "I've heard about the Preakness for years, and we decided to do finals here because we heard about how many people come. It's worked out beautifully. We're introducing the sport to a new audience, which is very good for us."

The debauchery of the Preakness infield -- where fans consume limitless amounts of alcohol and are encouraged to "be legendary" in their partying efforts -- has been well-chronicled over the years. Many attendees may not realize what they're watching when they stop to see the NVL players compete, but in spite of uncertainty in the U.S. sector, beach volleyball has been a popular and established sport on many international fronts, especially since it was first included in the Olympics in 1996. That year, the U.S. men's team won silver and gold. In 2000, the men won gold again, and in 2004 the women took gold and bronze.

"Most people in the U.S. think of it as a backyard barbecue sport," Rutledge said. "Some of the people here would probably never go to a beach volleyball tournament. But if you go somewhere like Austria, Switzerland, China, or Brazil, all of the people who are here for the Preakness would just be there to watch beach volleyball. Hopefully we can get the sport to that level here, because it's really a fast-paced, tough, professional game, and once people see it, they realize that and start to like it."

As recently as 2008, U.S. players on both the men's and women's beach teams brought home Olympic gold medals.

"At the last two Olympic games, beach volleyball was the most popular sport and the hardest ticket to get," Hannemann said. "It's now an official collegiate sport for women and it's growing like crazy; there are junior leagues popping up all over. Playing on tour for 18 years, I got to see the good and bad of what should be done in our sport. Now we'll have a platform for all these kids to come out and play, and we're building the stars of tomorrow. Our current players are among the best in the world, and our tournaments give them the chance to keep competing."

The NVL had a solid turnout of 64 athletes at this initial event, including some established contenders like 37-year-old champion Sean Scott, who partners with John Hyden to form the league's top seed in the men's division.

"There was a transition where we went from having sponsors and a strong domestic tour to nothing," Scott said. "Then the NVL stepped in and they're going to run stuff this year so that should be great for us. Albert wants to be fiscally responsible and run something that's going to be around for a long time, so we'll start small and grow from there."

After the Preakness, the tour heads to Malibu, Calif. (July 22-24); Virginia Beach, Va. (Aug. 26-28); and Aspen, Colo. (Sept. 1-4). The final two legs in Miami, Fla. (Sept. 9-11) and Long Beach, Calif. (Sept. 23-25) will be Olympic qualifiers. Hannemann has already lined up sponsors like EFX, Australian Gold, The ONE Group, Grand Touring Vodka, and Wilson, and a network TV contract is in the works. All events stream live on the NVL's website in an advanced media campaign that the organization has trumpeted as "a new era in beach volleyball."

The league is also known for giving back -- last Saturday, players supported the national Dreams for Kids non-profit by teaching a clinic to children with special needs. On Friday, before kicking off the first part of a two-day tournament at Baltimore Beach at Rash Field, they donated 80 tons of fresh sand to the courts on the Inner Harbor.

"We're just in a very fortunate position to be bringing this sport back to the fans," Hannemann said. "I think this sport is amazing and we're trying to build it at a grassroots level."

Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.