Kerri Walsh Jennings looks to shape beach volleyball's future with new p1440 partnership

Kerri Walsh Jennings wants to continue to influence beach volleyball once her playing days are finished. Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Days from Kerri Walsh Jennings' 41st birthday, she is traveling around the world to build a partnership she believes will help her make history in next summer's Olympics. She played beach volleyball in the Alps two weeks ago and along Portugal's coast the week after that. Now it's Tokyo, with Austria on the itinerary before the month is out.

But it's an even newer partnership, this one with someone who will never set a ball for her, that the four-time Olympic medalist believes can help her shape beach volleyball's future.

Theresia Gouw, described by Forbes as America's richest female venture capitalist, is the first outside investor in p1440, the volleyball-centric digital media company that Walsh Jennings co-founded last year. In a sport in which so much of success is about finding the right partner, Gouw offers credibility and capital to a project that needs time to take root -- time that most such ventures in Olympic sports don't get to find an audience.

"For someone like Theresia, who has her background, her pedigree, her history of picking winners and elevating their success, this is a big deal for us," Walsh Jennings said. "She's such an empowered woman leading the way in Silicon Valley -- one of the gnarliest, most competitive industries in the world. That she's on our team and believes in us, that, to me, says everything."

Short for Platform 1440, the number representative of Walsh Jennings' desire to do all she can with the total minutes in a day, p1440 kicked off last September and featured professional players and a nationally televised final. The debut event was almost literally in Walsh Jennings' Bay Area backyard -- she walked to practice from the house in which she grew up. She finished third playing with Swiss Olympian Anouk Verge-Depre amid a festival atmosphere that featured concerts each night and health and lifestyle booths and seminars mixed among the volleyball courts. A Las Vegas event staged in partnership with the FIVB followed, putting p1440 branding on display with Olympic qualifying points at stake.

Walsh Jennings said the plan was always to focus on live events at the outset. To make a splash and introduce the name, at least in the volleyball community, while also developing a digital presence to keep people connected. But as far back as the eve of the debut tournament last fall, Walsh Jennings cautioned that live events are expensive and finite, that p1440 had to be more than just another pro tour or a series of festivals. It speaks to a recalibration that p1440 now bills itself as a digital media company, burying a reference to "experiential events" deep in its mission statement.

That future appears to have a larger digital footprint -- live streaming, storytelling, training and other ways to connect an audience they believe wants more of the sport.

"We want sustainability, we want profitability, we want scale," Walsh Jennings said this week. "The way to do that in today's world is obviously in the digital landscape."

Building that kind of audience engagement doesn't happen overnight.

"The thing that was a little bit of an assault to my system, which I know is going to change once the marketplace understands what p1440 is, is the brand support," Walsh Jennings said. "There is such an opportunity there, and I can't wait for people to wake up. But the private investment side, people like Theresia, it's coming and it's all positive."

Gouw was at Stanford pursuing her MBA while Walsh Jennings starred for the Cardinal's indoor volleyball team. Their ascents after leaving Palo Alto were similarly rapid. Gouw became a venture capital star in Silicon Valley. She co-founded Aspect Venture with Jennifer Fonstad in 2014, the female-led firm notable in that regard in Silicon Valley.

The venture capital heavyweight and volleyball star met at a sports technology summit in 2018, when Gouw told Walsh Jennings it was a shame she was the only female athlete presenting. Gouw then went to the opening p1440 event in San Jose. Her involvement in p1440 now is as an individual investor, not as part of Aspect Ventures. But in a recent p1440 Q&A session, she described following the same steps in deciding to invest that she would use in any setting.

First, did she believe in the people involved? Walsh Jennings is convincing in that regard.

Second, did she see a market? She did, citing a figure of more than 900 million players worldwide, including her own teenage daughter, and the growth of the beach game, which is among the fastest-growing NCAA sports.

As for the last criteria, well, Walsh Jennings can be really convincing.

"What's the technology advantage?" Gouw said of the last question she asks herself. "In this case it's not a technology advantage but a competitive advantage. While we will add to the technology, that's clearly not what we lead with. The competitive advantage is Kerri and her unique ability to be the ambassador and shape the future of the sport.

"And I was also drawn to the fact that we need more women founders to show the world what can be possible."

It came down to picking the right partner. As Walsh Jennings chases a fourth gold medal and fifth consecutive Olympic appearance around the globe, she understands that well.

Indeed, though p1440 is her passion and her future, the immediate priority for Walsh Jennings is qualifying for the 2020 Olympics with partner Brooke Sweat. Although beach volleyball's Olympic qualification process contains layers, the simplest path is to be among the two highest-ranked American teams on June 15, 2020, based on points accumulated through FIVB events like those for which Walsh Jennings and Sweat are wandering the globe.

That was anything but certain when Walsh Jennings and Sweat first teamed up last October.

At the time, Walsh Jennings hadn't won a title in more than two years, since she and April Ross won the first tournament after they settled for bronze medals in the 2016 Olympics. Those two parted ways months later, and Walsh Jennings battled shoulder injuries in the interim. But after a win in China in May and back-to-back quarterfinals in the past two events, Walsh Jennings and Sweat are the second-ranked American team behind Ross and Alix Klineman.

"We've come so far in the past year," Walsh Jennings said. "Our ambitions, just like with p1440, are very high. The momentum that the Olympics brings to our sport every four years is incredible. It changed my life -- in Athens [winning gold in 2004] and then following up in Beijing and London. It's such a beautiful powerful movement. And p1440 absolutely wants to capitalize on that wave and ride it and sustain it."

With a more proven eye for what it takes to win Olympic medals than anyone in the sport's history, she chose Sweat because she believed in what their partnership could be.

She believes it's the same reason that Gouw, with a better eye for investments than most, chose her.

"She sees value in us," Walsh Jennings said of Gouw's investment. "And that makes me very proud."