Introducing the Elephants in the Room for Professional Beach Volleyball

As I read a great Q&A session between Travis Mewhirter and Al-B Hannemann (link), I found myself torn on how I felt. I'll start by saying I know there are layers and layers to running a professional tour that I can't begin to fathom. Permits, licenses, sponsorships, insurance, equipment - all these things on top of trying to provide big purses for athletes at events that generate virtually zero attendance revenue. I don't envy the job that Donald, Al-B, and Leonard are undertaking.

That being said, I do know a little bit about the current state of beach volleyball and I do see the same elephants in the room not being addressed every time something big like this happens. Here are those elephants.

Player Recognition is Non-Existent.

(Before I begin, Travis Mewhirter has done a FANTASTIC job at to combat everything I'm about to write this summer. I really hope that he continues what he's doing, and that others follow his lead, because it's exactly what our sport needs.)

I think back to last year when I watched two mid-level high school volleyball programs face each other. They were rival schools, and the buzz in the gym was electric. Hundreds of fans living and dying with each point, I remember having goosebumps from the roar from the crowd as the home team's right side absolutely crushed a ball line for the first point of the game.

Looking at the crowd, I remember thinking "MAYBE a dozen people here actually know the x's and o's behind what they're watching".

So why was the gym packed?

I'm a Chicago sports fan. I don't go to Wrigley Field to watch baseball, I go to watch my Cubbies as Bryant and Rizzo leads the charge against our opponent. I don't go to the United Center to watch hockey, I go because I want to dance to Chelsea Dagger after Kane finds the back of the net off a beautiful assist from Toews en route to a Blackhawks win.

I have traveled on both the AVP and NVL tours over the last decade, and while I love to watch good volleyball and am a die-hard who could tell you the backstories on a lot of the athletes, 95% of the crowd couldn't name players if you put them in a line-up. That's the problem when the majority of your athletes all reside in the same location. I don't fault them from living in the beach volleyball mecca, but why are we surprised that we can't get people from Chicago/Austin/etc. to pay for tickets when they have no affiliation with the athletes participating?

Tours and Players aren't collaborating enough on marketing.
One of the lines that stood out to me that Al-B said in his interview was this one:

"...we’ve always told our players that you need to earn a living not make a living. You need to go out and help the tour operators grow the sport and that’s what’s so great about people that get to experience playing with us is that we try to involve everyone in the whole process and it’s just more of an experience and not a livelihood and we need to try to change that."

I completely agree with the players needing to be more involved with growing the sport. But I can't help but feel like the tours have more leverage than they've utilized on this front, and both sides just sit and talk about what the other side can do better.

Rather than talk about what's not being done, here's a cliff notes' version of a blog I had written when Donald Sun first took over the AVP regarding what I had hoped to see.

Imagine if the tours worked with athletes and said "We'll cover your travel, your hotel, your food. We'll coordinate to have you at <location> to coach/speak/exhibition in front of <youth organization>. At the end, you'll take pictures/sign autographs. We'll also have some things during the tournament that you'll need to do in between matches/meals/seeing trainers".

Why aren't we using main draw players to host clinics on qualifier days? Why aren't we using qualifier players that are knocked out to interact with fans on main draw days?

I recognize some players may scoff at the extra responsibilities, but I assure you there are enough players out there that would jump at it - and they don't need to be the big names now to become the big names later. I've done exhibitions for indoor in our region with a torn labrum - I was at best playing at a AA level, but I interacted with the kids between plays, high fived the crowd every chance I got, asked kids for serving zones - at the end of the game, I had athletes lined up to take pictures/sign autographs for them.

The tours are struggling to promote their players, and the players aren't doing much better on their end. It's in the tours' best interest to make it mandatory for the athletes to get involved - and compensate them accordingly in exchange for their services.

The Juniors Beach Explosion is both good AND bad for business.

Ever since the NCAA has made Beach Volleyball an official sport, the juniors end is booming. Our region's participation numbers doubled in size the last two years, and many places across the country have shown similar growth.

Clubs now get a few extra months of income by running beach programs. Tournament directors can make solid money off running events compared to adult events as kids can't accept prize money. The AVP and NVL will have a strong generation of new talent coming in as kids are getting more experience as younger ages, and we've already started to see high school/college age kids breaking through the main draws as a result.

Going back to the top, one of our primary issues as a sport is that we're a for-free spectator event. Sponsors cover a large chunk of money, and they invest that hoping to get their products in front of as many people as possible.

Does anyone see the problem here?

You can't pursue making kids players AND spectators at the same time with the current model. And to me, this is a big, BIG problem as we move forward. This is a huge problem when our governing bodies make a good chunk of revenue from these juniors events: If the kids are paying $50-60 a pair to play, why would they try to persuade them to become spectators for free?

If I run the AVP or NVL, it's evident that the biggest untapped market from a fan perspective are these 11-18 year olds coming up the pipeline - but if we make them players instead of fans, the money generated isn't even comparable.

So why aren't we combining these events?

Juniors and Pro Events NEED to be collaborating.

Most domestic events I've attended use anywhere from 6-10 courts. I think about how many beaches can house dozens of courts.

Why wouldn't a pro tour run a juniors event alongside theirs?

If most juniors teams were eliminated by noon from pool play, wouldn't you have a good chance of them sticking around and watching the pros? Or, if you had a clinic in the afternoon on a few courts, wouldn't they potentially be interested in participating?

We can't get people to pay to watch these events live. Meanwhile, most juniors beach tournaments here sell out. So why not work on bringing them together? Wouldn't that make for an easier sell to sponsors as well? If we started putting our pro tournaments in the hottest of the volleyball hotbeds for juniors, wouldn't that naturally help a bit with player recognition within our sport?

To conclude, I hope that the NVL does indeed come back in 2018. I hope that after seeing how one player getting injured could literally derail a tour's last 3 tournaments, we look back and say "How do we diversify our sponsor/spectator interest so they're invested in more than one or two athletes?"

I hope someone else with more power than me gets tired of sharing the room with these elephants. Because the one thing I KNOW is that with the proper business model that leverages the current juniors boom, the one thing our sport does have is plenty of hope.