The Manhattan Beach Open: A Rebirth

Beach volleyball should be the most popular sport in the world.

The sport’s name boasts a reason in and of itself why beach volleyball should be regarded as the world’s most popular sport:  it’s played on the beach.  Players and spectators alike enjoy the sounds of crashing waves nearby and work on perfecting sun-kissed tans, all whilst watching a fast-paced and enthralling game.

Outside of its geographic advantage, the players who grace the sandy courts provide another basis for the sport’s deserving dominance.  Professional beach volleyball players embody the word “athlete.”  These men and women are fierce competitors whose physical prowess is so great that they don’t even need to protect their feet from the 100-plus degree sand that is their court with shoes.  Shoes are for amateurs.  Their physical stature makes Michelangelo’s David look obese, as every player is cut enough to be a walking spokesperson for the Ab Roller.

Their athleticism is paramount and on par with other professional athletes of the highest caliber.  Yet, what makes professional beach volleyball players unique is their relationship with the community that supports them.  Fans refer to players as “friends” and can quickly rattle off an assortment of facts about each player, ranging from simple ones like hometowns to more involved tidbits like parents’ professions.  Sports writers (at least this one) are taken back by the genuine friendliness of the athletes, to the point that upon completion of interviews, they contemplate whether it would be inappropriate to suggest striking up a friendship and grabbing lunch sometime.

Beach volleyball shares other particularities with those sports deemed the “most popular” by general society.  The National Anthem is sung before matches, albeit not by major recording artists, but by the likes of Los Angeles’ Best Dog Walker (it’s no lie–this woman can sing and walk dogs).  Overzealous fans seeking camera attention pop up in the stands intermittently to perform whatever wacky task is necessary to gain attention.  Pretty girls in string bikinis and really short shorts throw a random assortment of junk into the crowd to engage fans.  And like the “most popular” sports, beach volleyball isn’t immune to bad officiating.  Matches are delayed for serious periods of time whilst players debate bad calls, going so far as to punch nets to demonstrate their distaste over a call.

The case for why beach volleyball should be the most popular sport in the world is clear.

However, unlike the Superbowl, World Series, and NBA Finals, the future of beach volleyball’s pinnacle event, the Manhattan Beach Open, was recently jeopardized.

Debuting in 1960, the Manhattan Beach Open is viewed as the “grand daddy of beach volleyball tournaments.”

“Other than the Olympics, it is the biggest volleyball event for pretty much anyone that is playing domestically.  This is like the mother lode of it all.  Your name goes on the pier [winners' names are engraved on plaques placed on the Manhattan Beach Pier].  The whole town comes out to watch.  People drive from two to three hours away to watch.  It’s a pretty big deal,” said player Jesse Rambis.

In the tournament’s 50th year of existence, the Manhattan Beach Open was set to be part of the Association of Volleyball Professionals’ (“AVP”) 2010 tour.  However, on August 13, 2010–less than two weeks before the 2010 Manhattan Beach Open–the AVP folded.

Thereafter, on October 29, 2010, the AVP filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  The AVP’s bankruptcy petition reads like a who’s-who of sports:  creditors named included ESPN, while shareholders listed included New Jersey Nets CEO Brett Yormark, Fox Sports Net, bigwig sports agent Leigh Steinberg, and Major League Baseball.  Shaq even threw himself into the shareholder mix.

With the AVP closing its doors on the heels of the 2010 Manhattan Beach Open, the City of Manhattan Beach moved swiftly to ensure that the tournament was held.  “It was a bit of a stretch to run anything professional at that stage.  The City did what they could to put together something for the 50th anniversary.  There were no bleachers, no stadium, no real infrastructure or sponsor village.  It was just an old school beach tournament,” said player and AVP employee, Hans Stolfus.

The City of Manhattan Beach was not alone in the pressure felt from the AVP’s demise.  “It was pretty earth shattering for me.  My number one goal in life was to be on the AVP and succeed on the AVP.  It consumed my entire life.  And all of a sudden,  it just exploded.  It seemed like there was nothing.  30 people depended on pro beach volleyball for their livelihood, and all the sudden it was taken away,” said player Bill Strickland.

With 30 people depending on professional beach volleyball for their livelihood, evaporation of the AVP caused many players to seek income elsewhere.  Because many players now work typical 9-5 jobs, players are forced into a difficult corner when trying to train for the sport.   “There’s not as many guys to train with.  Most of these guys have jobs.  We’re calling and we almost get the same team, over and over again, to train with because everybody has to work. So it’s really tough out there right now.  Hopefully guys can start looking to train a lot more and maybe find part-time work and the level of play will come up.” said 2011 Manhattan Beach Open champion John Hyden.

Beach volleyball has turned a page since 2010.  In 2011, the Manhattan Beach Open experienced a rebirth.

In 2011, the grandstands returned to the beach and a sizable $200,000 purse awaited the tournament’s winners when the City of Manhattan Beach partnered with IMG and USA Volleyball to produce the event, which was sponsored by Jose Cuervo.  ” I actually feel like I’m at one of the AVP events this year, which is really nice,” said player Duncan Budinger.

The event also received a boost in media attention when another professional athlete threatened by his sport’s economy took his skills from the basketball court to the sand court.  NBA All-Star and Minnesota Timberwolves Forward-Center Kevin Love teamed up with Hans Stolfus for the tournament.  “Kevin Love brings a lot of media attention to the sport. . . Believe it or not, it was not nearly as profitable for Kevin Love as everyone thinks, like some sort of massive contract.  He wanted to play. . . But, the reality is it brought a lot of media attention that wouldn’t have come otherwise and that’s big for the sport.  We need positives at this stage,” said Stolfus.

The leadership surrounding the event along with the players who devote much of their lives to the sport, seem poised to ensure that the 2012 Manhattan Beach Open builds upon the momentum gained in 2011.

Dave Williams, Managing Director of Beach Programs for USA Volleyball believes that the new production model adopted by the tournament in 2011 is necessary for the tournament’s continued success.  “I always believe that events can make money, tours lose money.  I think that the administration of the tour became so cumbersome that it financially crushed the AVP,” said Williams.

Stolfus echoed Williams’ sentiments of the need to outsource production of tournaments.  “Just like the ATP and PGA, we need promoters to run and operate events, versus [paying for all events] with one checkbook, which is what the AVP had done for the last 10 years.  It’s just not financially viable,” said Stolfus.

Stolfus’ thoughts expand beyond the production of beach volleyball tournaments and delve into how the AVP must restructure itself to sustain the sport of beach volleyball.

“You need obviously, solid leadership.  You need a great marketing platform.  You need a positive guerilla outreach.  You really need to be able to go out and reach the fans who are playing the game and restore their faith in the brand.  You need an operational model that is sustainable—not six semi-trucks driving coast to coast, setting up events and costing us hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars before we’re even getting a dollar back,” said Stolfus.

While the infrastructure and organizational goals which will define the Manhattan Beach Open and AVP in the future are to be seen, one thing is for sure:  the men and women devoting their lives to this sport deserve first-class leadership, sponsorship opportunities and fan bases.

Because you see, beach volleyball should be the most popular sport in the world.

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