If you follow any volleyball players or sponsors or tours on Instagram, you’ll notice that one of the most commonly used hashtags is #GrowTheGame. The AVP is all about growing the game. The NVL was all about growing the game. Kerri Walsh is all about growing the game. The players and representatives and sponsors are all about growing the game. It’s a constant, ubiquitous push for growth. And in the past few years – and in particular, the last few weeks – the game has seen a blindingly fast growth spurt.
A few weeks ago, the AVP announced its schedule, which is one of the earliest schedule announcements in recent memory. The fact that the AVP can lock down venues, sponsors, and dates that quickly is a sign of growth, that sponsors have enough confidence to invest further and further into the future.
On Dec. 6, the National Volleyball Association, finally an American indoor league, debuted with a showcase in Las Vegas.
Eight days after that, the AVP announced a three-year deal with Amazon Prime, which will stream main draw matches from every stop through 2020.
And on Monday, Kerri Walsh-Jennings dropped yet another bomb, reported by FloVolleyball, that she’ll be launching her own tour in 2018.
That’s a lot to take in. So let’s everybody take a deep breath, relax, zoom out, and take a look at the macro.
A decade ago, there was no college beach volleyball. The AVP was in an inexorable spiral towards bankruptcy. There were no competing tours.
Now there’s a booming college game, a resurgent domestic tour, multiple competing tours, an indoor league, a small company named Amazon on board.
This growth, I believe, began with that college game, which has exploded since its inception as an “emerging sport” in 2010. It became the fastest sport to shed the “emerging” label in NCAA history, doing so in just four years, tabbing volleyball — both indoors and sand — the fastest-growing sport in the country. More girls now play volleyball than basketball or track or soccer.
Now we’re seeing the first waves of college beach players hit the professional ranks, providing the impetus the AVP, and whatever other tours are out there, needed to grow, and quickly. Now there’s Amazon. Now there’s a Gold Series. Now there’s a domestic indoor league. Now there’s a World Series. Now there’s potentially a new tour in town.
My baseline thought about all of it: This is good. It’s all good. Whether you like Kerri Walsh and dislike Donald Sun or vice versa, it doesn’t really matter. I could pull out quotes from Walsh and attribute them to Sun or pull quotes from Sun and attribute them to Walsh and it doesn’t matter — everybody is saying the exact same thing.
“We want to grow the game.”
In an interview with VolleyballMag.com in February, Sun used some version of the phrase “grow the game” three times.
In her opening comments at a meet and greet with the 2017 First Team Under Armour High School All-Americans, Walsh said: “We want to grow the game on the beach side.” She mentioned “elevate the game” three times, along with “broaden the reach and scope of our sport,” and “we want to put the players in the best position to rise and thrive even though we’re being disruptive with what we’re trying to launch.”
Walsh wants to grow the game. Casey Jennings wants to grow the game. Sun wants to grow the game.
Note: An original version of this story stated that Leonard Armato and Al-B Hannemann were also a part of this tour. However, Jennings said this is untrue, that Armato and Hannemann have no part in Walsh’s tour.
It’s growing all right. It’s just growing in a bunch of different directions, and growingsuperfastrightnow. Sun was wise to lock down the country’s top talent through the next quad. I know several AVP players have been approached this off-season in regards to this new tour, and the promises have been rather lavish — events, big prize money, big draws — though I’m not sure the AVP has much cause for concern to lose its talent via contract breaches in 2018 or 2019 or 2020.
If you listen to the language Walsh uses in the video, it seems her target demographic at the onset will be the college graduates, both indoor and on the beach. Walsh is an icon, the matriarch of American women’s beach volleyball. She has massive appeal and she should. Dispute that if you’d like, but poll 100 high school and college girls on whom their volleyball role model is, and I’d expect no less than 60 percent to point to Walsh, the other 40 divvied up between April Ross and Misty May-Treanor, maybe a Holly McPeak and Jen Kessy thrown in there.
What tour do you think college girls will look to? The one where they can compete against and meet their idol? Or the AVP?
I don’t know. It’ll be an interesting battleground. Walsh has enormous appeal as the most recognizable name in beach volleyball. Sun has his own business sense, the credibility of the AVP name, a three-year streaming deal with one of the strongest brands in the American economy, and all of the top talent in the country who seem to be very much in support of the AVP.
Walsh’s tour — I’m curious as to what it’ll be called — is the one with the uphill battle. There isn’t a ton of money to go around in this space, and even if Walsh remains the most recognizable name in the game, I wonder how much confidence sponsors will have in investing their money into a fledgling tour in a notoriously volatile sport where the biggest appeal is an aging, injury-prone athlete. Last year, the NVL hinged on Walsh’s ability to stay healthy. She didn’t, and the NVL subsequently tanked.
“Unfortunately, Kerri got injured and it kind of changed the tide,” Al-B Hannemann, the NVL’s founder, told me the day after it canceled the season. “For a number of reasons, ABC unfortunately wanted to have Kerri, and not that that was their sole motivation to be involved in beach volleyball, but Kerri pulls more weight than anybody in the sport, and when that happened, a lot of the footprints and the interest and the excitement, unfortunately, really changed.”
Hopefully that wouldn’t happen again, but athletes are athletes. Point is: If this new tour is going to be sustainable for years down the road, Walsh playing on it can’t be the cornerstone upon which it’s built, or it will be built to fail. It would be tantamount to the NFL banking on Tom Brady. Which is why I think it’ll come down to the aspiring college graduates, who aren’t tethered to a contract, who will be entering the professional ranks in waves, who now might have a decision to make:
The AVP or Kerri Walsh?
We’ll see what happens as more details come out. Jennings said on Monday night that more information — all the details we would expect — will be released after the holidays, sometime in January. For now, all we can do is wait for those details to emerge, and watch as the beach volleyball landscape continues to shift.