The rise, fall, and potential rise again of the National Volleyball League

The National Volleyball League has canceled the remainder of the 2017 season.

The following, which details the founding of the National Volleyball League and its recent cancellation of the 2017 season is, for the most part, an excerpt from the manuscript of my upcoming book on beach volleyball, which will hopefully be released prior to the 2018 season. It has been updated with recent interviews

There was no mistaking it: Reuben Danley was on his way up. For six and a half years, the 32-year-old from San Diego had grinded on the AVP Tour. He had played in 12 qualifiers before making his first main draw, in Brooklynn in 2006. And then he went another four years until he made another, in 2010.

But 2010 was going to be different. And it was different – just not the way he envisioned it. Leading up to the season, Danley and partner Jason Wight had won a number of high level tournaments in the California Beach Volleyball Association. They felt good. Confident. In the first AVP event of the season, in Santa Barbara, the two were automatically into the main draw and took a set off of 2008 Olympians Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal in the first round. Danley would finish the tournament with the highest kill percentage (75%) among all players. They failed to qualify for the following tournament, in Huntington Beach, losing to Mike Bruning and Dana Camacho in the final qualifying round, but three consecutive main draws followed. They were on the perpetually tantalizing threshold of being automatically seeded into the main draw. At the very least, they’d likely enter the 2011 season as full-time main draw players.

And then came the announcement: The AVP had gone bankrupt. The second half of the 2010 season would be canceled. During the search for new investors, there would likely be no 2011 season either, the first time since the Tour’s inception that it wouldn’t be operational for a full calendar year.

American professional beach volleyball, for the time being, was extinct.

“Unfortunately, the time constraints were such that pulling the trigger on the amount of money necessary to salvage this season were too great,” then-AVP Commissioner Mike Dodd said in a statement on August 13, 2010.

“It was a gut shot,” Danley said. “Like the rug just got pulled out from under us.”

“There were so many good guys, I can name ten people who were on their way up, guys like Jason Ring, Billy Strickland, Matt Olson – all those guys, dude, were legit ballers, and they just left,” said Casey Patterson, who was just one year removed from his first AVP win, in Brooklynn with Ty Loomis. “They were in finals or almost winning, breaking through all the time. It went from having so much depth on Tour to where I was one of the only guys who was like ‘Nah, I’m going to keep doing it.’ It was such a big blow. I think it cut a lot of guys who would still be playing in half.”

Patterson was correct in his assumption that Olson saw the writing on the wall. Olson and his wife, Lindsey, whom he married in 2004, had been discussing starting a family. The AVP’s crash seemed like an obvious, if not serendipitous, omen.

“I figured it was time to start doing something else,” said Olson, who founded a beach club that has been wildly successful in the half-decade since the AVP folded.

Ring, who had played in 95 AVP events from 2000-2010 – many with Olson – winning nearly $150,000 in the process, never played an AVP event again. Strickland claimed a trio of top-three finishes in the truncated 2010 season alone and has since played exactly one AVP event per year, in Manhattan Beach. For all of the players who left the game that they felt abandoned them, there were an equal amount who wondered what they might do in a life devoid of beach volleyball.

Get a job? Like a real person? Oh, God.


John Mayer thought about it. The 6-foot-1 lefty won his first tournament in San Diego in 2009 and had made his next appearance in the finals at the Hermosa Beach Open in 2010. Though he and partner Matt Prosser lost in two sets to Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, it was an auspicious sign for his burgeoning career. Two weeks later, the AVP was defunct, making him ponder the inevitable question: Did he even have a career left?

When Mayer initially set out to become a professional beach volleyball player, he gave himself a 5-year window. If he had established himself as a main draw player, far off the bubble from needing to qualify, within five years, he could continue pursuing the sport. If not, it was time to focus on other things. During that window, however, he coached on a half-time basis. He was an assistant at Santa Monica College, and when he was hired he made it clear that playing was his No. 1 priority. If ever there were a conflict between an AVP tournament and a coaching obligation, the AVP would win out.

“The athletic director was so understanding,” Mayer said. “I was super lucky.”

But in 2011, six years into his full-time playing career, he wondered if his luck had run out. He reached out to his former coach at Pepperdine College, Marv Dunphy, and debated coaching full-time and retiring as a player. Mayer wasn’t even 30. Dunphy, for his part, was one of the few who believed that the beach volleyball scene could and would rebound.

“He told me that a lot of guys gave it up too soon,” Mayer recalled. “He said that I should keep playing, and that went a long way. Maybe he just didn’t want to hire me, but I took that to heart. I can remember going out the next off-season and not having any schedule and just being out there training and being a little purposeless and not having the same drive. The beaches were pretty empty, and it was pretty hard to find games.”

There is a reason for that. With the absence of a domestic tour, players were initially presented with two options: Retire and pick up a full-time job, or go overseas and play internationally. Patterson immediately returned to Puerto Rico to play indoor, and he supplemented with his first full-time year on the FIVB Tour, playing with Mayer’s former teammate at Pepperdine, Brad Keenan. When he wasn’t playing indoor or FIVB, Patterson was flying back and forth from Japan, playing with Koichi Nishimura on the Japanese tour, scrounging for anything that resembled professional beach volleyball.

The more established American stars, Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal, as well as marquee women such as April Ross and Jen Kessey, and Misty May and Kerri Walsh, also headed overseas, leaving the United States, as Mayer says, “a desert.” Even those who had the talent and the resources to play internationally weren’t exactly fond of the situation.

“Nobody,” Gibb said, “wants to play full-time overseas.”

Many didn’t.

But what other option was there? While it wasn’t desirous to play overseas, it was worse to consider the alternative: retirement. So overseas the Americans went. Gibb and Rosenthal made stops in 14 FIVB tournaments in 12 different countries in five months. Patterson and Keenan spent $10,000 traveling to eight different countries and barely broke even.

“We were just looking for anything, dude,” Patterson said.

Back in the States, however, there was a glimmer of hope, begat by a man named Albert “Al-B” Hannemann.

***

It was 1993, and Albert Hannemann was plowing through his last final exam at the University of Hawaii. Did his grade matter, really? He had initially wanted to be a history teacher, so he majored in history. But now, as he was checking those final answers of the last exam he would ever take, becoming a history teacher couldn’t have been further from the path he felt destined to take. He had a flight to catch with his buddy Matt Unger. They’d be heading back to Seaside Heights, New Jersey. A couple weeks before, they had made the same cross-country trip and qualified for their first AVP main draw. So they sped through their finals and hopped on a red-eye and landed on the East Coast with just a few hours before their first match as professional volleyball players. They’d square up with Kent Steffes and Karch Kiraly, the team that won 17 of the 20 AVP tournaments in the 1992 season.

They got clobbered. Hannemann was smitten. Beaches! Volleyball! Money! Women! Karch and Kent! What a life!

Of course, this wasn’t the life he dreamed of as a boy. What boy dreams of becoming a professional volleyball player, even one who was raised in Redondo Beach? No, Hannemann was all football and basketball, until he realized that the less popular sport played on the same court as basketball could provide a free education and Division I competition.

“Volleyball was my only path to college,” he recalled.

Ok. Volleyball it is. He began at UCLA, won a national championship, battled for and lost his starting position, decided UCLA wasn’t for him, and transferred to Hawaii after his sophomore year. He became the Student Athlete of the Year and Academic All American. He spent time with family, who lived on the Islands. He majored in history and, like many college students, had no intention of using that major.

Albert Hannemann was going to play professional volleyball.

“Coming out of college, we wanted to play on Tour,” he said. “There was no second option, especially in my mind. A couple guys were tippy-toeing it but I was all in.”

In truth, Hannemann had never planned on using his history major. He just checked a box because he had to. He had known since his sophomore year at North Torrance High School, when recruiting letters began pouring in, asking him to play for their program, that he was going to be a professional. And he had known he was going to be damn good. Karch good. Sinjin good. An Olympian, just like his heroes would become.

“I had every beach volleyball dream you could imagine,” he said. “There wasn’t even a second thought. I didn’t think about being a teacher. The only reason I thought about being a teacher was because I thought I’d teach for free because I would make so much money playing volleyball. I mean, I was really drinking the cool aid.”

Twenty years was his goal. Twenty years as a professional. A good number, solid number. He didn’t make it. For 18 years, he established himself as a mainstay on the AVP Tour. His exquisite good looks – tanned, American-Samoan skin, Colgate commercial smile, rippling, lean muscles, an easy-going personality that would land him small-time acting gigs – drew in one sponsor after the next. Wilson, Oakley, Paul Mitchell, Crocs, Clif Bar – they all came calling, with contracts and free gear and media ops and pictures in magazines. He modeled. He founded a company called Volleyball Vacations and then he founded another, PlayFit Foundation, which provides children in underserved communities with volleyball equipment and college scholarship opportunities. Sure, he majored in history, but damn if the guy wasn’t business savvy, a rare an enviable trait in a sport that lacked exactly that. When he looks back upon it, Hannemann realizes that, yes, he was unknowingly grooming himself for the biggest business venture in beach volleyball since Leonard Armato, Sinjin Smith, Kevin Cleary, Mike Dodd and the boys founded the AVP Tour in 1983.

He invented his own position, the Executive Director for Player Promotions. The sponsors hadn’t been happy with how the players were interacting with the fans, so Hannemann, an expert in that field, changed that. He became the director for the AVP VIP Fan Experience, organizing meet and greets and photo ops and clinics with the pros. Off the court, he was a star, a Calvin Klein model and an MTV regular.

On the court, he was at the top of the Tour. In 2002, nearly a decade into his professional career, he partnered with Jeff Nygaard and won the Hermosa Beach Open, stunning Karch Kiraly — Karch Kiraly! — in the quarterfinals. And then he and Nygaard went on to win one of the greatest finals in American beach volleyball history, an 18-21, 29-27, 27-25, two-hour marathon against Kevin Wong and Stein Metzger. Who cares if he wouldn’t finish better than fifth the rest of the season? He was in the winner’s circle. There’s no taking that away.

But it’s also fair to say that he peaked. Even if Chris Marlowe once commented on national television that Hannemann was “one of the most entertaining players in beach volleyball,” Hannemann would finish better than ninth just once over the next eight years. His winnings plummeted from north of $15,000 in 2002 to less than three grand the next year.

Still: He wanted 20 years. In 2010, he was just two away when Dodd made the announcement: There would be no more AVP Tour. But in its absence, there might be something else.

November of 2010. Hannemann was at a charity event for the Dig For Kids Foundation, founded by his cousin and 2000 gold medalist, Eric Fonoimoana, and for which Hannemann served as the Vice President and Program Director. The AVP may have been down but all of Hannemann’s business ventures remained alive and successful. With that success came an abundance of fans, who loved not only Hannemann’s on-court energy – “I was a very emotional player.” – but his off-court availability. And now those fans were wondering: Could Hannemann resurrect the AVP Tour? Or, perhaps better: Could he found one of his own? After all, he had founded his first business when he could hardly enjoy a legal drink, and that was working out quite well. His positions with the AVP had trained him for this exact moment.

Albert Hannemann could save beach volleyball.

“They told me that if I don’t do it the sport is going to die,” he recalled. “My wife was cool enough to say that I had an obligation to do it, and if I didn’t, then who was I? The sport had given me so much that I knew it was something I had to do.”

The idea had barely taken root when Hannemann took the first tangible step to resurrecting beach volleyball. At that charity event in 2010, he met a girl by the name of Molly Menard, a former dual-sport athlete at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Clare, where she played forward on the basketball team and outside hitter on the volleyball team. She also happened to be the daughter of John Menard, the lavishly wealthy founder of the eponymous home improvement chain, Menards, that in 2015 reported a revenue just shy of $9 billion.

In Menard, who for four years had worked at a private equity firm in Indianapolis, Hannemann had found his co-founder, his CFO, his golden goose.

And, truth be told, Menard missed volleyball. She wanted back in. What better way to do so than to combine her skills in business with her passion for volleyball?

“We started talking and he told me about how he wanted to change the sport and create a league for the players, by the players, and fill in where the AVP had just left a giant, giant hole,” Menard told ESPN in a story in July of 2014. “I think he knew I was somebody passionate enough to do this. Like any entrepreneurs, you have to be a little bit crazy to go 120% into something that has the potential to fail. He knew that I was willing to work hard at it and fill in the spots that he wasn’t able to. He’s great at the sales and the marketing piece, but I have the experience in private equity to mold the business plan and put the financial models together to make it successful.”

And so it began, Hannemann and Menard, on a quest to save beach volleyball in America.

The NVL made its debut in Baltimore to coincide with the Preakness, one leg of horse racing’s famed Triple Crown. It was a wise business move, to host a tournament at a venue where there would already be more than 100,000 people in attendance. Even if they didn’t necessarily come for the beach volleyball, they were there, a built-in audience.

Thirty-one mens teams signed up, and it featured a stacked field, with Patterson and Keenan, Sean Scott and John Hyden, Billy Allen and Matt Prosser, Kevin McColloch and Matt Olson, Ty Loomis and Mark Williams, Ryan Mariano and Ed Ratledge, and other top-tier players such as Adrian Carambula, a future 2016 Olympian representing Italy, Adam Roberts, Stafford Slick, Pedro Brazao, Dana Camacho and Ryan Doherty.

“There was a transition where we went from having sponsors and a strong domestic tour to nothing,” said Scott, who won with Hyden and pocketed $10,000, in an ESPN recap from the event. “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.”

Scott was correct in his prediction. The NVL did start small, and it grew. Quickly. Two months later the NVL made its second stop, in Malibu, Calif. Forty-six mens teams registered, and the field was, again, a loaded affair. The vast majority of those who played in Baltimore participated, and others who played in Malibu included Ty Tramblie, John Mayer, Steve Grotowski, Casey Jennings, John Moran and Will Montgomery.

Hope abounded.

“We were hoping something would take its place,” Allen said. “At the time, we were playing anything we could get. We were grateful to have anything that would pay us to do what we loved because we were going to do it anyway.”

Two more events followed, in Aspen and Miami, and with each one the field got bigger and deeper. The winners of the final event were set to be paid out a mighty sum of $20,000, and it was enough to lure back all of the American players who had fled overseas. Back came Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena, Gibb and Rosenthal, Keenan and Patterson.

“I thought,” Mayer said, “the NVL was the next big thing.”

But even then, with Olympians like Dalhausser, Rosenthal, Gibb, Misty May and Kerri Walsh, there was depressingly little fanfare.

“There wasn’t the same amount of media attention,” read the opening paragraph of a USA Today story from the event. “There wasn’t the same crowd. There weren’t even bleachers. But it was beach volleyball on American soil, and most of the sport’s biggest names were present.”

The big names were enough. In 2012, the AVP, after being bought by then-36-year-old Donald Sun, the son of self-made billionaire David Sun, made a cameo appearance, hosting two events. Two more upstart tours, the Corona Wide Open, founded by Karch Kiraly with an antiquated emphasis on old-school rules and the bigger court, and Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series joined the scene as well, and the NVL added an event on its schedule, upping the tour to five events. Suddenly, American players went from being completely devoid of beach volleyball to having four somewhat legitimate professional outlets.

“I was almost in tears,” Ed Ratledge said, “because I felt like a pro athlete again, with high level tournaments and stadiums and everything.”

In the wake of an extraordinarily successful London Olympics, in which May and Walsh won their third consecutive gold medal, the AVP, under Sun’s guidance, added five more events in 2013, to seven total, five of which would be televised. Though it effectively put an end to the Jose Cuervo and Corona tours – neither would host another event again – the players were at once thrilled and hesitant to alas have what appeared to be a bona fide elite tour again.

“I remember those first couple AVPs were awesome,” Mayer said. “We just had more tournaments to play, a couple were world class, and it seemed like this Donald Sun guy has a lot of money. All of us in the back of our mind knew we couldn’t expect it to always go the right way. You’re always nervous that something bad is going to happen or the wrong person is in charge. It was exciting and optimistic, but I wasn’t drinking the holy water. I wasn’t fully committed.”

Mayer, like many others on Tour, was jaded, and justifiably so. The bankruptcy had ended a number of careers and caused those who remained in the game no small deal of stress and second-guessing. Never have there been more American teams dipping their feet in international waters, just to be safe, a hedge against another crash.

And for a while, the NVL was a safe hedge. As the AVP slowly built itself up under Sun, the NVL established itself as a legitimate professional organization. In 2013, the AVP held seven events, the NVL four; 2014, seven and six; 2015, seven and eight; and 2016, seven and six.

Event-wise, the two went toe-for-toe, but there was no mistaking which tour was the premiere tour and which was the de facto “minor leagues,” as several volleyball players would refer to the NVL. The AVP had the name recognition, the brand, the money — what little of it was left in the sport, anyway. The NVL was still an upstart. It didn’t have the television coverage the AVP did. It didn’t have the massive stadiums or the fan attendance or the Olympians.

But it had something. It was a legitimate tour with legitimate events with legitimately talented players. It had Eric Zaun and Dave Palm, the former of which would establish himself as a bona fide AVP talent, a semifinalist and the current leader for the AVP newcomer of the year. It had Skyler Del Sol and Piotr Marciniak, both of whom have qualified for the AVP Tour. Marciniak now plays full-time on the AVP; Del Sol is representing the United States, alongside Jon Mesko, on the NORCECA Tour.

Oh, and Mesko? Yes, he was an AVP talent as well, taking a ninth in 2008, partnering with future AVP champions such as Theo Brunner, Billy Allen, Ty Loomis, Dain Blanton, and, yes, a young man named Albert Hannemann.

No, the NVL was not the No. 1 tour, the goal destination for beach volleyball players, but, as one NVL winner would say this week, “every sport needs a minor leagues.” And, just as in any sport, beach volleyball’s “minor leagues” offered a high level of talent, if not a bit raw and precocious. The NVL was as critical to the sport’s growth as the NBA’s G-League, the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans Tour, the MLB’s minor leagues. It was a proving ground, a chance to cut your teeth.

Until the script was almost flipped.

Early this spring, the NVL announced a partnership with Armato and Kerri Walsh-Jennings, who had very publicly boycotted the AVP’s upcoming season due to, in part, a pair of rules changes, though it seemed her ire was rooted more in the execution of those changes. While they players were contacted and polled to see what they would think of a demo of the rules changes in Chicago, Walsh-Jennings felt their opinions weren’t taken into account or considered.

She would not be playing on the AVP Tour in 2017.

According to Hannemann, she’d be playing NVL.

The National Volleyball League didn’t just have an Olympian on its tour now. It now had the matriarch of beach volleyball in the United States, the most recognizable face in perhaps any female sport in America.

And then it didn’t.

Walsh-Jennings skipped the first NVL event, in Long Beach, to play in the World Series of Beach Volleyball, with which the NVL was partnered. A week later, in an FIVB event in Poland, Walsh-Jennings withdrew from the bronze medal match, citing a shoulder injury, which would also keep her out of the NVL’s second event, in Hermosa Beach.

No Kerri Walsh-Jennings meant no more ABC televised coverage. The tenuously stacked dominoes fell from there.

“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,” Hannemann said on Friday. “So I had meetings all week and my team, we talked all the way through to find out what can we do, can we still run events, and I was excited to run events so the players can still play and keep giving them a platform so they can keep playing but the reality is that it costs a lot of money to do that and they basically said we need to focus on 2018 because we cannot do smaller scale events anymore; we work too hard, the players deserve to have more opportunities and we can provide that but this year, it’s too late.”

There would be no more NVL in 2017. And while Hannemann is hopeful for a return in 2018, citing potential partnerships and deals in the making, the narrative seems reversed in a way. When the AVP returned in 2012, Mayer said he wasn’t ready to drink the holy water. Those on the NVL seem to be doing much of the same.

“I’ll be focusing the next three months and this is where we turn the corner,” Hannemann said. “I’m thankful for all the support, we’re not dead, we’re definitely the opposite. We have new life. Like I said, it’s a temporary setback, but I’ve never been more confident in where we’re at, and all we gotta do is wait and see how it turns out.

“I’m not asking for people to take a side, I never have. I’m going to keep working as hard as I can and now I have better help around me to help us get there.”

And now the question remains: Where will the NVL go from here?

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