At the Summer Olympics, spectators seem drawn to the beach volleyball courts. Outside of the Games, fans seem to find other ways to spend their time.
That's the problem the sport has in this country. But, the situation isn't hopeless and enthusiasts have latched on to the Asics World Series of Beach Volleyball as the next best thing for growing an audience.
The event takes place Tuesday through Sunday at Alamitos Beach in Long Beach. It features an international field of 128 teams playing for a total purse of $1 million. The best U.S. men's and women's teams will play against the best international teams to determine the tournament champions. Eight of the top 10 men's teams in world rankings and nine of the top 10 women's pairs are entered.
"This event is by far and away bigger than any beach volleyball event that's ever been staged in the United States, without question," said Leonard Armato, one of the tournament's founders.
Armato served as the head of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour from 2001 to 2009 and formerly worked as an agent for athletes, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O'Neal and Oscar De La Hoya.
The AVP tour struggled after Armato left, canceling its 2010 season due to a shortage of sponsorship money.
Efforts to stage international events in the U.S. have fizzled too. Before the first World Series last year, volleyball's international governing body, the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB), hadn't sanctioned an event in the U.S. for 10 years.
Armato emphasizes that his tournament is about more than beach volleyball. The event combines high-caliber competition with music and beach culture. Fans can participate in four- and six-person tournaments, and the music includes the reggae-fusion band Magic!, which has the current No. 1 song "Rude."
"We want to use what's best about Southern California and the beach lifestyle to create a truly compelling, fully-integrated sports and entertainment experience," Armato said. "It starts with bringing the best in the world together for high-stakes competition, and it ends with the whole beach lifestyle at the highest level."
NBC broadcast last year's competition, which drew nearly three million viewers. The tournament's purse of $500,000 was doubled for this year and the music festival scaled up in response to the success of last year.
"I think everyone's shocked," Asics CEO Kevin Wulff said. "If you pick up any volleyball magazines, Dig [for example], our tournament last year — the pictures and the graphics are shown everywhere, and we had such success."
For this year's event, NBC will broadcast more than 18 hours of coverage across various platforms. The network had been looking for an opportunity to televise a U.S.-based beach volleyball event when the idea for the World Series developed.
"We had had some conversations with other parties, so it was definitely space that we had decided we wanted to get into," said Rob Simmelkjaer, senior vice president of NBC Sports Group. "But having spoken to Leonard and a couple of other groups out there, we felt that both his vision for this and his experience in the sport were the most attractive way for us to do it."
The tournament's creators hope the World Series can help grow beach volleyball in the U.S.
The problem isn't that Americans are unfamiliar with the sport — many play recreationally — but that professional tournaments haven't built up credibility as important competitions.
Armato said his strategy is to draw in casual fans who might not pay attention to smaller tournaments.
"I call [it] coalition marketing," he said. "You've got to enlist the support, all the different partners that you have to create marketing weight and get the word out because you've got to let people know . . . this event is happening, and it's a huge event; it's an important event. The best in the world are playing at that event."
Cultivating an audience of casual fans is vital for this event, Simmelkjaer said.
"People who may not tune in to [tennis or golf] week-in and week-out know that [Wimbledon or the Masters] are events of particular importance in the sport," he said. "It gives them a reason to want to tune in, and we're hoping that this event will become an event like that."
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