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Selling Volleyball: a Game of Survival

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pro beach volleyball player Dennie Shupryt-Knoop’s warmup routine starts at 5:50 every morning. With the sun creeping over the mountains above her Topanga Canyon home, she pops in a videotape for her wide-awake toddler, then steals away to use the phone.

With her daughter firmly engrossed in “Winnie the Pooh,” she dials corporate marketing chiefs on the East Coast as they drink their morning coffee, pitching them on hiring her to endorse their products. Shupryt-Knoop then works the time zones through the day, ending on the West Coast in the afternoon.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 17, 1996 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 17, 1996 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Athletes’ fees--A story about women’s beach volleyball in the June 28 edition of The Times misstated the amount that Olympian Nancy Reno expects to receive this year in endorsement fees. She expects to earn about $200,000 from corporate sponsors.

On the phone, she speaks the executives’ language: audience demographics and Nielsen ratings. By late afternoon, she packs 2-year-old Brooke into the car and rushes out to mail the marketers overnight packages brimming with clippings, photos and a video showing Shupryt-Knoop at her best--firing the volleyball in her revealing Lycra suit and to-die-for tan.

Such is the world of women’s pro beach volleyball, an emerging sport whose future hinges on its ability to attract corporate dollars. Its biggest test is coming in July, when the sport makes its Olympic debut.

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Nearly broke three years ago, it’s the flip side of such big-money sports as basketball or tennis, where millionaire players are paid millions more to pitch sneakers and wear as many logos as they’re allowed.

In women’s beach volleyball, players earn no salaries and hustle for deals that pay $100 when they appear on television wearing commercial logos, $250 when they play well enough to be invited to a post-game cable TV interview. Shupryt-Knoop’s dragnet for sponsors willing to cover her expenses is as critical to her game as her daily workout on Zuma Beach.

Advertisers have been reluctant to put money into sports like women’s beach volleyball, where players are not well known and tournaments attract only a few thousand spectators. They tend to shun most women’s sports, with the exception of tennis and golf--which are long-established and have strong fan bases and respectable TV ratings.

Whether volleyball makes the transition from a day at the beach to a big-money televised sport depends on whether women like Shupryt-Knoop can convince enough sponsors that the game is for real.

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A few sponsors are beginning to take notice now that beach volleyball is guaranteed a TV audience of a billion viewers and the prestige of being an Olympic medal sport in Atlanta. Add to that the sex appeal of women straight out of a Beach Boys song competing in bikinis. One promotional flier for a tournament advertised “beach-bound bombshells.”

Women’s pro beach volleyball is a low-budget affair. Fans bring their own chairs and their own food and drink. The California-born sport was so down-and-out in 1992 that organizers ran short of money for prizes. They operated the tour from a garage.

Even today, although the sport is in better shape, players must recycle 2% of their prize money to supplement the pot in subsequent matches. “I can’t keep going back to the same sponsors,” said Nancy Lengel, director of the Women’s Professional Volleyball Assn., explaining why players are forced to contribute.

Prize purses are 60% lower than in the men’s version of the game, which features such familiar personalities as 1984 Olympic men’s volleyball star Karch Kiraly, who has earned $2 million in prize money over the last eight years. Holly McPeak, the top-ranked female player, won less than $60,000 on the circuit in 1995, less than the third-place finisher in a single men’s seniors professional golf tournament. Most of the 95 female players brought home less than $10,000, while moonlighting as teachers, secretaries and personal trainers.

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So athletes look to often-elusive endorsement deals to make ends meet in a game where travel expenses alone can run from $8,000 to $10,000 annually.

“I can’t compete without sponsors,” said Shupryt-Knoop, who supplemented the $17,850 she won on tour in 1995 with $50,000 in endorsement fees under deals that expired in March. “We all need sponsors to earn a living.”

But the need for sponsors comes at a price. For relatively little money, they buy the kind of clout they can’t get in major professional sports. Sponsors influence the look of the sand courts, the location of tournaments and even the color of a player’s swimsuit. A representative of Evian, the primary tour sponsor, sits on the board of Women’s Professional Volleyball Assn., which governs the sport.

Authentic Fitness dressed McPeak in a white Speedo suit in 1995 to promote a new fabric that didn’t turn see-through when wet. Jantzen urged Olympics-bound Nancy Reno to wear a bikini on “Oprah,” according to her agent, who worked out a compromise allowing her to wear less-revealing warmups bearing the Jantzen sportswear logo; Reno, 30, had wanted to wear her grunge jeans. Before that, she was scolded when she posed in a competitor’s swimsuit for an Olympic spread in the May issue of Vanity Fair.

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“What was I supposed to do?” said Reno, a free spirit who sports a tattoo on her ankle and her trademark tie-dyed bandanna over untamed hair. “I mean, it was Annie Leibovitz,” the celebrity photographer.

Thanks in part to her feud with Olympic partner McPeak--"bad chemistry,” is how Reno put it--Reno is among the sport’s better-known athletes. She also is among the best-paid, standing to reap nearly $20,000 in endorsements in 1996, up from $5,000 four years ago when she was getting started and the Olympics were not a reality. Reno said that while she is grateful to her sponsors, she wants to be seen as more than a billboard, in part to enhance her own image.

“Sponsors are a great help [financially] but they are missing the big picture,” said Reno’s agent, Bill Berger. “All they care about is getting their logo out there--bigger and better than the next person.”

What sponsors aren’t missing is the fact that the sport is a low-cost way to reach an audience that is young, affluent and predominantly male--thanks to the fast-paced action and skin-tight swimsuits.

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For a fraction of what it costs to sponsor women’s professional golf, beach volleyball backers can pick up sponsorship packages that include TV commercials, VIP seating at matches and access to players for product promotions. The tour is benefiting from the fresh investments. The total prize purse on the 15-stop tour is $1 million this year, up 74% from 1995. Some Olympics-bound players are reaping six-figure endorsement fees from sponsors eager to share the spotlight. They’ve hired agents to scout bigger deals and arrange public appearances that make them even more attractive to sponsors.

Evian paid $2.5 million--about what Pepsi Cola paid for five Super Bowl commercials--for an exclusive package that includes sponsorship of five hours of 1996 tour coverage on ABC. Second-tier tour sponsors, such as MCI and Coors Light, put up $300,000 to $500,000.

Though still relegated to cable channels or afternoon network telecasts, the sport scored a coup May 5 when the audience for ABC’s broadcast of a tournament in Hermosa Beach edged out professional women’s golf on CBS. People tuning in to volleyball saw enough logos to rival that king of commercialism, auto racing. Banners for water, beer and long-distance telephone companies bordered an 1,800-square-foot court. Corporate logos covered the nets. An announcer referred to an unreturnable serve not as an ace, but as a “Silver Bullet Ace” because that is the nickname of sponsor Coors Light beer.

Players were walking billboards for clothing, sneakers and beverage brands. Indeed, every spot on an athlete’s swimsuit is for sale. Though Liz Masakayan, 31, has logos on her swimsuit, visor and knee brace, her agent, Jerry Katz, continues to find unclaimed territory for interested sponsors.

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“She can wear an armband,” he said.

But there is a limit on the amount of clothing available on beach volleyball players, who often toil in blazing sun. Bausch & Lomb, a sunglasses maker that spends $100,000 a year on the sport, solves the problem with rub-on tattoos.

For beachwear companies, the entire program is a showcase. Said Roger Yost, vice president of Jantzen, a company that does little TV advertising: “In terms of how they look, they are constantly putting on a fashion show.”

Unlike big-time sports, where agents and lawyers handle the details of enlisting sponsors and negotiating deals, the women usually are on their own. Some top players are hiring agents, although most can’t afford one.

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Trying to get the attention of sponsors any way possible, athletes work every creative angle to set themselves apart. One player talks of helping clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Another is a former firefighter. A third plays up her comeback from a knee injury that nearly killed her career.

Shupryt-Knoop presented herself as a working mother who, at 40, could relate to the harried lives of fellow baby boomers. In an attention-getting ploy, she stitched a patch to her swimsuit alerting potential sponsors to opportunity: “Your Name Here.”

In three weeks of cold calls in April, the highest bid she received was 50 logo-free suits as a goodwill gesture from a former sponsor who sympathized with her predicament. She hit pay dirt a week later through a stroke of luck. Over chicken crumpets at the wedding of legendary Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci in Romania, a sports agent mentioned Shupryt-Knoop’s name to an Ocean Pacific executive. Three days later at the company’s Irvine headquarters, Shupryt-Knoop met Bonnie Crail, who was impressed with her physique and the fact that she is a mother.

“Talk about sculpted arms!” said the Ocean Pacific marketing director, who signed Shupryt-Knoop to a one-year endorsement contract. Crail sees Shupryt-Knoop as an inspiration for working mothers: “Here is someone who can’t go to the gym and must train at home because of child-care issues. . . . I think it would be pretty awesome to show her with her child in one arm and a volleyball in the other.”

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Mid-level athletes who usually are eliminated from tournaments before reaching the final, televised matches have to struggle even harder for deals.

Beverly Lidyoff had an agreement with Bausch & Lomb in which she received small per diems whenever she got on TV sporting Killer Loop sunglasses logos. The company paid $100 when the camera caught her in action during a match and $250 when she gave a post-game interview. Lidyoff wore Killer Loop shirts, caps and rub-on tattoos in tournaments and, she said, “played my head off” to get on TV. She eked out fees totaling $750 before quitting the tour in 1995.

“It was tough,” said Lidyoff, 33, now a sales representative for a microbrewery. “I sort of prostituted myself for the camera. They got some pretty good advertising for not a lot of money.”

“The top 16 players have clear sponsors but they are not paying a lot to develop [other] players,” said agent Katz. “Sponsors look at it from a financial point of view: What kind of media exposure are they receiving? What kind of bang for the buck?”

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In the Olympics, the sport that grew up in places like Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach over the last decade or so will be on an international stage. The United States and Brazil are considered the top contenders for a gold medal.

The sport, among the first Olympic events to sell out, is gaining in popularity, attracting a grass-roots following in landlocked places like Austin, Texas. Still, it remains to be seen whether after the Olympics it can attract regular television viewers beyond hard-core sports addicts and gawking males.

Sponsors in August are bringing the game to New York City, the nerve-center of advertising, to test post-Olympic reaction among some of the nation’s hardest-to-please fans. The tournament is being staged on a special sand pit in Central Park in a city where beach typically means tar beach--rooftops occupied by sunbathers. The event will be aired on ABC, which is waiting to see if exposure from the Olympics can push viewership beyond the 1.5 million households that tuned in to last month’s tournament.

“We want to see if [the sport] is able to sustain momentum beyond the Olympics,” said Lydia Stephans, a programming vice president at ABC Sports.

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Olympic-bound players wear their logos in television interviews, generating free publicity. On “CBS This Morning” earlier this month, McPeak, 26, showed up for an interview on the beach in her Speedo America suit with Reno, who wore a suit with Jantzen emblazoned on it. The players stood in front of a volleyball net covered with Evian logos.

Speedo is plastering McPeak’s image on buses in Atlanta and is using her in advertisements in women’s fashion magazines, a tactic that also benefits McPeak because it raises her public profile. Speedo can’t mention the Olympics, so it refers to McPeak as the top “U.S. player.” (All players in the Olympics will wear swimsuits provided by Sara Lee Corp. unit Champion, an official sponsor of the games.)

Shupryt-Knoop narrowly missed a berth on the Olympic squad, which consists of three doubles teams. At home the day after her defeat in the trials, she took a phone call from Ocean Pacific’s Crail. The marketing chief praised her for her exciting play and thanked her for the unexpected TV exposure: Shupryt-Knoop, wearing her OP logos, had beaten the odds by reaching the final rounds, which aired on NBC.

“The exposure was more than they could have dreamed of,” said Shupryt-Knoop, who is hopeful that her OP contract will be renewed for another season. “They were happy. I guess, in the end, that is what it is all about.”

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