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A New Beachhead After years of infighting nearly killed it, beach volleyball is trying a comeback

Sept. 03, 2001
Sept. 03, 2001

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Sept. 3, 2001

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A New Beachhead After years of infighting nearly killed it, beach volleyball is trying a comeback

A few years ago it could have been seen as an apt metaphor for the
state of pro beach volleyball, a sport that was imploding under
the weight of its excesses and infighting. But when the giant
inflatable Michelob Light volleyball sprung a leak and started
crumpling into the sand at the Association of Volleyball
Professionals tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Aug. 19, it
was a minor problem quickly resolved. A sponsor rep alerted a
tour rep, who radioed someone who reconnected an air hose. Within
seconds the ball was again bobbing in the breeze.

This is an article from the Sept. 3, 2001 issue Original Layout

It was one small, quiet display of how things are being run under
new AVP boss Leonard Armato, a former top-rated beach player who
is better known as Shaquille O'Neal's agent. "Sponsors have to be
taken care of at every level," says Armato. "They are the biggest
key to our growth."

Two other keys had stepped onto the court for an elimination
match the previous afternoon. Former beach partners Karch Kiraly,
40, and Sinjin Smith, 44, the two winningest beach volleyball
players in history and until recently the principals in a
long-standing internecine feud, faced each other in an AVP match
for the first time in years. Moreover, they actually spoke to
each other afterward. "We've put our differences aside for the
sake of harmony and unity," says Kiraly, who did so at Armato's
request. "We all want to get this sport back to--and beyond--its
glory days of the '80s and '90s."

It wasn't all that long ago that the AVP was a hot and
prosperous circuit on which players were competing for $100,000
first-place checks instead of the $14,500 on offer at Santa
Barbara. Started in 1983 by a group of players and Armato, then
a 30-year-old lawyer and newly minted sports agent who served as
the tour's executive director until 1989, the AVP grew
meteorically. It reached a peak of popularity in the mid-'90s,
when NBC was broadcasting 10 of the tour's 26 events each year,
and an impressive stable of sponsors--most notably Miller
Lite--supplied prize money that annually hovered around $4
million.

Despite the AVP's apparent health, however, several problems were
eating away at it. Thanks largely to the promotional efforts of
Smith, the sport had caught on overseas, and in '93 it was
granted medal status for the 1996 Summer Olympics, held in
Atlanta. But that sparked a major battle between the AVP and
volleyball's international federation (FIVB) over how Olympic
qualification would be regulated. That fight put Smith and Kiraly
on opposite sides of the fence and pushed Smith into self-exile
on the FIVB beach tour.

The AVP's biggest problems, however, were mismanagement and
selfishness. The player-run board of directors showed more
interest in funneling sponsorship money into prize money than
into marketing. On more than one occasion players were seen, on
camera, covering up tour-sponsor logos with towels or T-shirts
bearing individual-sponsor logos. "As the players started making
more money, they became more difficult to deal with," says NBC
senior vice president Jon Miller.

Beach volleyball's debut at the '96 Olympics seemed like the
perfect opportunity to catapult the sport to even greater
popularity in the U.S: Kiraly and Kent Steffes won the gold
medal, on American soil, in front of wildly enthusiastic crowds.
Instead of capitalizing on that moment, however, the AVP
continued to self-destruct. At the end of the '97 season, with
ratings down, NBC pulled out, and Miller Lite followed a year
later. That sent the tour into Chapter 11, and it limped along in
1999 and 2000 under the ownership of Spencer Trask Securities, a
New York City financial firm. The tour appeared to be on the
verge of shutting down for the 2001 season when Armato placed a
call to Spencer Trask.

Armato, who lives with women's beach star Holly McPeak, saw an
opportunity to unite the women's tour--which was also
suffering--with the men's and upgrade a sport loaded with what he
calls latent equity. "It's like we have a beautiful, one-acre
ocean-view lot that used to have a house, but the house
crumbled," he says. "We still have this great lot to build on."

Armato and his company, Digital Media Campus, took over both
tours under the AVP name, but only after getting the players to
agree to certain conditions: Everybody gets along. Everybody uses
FIVB rules and follows the FIVB Olympic qualification guidelines.
Everybody signs a four-year contract agreeing to play on the AVP
tour. "We are going to need a little time to build this thing,"
says Armato, who scheduled eight events for this year, all of
which are being televised on tape delay by Fox Sports Net, with
$887,500 in prize money. (Men and women get equal purses.) "And I
can't do it alone. It has to be a collective effort."

Most players are relieved to have someone with Armato's business
savvy and all-world Rolodex in charge. "We call him the Prophet,"
says seventh-year pro Lee LeGrande. "He's here to save us."

Few players are as enthusiastic about the rule changes. In a move
that the sport's purists view as apocalyptic, the tour that
created the template of pro beach volleyball 18 years ago has now
switched to a 20% smaller court; TV-friendly rally scoring (a
point is earned on every serve, unlike in sideout scoring, in
which only the serving team can score); looser restrictions on
hand sets; and a new ball that is bigger and lighter than the old
AVP model.

"It took us years to get to the point where we succeeded with the
old rules," says LeGrande, "but if you want to go anywhere, you
have to make changes. You have to put it behind you and play."

Armato is expecting more than just performance from his players;
he wants salesmanship, too. "You have to connect with the fans on
every level," he says. "We can learn a lot from NASCAR drivers,
who are out there shaking hands and kissing babies every day."

Whatever the AVP players do to attract fans and sponsors, they're
going to have to work a lot harder at it than they did 18 years
ago. "Building a sports league is going to be much tougher today
than it was in '83," says former NBA Properties president Rick
Welts, a marketing guru who is serving as a consultant to the
AVP. "It is an incredibly competitive sports marketplace and the
worst television-sports marketplace in 15 years. To make this
work in that environment, you need a guy with vision and
unbridled optimism. Leonard has that. Show him a brick wall, and
he'll bang his head against it until he's found a way around
it."

COLOR PHOTO: PETER BROUILLET Kiraly (left) and Smith, who have long feuded, faced off for the first time in years.
"As the players made more money, they became more difficult,"
says Miller.