Hats, t-shirts, bare arms, firefighters' boots stuffed with cash donated for the victims of Hurricane Katrina--Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh signed them all. In the midst of tending to the legions of autograph-seekers gathered at Chicago's North Avenue beach on Sunday, the Olympic beach volleyball gold medalists also put their signature on the Chicago Open, the finale of the AVP's Nissan Championship Series. In front of a standing-room-only crowd of 6,500 armed with blue-and-yellow thundersticks, May-Treanor and Walsh defeated Rachel Wacholder and Elaine Youngs, the only team that has beaten them this year, 23-21, 22-20 in the semifinals and Brazilians Semirames Marins and Tatiana Minello 21-16, 21-16 in the final to win their ninth tournament and the series title. For their efforts they earned a check for $42,000, glass trophies, keys to new Nissan Xterras and, of course, more autograph-seekers.
May-Treanor and Walsh are the biggest draw on a tour that, seven years removed from bankruptcy, is glowing with good health. Since former player and sports agent Leonard Armato bought the struggling enterprise in 2001 and took it public in March (it trades in the Over-the-Counter market), the AVP has restocked its sponsor stable with Nissan, McDonald's and Gatorade, among others. And this year, every semifinal was broadcast live on OLN and every final on either NBC or Fox. Attendance has also soared. At most of the tour's 12 stops so far this year, fans were asked to pay $15 to $50 for a seat in the tour's portable 5,500-seat stadium. With the tour's financial well-being restored, total prize money has nearly doubled in the last year, from $1.6 to $3 million.
Aside from that, the most notable change on the tour has been the nature of the main event. The final championship slot used to be reserved for the men, but since May-Treanor and Walsh won the gold in Athens and enjoyed extensive TV exposure while doing it, the women have played the last match in more than half this year's AVP events, including Chicago. (May-Treanor and Walsh have been in all 12 finals, losing three.)
None of the tour's male players seem to mind the women taking over the spotlight. "They've earned it," says Todd Rogers, who along with partner Sean Scott, beat Karch Kiraly and Mike Lambert to win the men's title on Saturday. "They won the gold and they've been dominant. It's good for TV, it's good for the AVP. I don't mind riding their coattails as long as the prize money keeps going up."
But with the added exposure for the women comes added work. Besides appearing on TV virtually every weekend this summer thanks to their finals streak, May-Treanor and Walsh have been tireless in making appearances, signing autographs and doing interviews. "The increase in the demands on our time have been unbelievable," says Walsh, who adds that she now gets recognized every day, though often by fans who call her Misty. "We are working our butts off. We have virtually no time off, but we're not complaining. It's a great problem to have."
Going Separate Ways
Karch Kiraly (left) and Mike Lambert, who have won four tournaments in the two years they have been together, are a dynamite combo: The 6'6" Lambert is one of the tour's best blockers, and the 6'2" Kiraly, at 44, is still the best passer. But their title match in Chicago last Saturday may have been one of their last together. While Kiraly may still play on the tour, he doesn't want to go through the grind of qualifying for the Olympics again. (He won gold medals with the U.S. indoor team in 1984 and '88 and on the beach, with partner Kent Steffes, in '96.) That means the 31-year-old Lambert, the reigning AVP MVP, needs to find a new partner next year before starting the official qualifying process in '07. His parting with Kiraly, who is considered the best player ever, will come with at least one regret. Says Lambert, "I wish I had called him earlier."