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As the AVP begins its Miller Lite Tour schedule and looks toward the '96 Summer Games, beach volleyball faces the dual challenge of maintaining its core audience while trying to build on its early success and become a prominent player in the international sports market. THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY recently spoke with AVP President Jon Stevenson about the state of the Tour and the job ahead. GROWING PAINS? Stevenson responded to some critics' assessments that the sport has "peaked." Noting that exposure on NBC has been critical to the success of the Tour and will help the sport grow, Stevenson said that ratings for the "AVP on NBC" may have flattened last year because of weaker lead-in programming than in previous years. Last year on NBC, the Tour's 10 events pulled down an 2.0 rating and a 6 share. This season, NBC has scheduled the AVP eight times from June to September, with other events on Prime and ESPN. Stevenson: "We established a solid rating to be able to sell the sport. One of the keys to our growth strategy has been to establish the solid network partnership, and I think we have done that." Stevenson said they now have to expand the audience from their "subcultural" niche with roots in Southern CA, to a more broadbased core. THE PLAN: To be successful, the AVP has a "several- pronged attack" based on NBC's quality production, with the aim of continuing to create brand recognition in different markets and build identity for the top players. AVP will also employ a grass-roots program, "Spike-it-Up," similar to the NBA's "Hoop- it-Up" program -- a partnership between NBC Sports and Streetball Partners. New sponsor Fila will have a presence in "Spike-It- Up." Stevenson: "Right now we are at such a critical time where if we don't do the right things right now, our hard work could be for not." NEW SPONSORS: In addition to Fila, the AVP Tour has gained new support from Kodak and Foot Action, all of which have signed on as sponsors of the summer schedule. Foot Action signed a deal for one season, and has partnered with Fila to produce tour- specific apparel. Foot Action is also developing a TV campaign for NBC events and will work on an in-store promotion with both the AVP and Fila. Rod Rens, Special Events Coordinator at Foot Action USA, said they hope the deal will bring in returns for the spring, summer and fall. Rens: "Young males are our strongest sector, and we are happy that is the AVP's demographic, but we also feel that the sport has a far reaching appeal to other fans. Beach volleyball is an alternative to major league sports." Fila leverages their AVP sponsorship through their Vendor Support Marketing Program. Howe Burch, Fila's VP of Advertising and Communications, calls the AVP an emerging sport with strong ratings reaching an audience Fila wants to penetrate. Burch: "We have always had a strong appeal among the tennis crowd with our apparel, and strong in the inner cities with our shoes. This could capture a young suburban audience." Burch also said their sponsorship is an opportunity to be affiliated with one of the AVP's marquee players -- Kent Steffes. STAR APPEAL: Fila is planning an ad campaign around Steffes to run during NBC's coverage, despite Steffes' recent shoulder injury, which will have him out for an indefinite period of time. Burch said Steffes' injury is "not something we are happy about, but it won't change our plans with him or the AVP. He may be back by the time of NBC telecasts, and he is such a presence on the Tour." Asked about the loss of Steffes, Stevenson said, "No one player is going to spell the ultimate success or the ultimate doom of the sport." But he acknowledged the impact, noting that Steffes was one of the sport's ambassadors. Stevenson said the AVP is "trying to build an awareness of the stars of our sport, and the personalities of our sport by building credibility for the sport as a whole. ... We want to exemplify the fact that AVP players are as good at what they do as any athlete in any sport." BEACH VOLLEYBALL GOES OLYMPIC: In Atlanta in '96, beach volleyball will make its debut as a medal sport. While the Olympics could serve as a great opportunity for the sport, Stevenson is critical of the player selection process, noting that the AVP "has no say in any phase of the Olympic process, much less how the U.S. athletes are picked." The FIVB -- the sport's international governing body which sets the standards for Olympic qualification -- has its own 18-event summer schedule. Stevenson charges, "The Olympic Games are being used to leverage the AVP players to leave their tour." Stevenson points to the No. 1 team of Steffes-Karch Kiraly, who were faced with playing in FIVB special events, which would make it easier to qualify for '96, or staying on the AVP Tour. AVP players have a better chance to qualify as one of the three U.S. teams in Atlanta by playing in the FIVB events. Still, Stevenson said he would not stand in the way of his players' Olympic opportunity. Stevenson: "That is something early on we said we weren't going to do. So for Kent and Karch, the policy is 'go for it.'" According to Stevenson, Steffes' injury will likely force the top pairing to wait and qualify for '96 through Olympic trial events next year (THE DAILY).
ROBIN BRENDLE has been named Associate Dir of Communications at CBS Sports (USA TODAY, 4/21)...ALEX ENGLISH, Director of Player Programs for the NBPA, is profiled in the Bucks' FULL COURT PRESS (Full Court Press, 4/95). Also from the NBPA, BOBBY DANDRIDGE, head of the union's division that assists with college completion and career counseling, is interviewed in USA TODAY (USA TODAY, 4/21)....Knicks Coach PAT RILEY has been named to the International Best Dressed List Fashion Hall of Fame (N.Y. POST, 4/21)....JOHN MCENROE played guitar last night at Rebar in New York City. During a song he wrote on tennis, McEnroe sang such lines as "Tennis sucks. ... You guys are the pits ... You cannot be serious" (N.Y. POST, 4/21).