SBJ/June 4 - 10, 2001/No Topic Name

O’Neal agent Armato returns as volleyball CEO

Leonard Armato, best known as Shaquille O'Neal's agent, has officially returned as CEO of the beach volleyball tour he helped found almost two decades ago.

The Association of Volleyball Professionals, which achieved significant popularity in the 1980s and early '90s, will return Friday for the first of eight events that will, for the first time, combine men's and women's competition.

Armato said he will invest "in the upper seven figures" to acquire and resuscitate the AVP and Beach Volleyball America, a fledgling women's tour that featured his girlfriend, Holly McPeak.

"This season we'll try to stabilize the tour," said Armato, who will continue as O'Neal's agent while running the AVP. "Next year should be a growth year."

Most of last year's major sponsors are returning this season, but Armato said that growing the sponsorship base, as well as media partnerships — all events will be shown tape-delayed on Fox Sports Net — are keys to the future. The tour has five returning sponsors — Michelob Light, Speedo, Wilson, Paul Mitchell Systems and Sunkist.

The goal will be to create stars to help market the tour.

Armato's predecessors tried the same thing and achieved some success during the last two years. The tour was owned by Spencer Trask, an investment banking firm in New York, and managed by Bill Berger.

Their first move was to take management of the tour away from the players, who some believe drove the tour to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection two years ago by ordaining exorbitant prize money.

When the tour reorganized, Berger signed top players to long-term contracts and reduced prize money to about $1 million for the entire season. The AVP also held several events that featured women, including icon Gabrielle Reece.

But what they ultimately found was a lifestyle-sport marketplace that had gravitated away from volleyball and toward more youth-oriented individual sports such as skateboarding and BMX biking.

"Beach volleyball is way more like the traditional team sports than it is the action sports that are more popular now," said Bill Carter, president of FUSE Integrated Sports Marketing. "It really doesn't fit into action sports."

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