SBJ/May 20 - 26, 2002/Opinion

Beach volleyball back with a jiggle

The idea that sex sells is central to American advertising, a theme that everyone salutes when it's run up the flagpole. Images of good-looking people, eying one another suggestively, are used to pitch everything from autos to toothpaste. Chiquita Banana showed that pulchritude could push produce.

Wouldn't you know it, though, the formula came up short when it had its most direct application in sports. Beach volleyball, whose allure stems in large part from glistening, scantily clad bodies cavorting in sun-soaked settings, soared from the early 1980s through the mid-'90s, then tumbled off the radar, its footprints all but washed away by the waves.

The U.S. pro game is under different management now, poised to make a comeback with a tour that begins Friday in Huntington Beach, Calif., but with less-grand expectations than those that marked its initial ascent. "We want to grow judiciously, making sure we can produce what we promise," says Leonard Armato, the game's new boss. "We know we have some credibility to re-establish."

As Armato's words suggest, beach volleyball's saga is a cautionary tale, one that other sports entrepreneurs would do well to heed. It began in the 1920s on the sands of Southern California, and turned decisively from fun to profit with the 1983 formation of the men's Association of Volleyball Professionals and the Women's Professional Volleyball Association three years later.

Within a dozen years, the sandbox game had a 26-stop annual men's tour offering more than $4 million in prize money and a smaller but nonetheless lucrative women's circuit, and was headed for a boffo Olympic debut in Atlanta.

Volleyball purists were unhappy to see the "straight" version of their sport shouldered aside, but that didn't stop many of that game's best players from defecting to the glamorous upstart.

It began to come apart when the WPVA folded in 1995, and crashed in earnest with the 1997 bankruptcy filing by the AVP, which had evolved into a player-run group. The recriminations that followed the AVP's collapse included charges of lax administration, too-liberal prize distribution, players making individual endorsement deals that conflicted with the tour's sponsors and disputes with the FIVB, the sport's international governing body, which operated its own pro tournaments abroad. Reportedly, some players once expressed a complaint against the television network that was carrying their events "live" by conspiring to run a key match beyond its time allotment.

"Things were a mess on several fronts," sums up Spencer Segura, senior managing director of Spencer Trask, the venture capital firm that bought the association out of Bankruptcy Court in 1998. "Every dollar that came in went out, and then some."

The reconstituted AVP ran some tournaments the next few years, with mixed results. Last year, control of the organization was purchased by Armato, a big-time player agent (Shaquille O'Neal is a former client, Oscar De La Hoya and Lisa Leslie are present ones) who'd been its executive director from 1983 until 1990. He's a former amateur beach volleyballer, and his wife, Holly McPeak, is a top pro.

The new tour is a modest one, with seven stops and about $1 million in purses, but Armato believes its underpinnings are sturdier than those of its predecessors. Men and women but will have divisions in each event, with equal prize money. International rules on scoring and court size have been adopted, and scheduling clashes with FIVB tourneys avoided. Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo and Microsoft have signed on as sponsors. NBC will televise two finals, and, yes, they'll be live.

"We think we've got a great sport, and we're determined to put it together properly this time," Armato declares.

Hey, even sex needs the right packaging.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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