AVP AIMS TO EXPAND FAN BASE FROM SUBCULTURE TO MAINSTREAM
As the AVP begins its Miller Lite Tour schedule and lookstoward the '96 Summer Games, beach volleyball faces the dualchallenge of maintaining its core audience while trying to buildon its early success and become a prominent player in theinternational sports market. THE SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY recentlyspoke with AVP President Jon Stevenson about the state of theTour and the job ahead. GROWING PAINS? Stevenson responded to some critics'assessments that the sport has "peaked." Noting that exposure onNBC has been critical to the success of the Tour and will helpthe sport grow, Stevenson said that ratings for the "AVP on NBC"may have flattened last year because of weaker lead-inprogramming than in previous years. Last year on NBC, the Tour's10 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 establisheda solid rating to be able to sell the sport. One of the keys toour growth strategy has been to establish the solid networkpartnership, and I think we have done that." Stevenson said theynow have to expand the audience from their "subcultural" nichewith roots in Southern CA, to a more broadbased core. THE PLAN: To be successful, the AVP has a "several- prongedattack" based on NBC's quality production, with the aim ofcontinuing to create brand recognition in different markets andbuild identity for the top players. AVP will also employ agrass-roots program, "Spike-it-Up," similar to the NBA's "Hoop-it-Up" program -- a partnership between NBC Sports and StreetballPartners. New sponsor Fila will have a presence in "Spike-It-Up." Stevenson: "Right now we are at such a critical time whereif we don't do the right things right now, our hard work could befor not." NEW SPONSORS: In addition to Fila, the AVP Tour has gainednew support from Kodak and Foot Action, all of which have signedon as sponsors of the summer schedule. Foot Action signed a dealfor one season, and has partnered with Fila to produce tour-specific apparel. Foot Action is also developing a TV campaignfor NBC events and will work on an in-store promotion with boththe AVP and Fila. Rod Rens, Special Events Coordinator at FootAction USA, said they hope the deal will bring in returns for thespring, summer and fall. Rens: "Young males are our strongestsector, and we are happy that is the AVP's demographic, but wealso feel that the sport has a far reaching appeal to other fans.Beach volleyball is an alternative to major league sports." Filaleverages their AVP sponsorship through their Vendor SupportMarketing Program. Howe Burch, Fila's VP of Advertising andCommunications, calls the AVP an emerging sport with strongratings reaching an audience Fila wants to penetrate. Burch:"We have always had a strong appeal among the tennis crowd withour apparel, and strong in the inner cities with our shoes. Thiscould capture a young suburban audience." Burch also said theirsponsorship is an opportunity to be affiliated with one of theAVP's marquee players -- Kent Steffes. STAR APPEAL: Fila is planning an ad campaign around Steffesto run during NBC's coverage, despite Steffes' recent shoulderinjury, 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 beback by the time of NBC telecasts, and he is such a presence onthe Tour." Asked about the loss of Steffes, Stevenson said, "Noone player is going to spell the ultimate success or the ultimatedoom of the sport." But he acknowledged the impact, noting thatSteffes was one of the sport's ambassadors. Stevenson said theAVP is "trying to build an awareness of the stars of our sport,and the personalities of our sport by building credibility forthe sport as a whole. ... We want to exemplify the fact that AVPplayers are as good at what they do as any athlete in any sport." BEACH VOLLEYBALL GOES OLYMPIC: In Atlanta in '96, beachvolleyball will make its debut as a medal sport. While theOlympics could serve as a great opportunity for the sport,Stevenson is critical of the player selection process, notingthat the AVP "has no say in any phase of the Olympic process,much less how the U.S. athletes are picked." The FIVB -- thesport's international governing body which sets the standards forOlympic qualification -- has its own 18-event summer schedule.Stevenson charges, "The Olympic Games are being used to leveragethe AVP players to leave their tour." Stevenson points to theNo. 1 team of Steffes-Karch Kiraly, who were faced with playingin FIVB special events, which would make it easier to qualify for'96, or staying on the AVP Tour. AVP players have a betterchance to qualify as one of the three U.S. teams in Atlanta byplaying in the FIVB events. Still, Stevenson said he would notstand in the way of his players' Olympic opportunity. Stevenson:"That is something early on we said we weren't going to do. Sofor Kent and Karch, the policy is 'go for it.'" According toStevenson, Steffes' injury will likely force the top pairing towait and qualify for '96 through Olympic trial events next year(THE DAILY).