A decade ago, beach volleyball was as hot as its playing surface. Today, the Association of Volleyball Professionals is trying to regain its footing in the shifting sports sands.
Extending well beyond its Southern California roots, beach volleyball was the alternative sport to emulate.
Brandishing a sea-and-surf, party setting and hard-bodied athletes, the AVP had secured a regular place on NBC and regional sports networks' schedules, as well as sponsors' marketing rosters.
The sand sport had gained medal status at the 1996 Olympics and was a centerpiece of subsequent Goodwill Games.
Tattoos and towels
But there was discord over the Olympic qualifying process with the sport's international governing body.
And as the players and past management teams running the tour hadn't reinvested in its infrastructure, the AVP's serves began to hit the nets. Moreover, players were ambushing national sponsors by inking deals with local companies.
"Guys were wearing tattoos from the local sponsors, and were wrapping Pepsi towels around water bottles branded by Coke," recalled Jon Miller, senior vice president of NBC Sports, which televised 20 hours of AVP back in the sport's halcyon days of 1994-95.
With those and other problems, tournament lineups eroded, as did sponsor interest and TV coverage.
The AVP needed a sideout, seeking bankruptcy-law protection in 1998.
Re-enter Leonard Armato.
The founder of the AVP in 1983, Armato — an amateur beach player back in the day — is best known for his sports consultancy, with clients such as Los Angeles Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal.
"Things had imploded in the mid and late 1990s. I wanted to bring some cohesiveness and uniformity back to the game," said Armato.
Since returning to the beach game as commissioner in 2001, Armato's been busy digging a smoother relationship with FIVB, the sport's governing body, finding new marketers and bringing the women's game under the AVP umbrella. (His wife, Holly McPeak, is one of the top female players.)
He's also gotten TV back onto the court, with a handful of recap shows on Fox Sports Net regionals last year and a four hours on NBC. The AVP held seven tourneys last year, and plans 10 events for 2003.
Fox Sports Net began airing taped coverage of seven AVP tournaments on July 5. The coverage plan calls for two-hour telecasts in early-afternoon windows on Saturdays, and with 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. repeats on Sundays.
The schedule culminates with an Olympic qualifying event from Carson, Calif., on Sept. 19 to 21.
"Leonard's management team has restored a new level of confidence," said Fox Sports Net vice president of programming acquisition Marc Fein, who noted that the beach game typically attracts viewers 18 to 34. "We had a longstanding relationship with the AVP and we want to again become the cable home of volleyball."
NBC in August will air six live shows with nine hours of coverage from three tournaments, including women's finals action for the first time.
"There's not a lot of live sports programming at that time of year," Miller said. "We'll be given the AVP some good lead-ins with NASCAR, LeMans racing and golf." said Miller.
None of the parties involved would discuss TV deal points. Armato said only "there are no rights fees. But it is not a time buy [and] not true revenue sharing. It's a unique arrangement."
Both Miller and Fein said their units, which provide production, have advertising time to sell within the telecasts and have found buyers for the inventory.
Armato's efforts, meanwhile, have netted what Miller describes as "high-end companies, the strongest lineup of national sponsors ever" for the AVP Nissan Series.
In addition to the tour's title sponsor, Bud Light, Aquafina, Gatorade, Chapstick, Wilson, X Box and Paul Mitchell are also on board for multiyear commitments.
More recently, the AVP signed McDonald's, Gillette, Wrigley's and Nature Valley to deals. Each sponsorship pact comes replete with a media commitment, according to Armato.
Moreover, Armato said companies are developing dedicated creative for beach volleyball. National spots for Nissan, expected to break in August, will tout tune-in for the Peacock's coverage.
Armato anticipates the AVP will build on NBC's 1.5 average from last year.
Sponsors also benefit from on-site exposure via product displays — X Box, for instance, has an interactive tent at tourneys — and music concerts.
"People expect a lot these days from their entertainment outlets," said Armato.
Mag show eyed
Steve Simpson, general manager of Fox Sports West, said the network was "editing a pilot" for a lifestyle magazine show about the tour and its players, along with volleyball magazine Dig.
Hosted by Fox Sports Net personality Mary Strong (herself a volleyball player) and volleyball legend Sinjin Smith, who will provide tips, the half-hour show is expected to bow in late July.
Simpson said Fox Sports West could air 10 installments this year, and the program may air on other regional networks in 2004.
Armato is also looking to spike exposure via coverage in USA Today, and with tie-ins to a beach volleyball photo spread in the 2004 Sports Illustrated
Recognizing the sports revival is no day at the beach, Armato remains optimistic about the AVP's prospects: "Who says things can't be better the second time around?"