Volleyball

SANDCAST is the leading podcast for beach volleyball and stories in the volleyball world. Hosts Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter take listeners into the world of the AVP, FIVB, NORCECA, and any other professional beach volleyball outlets, digging deep into the lives of the players both on and off the court as well as all of the top influencers in the game.

Episodes

John Mayer stood outside the player’s tent, not looking particularly disappointed despite being knocked out of the Huntington Beach Open less than an hour prior. He and Trevor Crabb had played their best match yet, he said.

Norway’s then-relatively unknown youngsters, Anders Mol and Christian Sorum, had simply played better.

“The blocker,” Mayer said, “reminds me of Phil [Dalhausser].”

A 20-year-old kid? Compared to Phil Dalhausser?

Had it been almost anyone else making that statement, an eye roll, a sigh, would have been acceptable. But Mayer isn’t one to simply dole out hyperbolic comments or undeserved praise. By year’s end, his comparison didn’t seem absurd, rather prescient.

Eight months later, Mol and Sorum are the undisputed best team in the world, and indeed, Mol was named the FIVB Blocker of the Year, with Sorum claiming Defender of the Year. As a team, they won Gstaad, and Vienna, and Hamburg, and then made yet another final in San Jose.

“If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that anyone would win three tournaments in a row,” Sorum said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, “I would have said absolutely not.”

Perhaps only Mayer could have foreseen it. There’s no real reason anyone could have forecasted the breakthrough, not to these heights, at least. Prior to the Gstaad Major in mid-July, a Norwegian beach volleyball team hadn’t won a medal since 1997. The same year Mol was born.

It was uncanny, their poise in such a moment.  

“We didn’t think about that at all,” Mol said. “You can’t think about that at all or you’ll lose. You have to stay in your own bubble. We don’t think about the crowd. We don’t think about what if we win and what can happen if we win. We just think about our game and the next ball and what we’re going to do and make a plan for every ball.

“When you see the videos we are really calm and really focused and not that many emotions from us.”

“We also,” Sorum added, “had a little bit of luck.”

They’re endearing, these Norwegians. Impossibly humble for such accomplished athletes, ones who rose from the qualifiers to the top of the world in half a year’s time. It’s a humility begat from both being products of a small town – Mol’s village has 500 “inhabitants,” as he described it – and taking the time to see the world in all of its massive beauty.

They’re volleyball players, yes, but they’ve taken on much more than that. They don’t simply bounce from hotel to hotel, AirBNB to AirBNB. There’s more to life than volleyball for them.

“I was sad for like two minutes in Hawai’i,” Sorum said, “and then I was like ‘Yes! We get to go see Hawai’i!’”

“I was stoked!” Mol’s brother, Hendrik, a University of Hawai’i alum, added.

They’ve explored, drinking in not just the beach volleyball life but the lifestyle that comes with it. In the gap between Warsaw and Espinho, Portugal, they saw a good deal of Poland. After getting knocked out in Russia, they saw Jay Z and Beyonce. Between San Jose and Las Vegas, they’ve become honorary South Bay residents after checking Yosemite off the bucket list.

It’s how they stay fresh, enthused, thrilled about this warp-speed lives their living.

“I think that’s really important just to get our minds off of volleyball for a little,” Mol said. “There is so much volleyball and also, in our family, we talk volleyball all the time. It’s really good just to get some days off when we’re not playing. I think that’s really important to keep our minds fresh and not always think about volleyball.”

While they give their minds a rest from volleyball, nearly everyone in volleyball is thinking about them.

“This off-season,” Jake Gibb said, “there’s going to be a lot of Norwegian film going around.”

You don’t have to look hard for it. They upload every match, along with highly entertaining vlogs of their travels, onto their YouTube channel, Beach Volley Vikings, for all the world to see. And that’s exactly the point: They want to grow the game. If they can put out information that will help others learn, that’s exactly what they’ll do.

“Just watch some video of these guys,” Hendrik said. “It’s great learning from these guys. They’re great athletes, they have some of the best technique in the game. Check them out for sure.”

Lord knows the rest of the world is.

As for the Norwegians?

They’re checking out the rest of the world.

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Martins Plavins requested the mic from Aleksandrs Samoilovs. Had to set some matters straight.

“I know,” Plavins said on Saturday night at p1440 San Jose, “that Edgars misses me.”

He was joking – maybe, possibly, perhaps – but Sunday’s result, when the Latvians upended the world’s best in Norway’s Christian Sorum and Anders Mol in the finals, proved that there’s likely a bit of truth to the notion that Edgars Tocs, Plavins’ typical partner, may have been missing his defender.

Plavins and Tocs, Latvia’s No. 2 team behind Samoilovs and the injured Janis Smedins, were one of the world’s most delightful surprises in the 2018 FIVB season. Entering the year, Tocs, a 29-year-old from Madona, had never eclipsed the five-figure threshold in prize money, with just three main draws to his name in all of 2017.

Yet there they were, on podium after podium to begin the year – gold at The Hague in January, silver in Kish Island a month later. By the end of the year they had played in 13 events, nearly as many main draws as Tocs had played in his entire career.

By season’s end, they were ranked fifth in the world, three spots behind Samoilovs and Smedins, and a country that is roughly the size of Nebraska in terms of population was suddenly home to two of the world’s beach volleyball powers.

Not that Latvia is an upstart. Not by any means. Ten years ago, Samoilovs and Plavins authored arguably the greatest upset in Olympic beach volleyball history when they stunned Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers in the first round of pool play. In 2012, Plavins did it again, this time with Smedins, upsetting Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal – then the No. 1 team in the world – in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics in London.

“We used to play good together,” Samoilovs said. “[Martins] agreed to come to San Jose so I’m very happy he had a chance to join me.”

In two years, for the second time in three Olympics, they might very well join each other as teammates on separate teams. While Plavins was winning a bronze medal with Smedins in 2012, Samoilovs took a ninth with Ruslans Sorokins.

“Martins is one of the best defenders in the world,” Samoilovs said, which explained why, in San Jose, Samoilovs, typically a split-blocker, stayed at the net. “It doesn’t make sense to go block.”

Indeed it seemed they found the right defensive system, as they lost just one set the entire weekend in San Jose, to Austrian Olympian Alexander Huber and Leo Williams in the first round. After that, it was dominant win after dominant win, over Piotr Marciniak and Canadian Olympian Chaim Schalk, Spaniards Adrian Gavira and Pablo Herrera, Americans Miles Evans and Billy Kolinske and the world’s best in Noway’s Mol and Sorum.

More important for either than the winning, though, is the fact they have a chance to win anything at all. Samoilovs remembers what it was like post-2016, when the world tour had just eight events big enough for the best to play, when beach volleyball was somewhat of a wasteland.

With the advent of the King of the Court series and p1440, as well as the extension of the FIVB season, the sport has become nearly year-round.

“This is really great,” Samoilovs said. “I remember after the Rio Olympics, in 2017, it was a disaster. It was only eight World Tour events, so you spend three months preparation just to play eight weeks, two months, so for us players we’re relieved because of these tournaments. Our families live because of these tournaments. It’s important to have more opportunities and more tournaments to earn money and to have a better life.”  

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Dane Selznick has seen it all.

Seen every last one of beach volleyball’s many evolutions. He was there when players competed for little more than pride and maybe – maybe – a free dinner. He was there when two men named David Wilk and Craig Masuoka formed a promotional company named Event Concepts and began hauling in the Millers and Cuervos of the world and throwing legitimate prize money into tournaments. He was there when the AVP Tour was founded, in 1984, and when it collapsed, and when it formed again, and when it collapsed once more, to be revived in its current iteration under Donald Sun.

He’s seen both the golden era, financially, when 10 players once banked more than $100,000 in prize money alone, and he’s seen the most dominant era, when Kerri Walsh-Jennings and Misty May-Treanor once rattled off 112 straight wins and three consecutive gold medals from 2004-2012.

And now he is witness once more to the latest permutation in professional beach volleyball, the upstart event series, p1440, founded by Walsh-Jennings and her husband, Casey, and former college teammate Dave Mays.

In March, Selznick, who had been a tournament director for the California Beach Volleyball Association (CBVA), founding the Gene Selznick Invitational, an eponymous nod to his father, was hired as p1440’s Director of Competition and Sport.

“About a year ago, Kerri approached me and said ‘Dane I have a project I’d love for you to be a part of,’” Selznick said on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter. “She gave me a little bit of background, I brought it to the head staff at CBVA, got their opinion to see if it would be a good fit, and here we are. Everything’s moved along pretty quickly.”

Blindingly fast may be a more apt description. P1440 has announced dates for four events in its inaugural season, one of which will be an Olympic qualifier in Las Vegas, while the other three are partnered with the FIVB as international exhibitions. They’ve announced a lengthy list of sponsors that includes ROKA (eyewear), Alsa Energy (water), RX (protein bars), Brand X (strength and conditioning programs), AcuSpike (volleyball training), NormaTec (recovery), among a host of others. They’ve formed a developmental training program, replete with an armada of the finest coaches in the world, and a partnership with the CBVA, the pipeline from which many of the top players in the country cut their teeth, and where p1440 is now hosting what’s known as “satellite qualifiers,” allowing players to compete locally, weeks prior to the event itself, for a spot in the main draw.

“They looked at our [CBVA] schedule extensively, and they were trying to select those certain events that they felt fit the mold to be a qualifying point-getter for the players,” Selznick said. “There are specific tournaments that we have that award you p1440 points. The qualifying satellites are enticing for the players because it gives them something more than playing in a tournament. Now they’re playing for a main draw spot in tournaments that offer high level competition, a lot more prize money – you’re guaranteed more money just getting into the tournament. I think being an alternative tour to what we’ve got going on, as long as it’s not conflicting, I see no problem with it, because it really gives players a lot more opportunities to make money.”

More opportunities has been the theme of the past few months. In 2018, the AVP put on eight open events, one of which was partnered with the FIVB in Huntington Beach, before adding invitationals in Hawai’i and Huntington Beach. The upstart King of the Court series hosted another handful, to go along with upwards of 40 FIVBs of varying levels.

And now there’s p1440, adding events at the end of September (San Jose), mid-October (Las Vegas), end of November and early December (San Diego) and mid-December (Huntington Beach), with events on the horizon in Texas, Florida and Los Angeles.

“It seems like a pretty exciting time right now for the sport in general,” Tri Bourne said. “It’s cool, I think the sport is gaining a lot of momentum right now. There’s a lot of people like yourself and p1440 and AVP and King of the Court and FIVB and CBVA that are all kind of creating opportunities in their own way. I think it’s great. It seems like the sport is gaining some momentum.”

That next opportunity begins Thursday, with the San Jose on-site qualifier, and extends through the weekend, in a domestic event that features the top two teams in the world of each gender – Norwegians Anders Mol and Christian Sorum and Brazilians Carolina Salgado and Maria Antonelli – as well as a host of the best talent in the United States – Sean Rosenthal and Chase Budinger, Jeremy Casebeer and Reid Priddy, Billy Allen and Theo Brunner, Chaim Schalk and Piotr Marciniak, Walsh-Jennings, Nicole Branagh and Lauren Fendrick, Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman, Caitlin Ledoux and Geena Urango.

“It’s just great to have more opportunity,” Selznick said. “Bottom line. Every entity should take care of its athletes. It’s like the Olympic Games, the athletes are No. 1.”

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Don’t let these Witts fool you, with their Colgate smiles and constant giggles and impossibly amiable personalities.

Then again, how could you not be fooled?

Was that McKenna in the Oakleys or Madison? Wasn’t McKenna on the right? Or did they switch?

Hold on…it was Madison with the 4-centimeter tear in her ab…right? Or was that the other one, the one who looks just like her, down to the cascade of dirty blonde hair and almond-shaped eyes and what they call “twig-noodle” frames?

Kerri Walsh couldn’t figure it out when she played the Witts in 2016. Neither could their high school teachers on the one occasion they swapped places in math and Spanish, though so overwhelming was their guilt and nerves that they never did it again.

“I was so nervous,” McKenna Witt, now McKenna Thibodeau, said.

Yes, the Witt sisters are technically no longer. McKenna is now a Thibodeau, and Madison, recently engaged, will soon become a Willis.

The Thibodeau-Willis sisters don’t exactly have the same ring as the Witt Sisters. No matter. They still have the same identical looks, despite an NVL official once attempting to change that, marking Madison with a No. 1.

Or hold on. Was that McKenna?

Not that it mattered. She washed it off anyway. McKenna had a tear in her ab, and she wasn’t going to be picked on. Beyond that, Madison wasn’t going to let another team complain about playing a pair of identical twins, especially when one of them is injured, and exposing which one that was could mean furthering the injury.

Simply put: You don’t mess with a Witt, and you certainly don’t mess with one when the other is on the same court.

“We’re fierce competitors,” Madison said,. Killers with a smile.

So hungry for success are they that in less than five years playing beach volleyball they’ve become All-Americans, finished their four years at Arizona with an 85-33 record, qualified for an AVP in San Francisco in 2016, grinded through an NVL qualifier in 2017 and advanced to the semifinals, picked up their Masters degrees doing a grad year indoors with Cal Baptist all the while planning McKenna’s wedding.

Now they’re the poster girls for P1440, selected as one of the tour’s developmental teams.

It appears to have been a smooth ride for the Witts. Little turbulence, few setbacks, the American Dream from a pair of sisters who are as likable as they are marketable. Their path has been quite the contrary, and they like it that way.

They love telling the story about how they were cut from their seventh-grade team, touching a ball for the first time in an organized setting in eighth grade. They aren’t necessarily enamored with their 13-15 record at Arizona as freshmen, but they’re able to look back upon it with fondness, for prior to the season, they had to relearn how to throw a ball, let alone hit one. They’re not kidding, either. Their coach, Steve Walker, didn’t like how they threw a ball, which replicates the mechanics for an arm swing. So in their first week as collegiate beach volleyball players...they threw volleyballs.

“Looking back, we loved the process,” Madison said. “Steve would always say ‘Rome isn’t built in a day’ and man is that true… The process is beautiful. You don’t grow on mountaintops.”

They didn’t. And their steep growth created a style they refer to as “scrappy, weird athletic, and fun.”

The weird athletic can be up for interpretation. The fun part is not. They’re contagious, these Witts, forever smiling, laughter providing the soundtrack to their conversations, humble from an upbringing ground in faith.

“We’ll do whatever is takes to win,” McKenna said. “But we’ll still be nice.”

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It’s not a tour.

That’s the first thing that Dave Mays, this week’s guest on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter, wants you to know about p1440, of which he is a founding partner.

It is many different things with many different meanings. Take, for example, the name itself. The 1440 is assured: It represents the 1,440 minutes we all have per day. But the p? Platform seems to be the most popular word for it, though, as Mays says, it’s up to your own interpretation. It could be purpose. Or power. Or people. Or whatever word that starts with ‘p’ you’d like to use to represent how you’d like to use your 1,440 minutes in a day.

Would you like to use it to strengthen your relationship with people? People it is. Or strengthening your mind, body and soul? Power it is.

That sort of the point: p1440, and how you spend your minutes, is up to you.

To some, yes, that means it’s a beach volleyball tour or league, and currently, there are eight events on the schedule, which bridges 2018 and 2019. The first four are set – Chicago in September, with Huntington Beach, San Diego and San Jose to follow – while the next four, which will be held in early 2019, are in limbo, though the sites have been whittled down to a few catchy options. There’s Vegas – Vegas! – a major city in Texas (Dallas and Houston, namely), Miami, Hawaii.

An ambitious start. An exciting start. And that hardly scratches the surface, for each event is not just a beach volleyball tournament.

It is, as Kerri Walsh-Jennings, a co-founder along with her husband, Casey Jennings, and Mays, has taken to saying: “Part Wanderlust, part Coachella, part beach volleyball league.”

Each event, tantamount to the World Series of Beach Volleyball, will feature a tournament, but it will also serve as a music festival of sorts, replete with concerts and fanfare and everything you’d expect of the triumvirate Walsh-Jennings mentioned.

How, you may be wondering, can an upstart tour fund eight events while also doubling as a music festival? Beach volleyball has been a notoriously volatile space in the market, in spite of the sport itself growing every year, to the point that more girls play volleyball than soccer or track and field or basketball.

For females, it’s the most popular sport in the country. And yet nobody has been able to monetize the market in a sustainable enough fashion for it to work. The business model has remained the same since a company named Event Concepts began putting on professional events in 1976.

They’d find a sponsor – Schlitz Beer was the first – or many sponsors, to throw in money, and that money would then be translated into prize money, which would draw talent and a crowd to watch that talent. Sponsors would be happy because they got the eyeballs they wanted, players would be happy because they got the prize money they wanted.

And so it went.

Until, of course, the tabs being run up by the tour were too hefty for the sponsors to cover, and one gigantic failure led to the next. Event Concepts was booted in 1984, thanks to a player protest at the World Championships of Beach Volleyball, and in came the AVP, an organization led by the players and a young, savvy agent named Leonard Armato. The AVP changed hands in 1990, when Armato was replaced by Jeff Dankworth, who in 1994 was replaced by Jerry Solomon, whose gross mishandling of the finances led to a bankruptcy, only for the AVP to be revived by – who else? – Armato in 2001.

Nine years later it was bankrupt again, and in 2012, Donald Sun took over and put on a pair of events, and since then he has done a fine job of steadying the frighteningly tenuous heartbeat of beach volleyball, increasing prize money and events and introducing a “Gold Series” and putting the sport back on television.

And yet the business model remains relatively the same, though there are certainly various nuances, as 1976: sponsor-driven.

“If we were to start a new pro beach volleyball tour tomorrow, we would fail,” Mays says on SANDCAST. “So that’s why we’re not starting a pro beach volleyball tour. We’re taking the sport of volleyball and we’re celebrating it, what works and what doesn’t. We’re applying some principles of what have worked and what do work, to this.”

And here is where the differentiation between p1440 and the AVP Tour begins.

p1440 will charge a $40 gate fee, every tournament. The AVP allows its fans, which pack stadiums, for free, though there are paid box seats. But the entry gate will hardly be the chief source of revenue for p1440.

That’s where the “platform” comes in.

Above all else, above volleyball and music and entertainment, p1440 is built upon four pillars: competition, development, health and wellness, entertainment.

The platform, an online resource featuring myriad digital media, will host webinars, coaching, nutrition, live clinics – any type of wellness resource you might need, be it mental, spiritual or physical. It’s not live yet – it is scheduled to launch in July – and until 2021, it will not be monetized. The content will be entirely free, with the goal of reaching 4 million subscribers by 2021, by which point a subscription fee will be required. No numbers are for sure in terms of the subscription fee, but on SANDCAST, there was a $5 estimate. If p1440 hits its goal of 4 million subscribers at $5 a month, you can do the math – $20 million in revenue per month from the platform alone.

If successful – an admittedly large “if” in this sport – the subscription model answers, in part, where the prize money and funding for the tour will stem from. Which leads to the next inevitable question: Who will be receiving those paychecks?

Mays, who built and sold a shipping business for a not-so-small fortune and was looking for a new project to work on, thinks it’s no question at all: p1440 will feature the finest talent in beach volleyball, and not only because there will be more prize money – he gave no definitive figure on what the breakdown will be, only that it will be more – but there will be more talent.

The failure to retain the game’s highest talent led to the breakdown of the NVL. Players want to play against the best, which was why, when Sun revived the AVP in 2012, and the top players returned, the NVL lost momentum and, eventually, financial backing. The best currently play on the AVP and FIVB tours.

There will be a battle over loyalty, the AVP’s non-compete (p1440 has no exclusivity clause in its contract), and, when it comes down to it, prize money and sponsors.

Mays intends on bringing in the best, not only in this country, but overseas.

Each tournament will feature a 24-team main draw. Sixteen of those teams will be Americans automatically seeded in. Four will come out of the qualifier. And four will be international wild cards.

Want to play against the best? p1440 could have Alison and Bruno, or Evandro and Andre, or Nicolai and Lupo. For the women, it could be Ludwig and Walkenhorst, Agatha and Duda, Talita and Larissa.

Walsh’s reach, even if she has been on the peripherals of the game as a player lately, is still extensive. You don’t win three gold medals and suddenly lose all of your contacts.

Those players mentioned will be available, too, for Mays and Walsh-Jennings and Casey Jennings have made it a point to schedule around the AVP as well as four- and five-star FIVBS.

The plan is to have the best in the world, playing for the best prize money in the game, with some music and entertainment to cap the night.

It’s a lot. It’s big. It’s potentially transformative. It might work, it might not. That’s part of the excitement around this movement. And maybe that all sounds a bit crazy, though it is worth reminding that the most successful ideas and businesses were, at one point or other, invariably labeled “crazy.”

As Walsh-Jennings wrote on Instagram: “It’s go time.”

                                              

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