I vividly remember the first time I met Kerri Walsh Jennings five years ago. She was in Long Beach for interviews to promote the first World Series Of Beach Volleyball after returning from the London Olympics as a gold medalist.
Walsh Jennings sat in a folding chair on the beach, holding court with a handful of reporters hovering around her. She didn’t answer direct questions as much as she just held a big conversation. And then she said something I will never forget.
“Other than the Olympics, this is the biggest event in the world for our sport,” Walsh Jennings said of the WSOBV.
When she said it, I believed her because it was true at the time. However, it wasn’t true this year. Even though it could be again in the future.
Last weekend, sparse crowds took in the exhibition action after five years of massive crowds cheering on international FIVB competition. Beach volleyball contracts and scheduling seem to be working against each other.
“There's always a lull after the Olympics, but none as bad as this; this has been pretty tough,” Olympian Phil Dalhausser said after he won the Long Beach Presidents Cup on Sunday.
“The sport's not sitting in a good spot right now,” he said. “This is the lowest number of FIVB World Tour events I can remember. The problem is promoters and organizers are losing money — like this is a nice event, but I din't know if they're making money. We want everyone to make money.”
The summer got off to a sour start for professional beach volleyball when Walsh Jennings rejected an exclusivity agreement with the AVP tour. The move forced her to split with Olympic partner April Ross, who signed the deal. It also sent shockwaves through the American sides that is now full of new partnerships.
Walsh Jennings said she isn’t retiring yet, that she intends to train for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and that the proposed AVP contract lacked the vision to grow the beach volleyball.
“It’s a death sentence for our sport,” Walsh Jennings told the AP. “We're being kept in a small little fishbowl. I know our sport deserves more. We've been told we're small, and we believe it."
Long Beach State alum Brittany Hochevar said the key to beach volleyball is a united front that knows if it wants to be a professional or an amateur sport.
“We have to take care of the players, and that means all of them,” Hochevar said. “No one is bigger than the sport. Players have to be on the same page, and it hurts my heart that there are selfish endeavors.”
The WSOBV is organized like an AVP event, but has been able to host FIVB competition that doubles as Olympic qualification. Not many other events can pull that off, and no one outside the WSOBV seems willing to figure out how to change that. For example, this weekend there is an FIVB event in Poland happening at the same time as an AVP event in Hermosa Beach.
“It's pretty tough to have to go to Poland when you could be at home in your own bed,” Dalhausser said.
The WSOBV is positioned perfectly to tie the schedule back together. It is centrally located and can be moved to any weekend in the summer to accommodate FIVB and AVP schedules. It’s also an event dedicated to the future of the sport with AAU Junior National competition and coaching clinics all weekend. So the players who will be the future of beach volleyball are already involved at the WSOBV.
The key will be keeping it that way.