Back in the 1990s, professional beach volleyball was a sponsor's dream. Buff, near-naked hotties frolicking on sunny beaches. Olympic-quality athletic feats. And an intimate scale that allowed companies to get up close and personal with consumers.
But as the decade drew to a close, the player-run Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) still found a way to snatch disaster from the jaws of success. It careened into bankruptcy in 1998 after alienating athletes, broadcast partners, and sponsors.
Now, one of the AVP's original founders has bought control, and beach volleyball is trying to leap back into action. "There's a new sheriff in town," says Leonard Armato, the West Coast superagent best known for developing Shaquille O'Neal into a familiar "brand," as he likes to put it. As the AVP's owner/commissioner, Armato has cut a deal with NBC Sports to live-broadcast two events in August. (The seven-event season starts in late May.) And he has a commitment from Fox Sports to televise several tape-delayed tourneys. He's also landing blue-chip sponsors at about $1 million-plus apiece: Anheuser-Busch's Michelob Light (BUD ), PepsiCo's Gatorade (PEP ), and Microsoft's Xbox (MSFT ).
Next up: a possible deal with Nissan (NSANY ). Armato claims an agreement with an auto maker is imminent, and sports-marketing sources say the likeliest candidate is Nissan. Steven Wilhite, Nissan's vice-president for marketing, will say only: "I like the property, opportunity, and people."
As TV-rights fees for major sports spiral upward as audiences decline, the time may be right for volleyball's return. At the Sydney Games in 2000, volleyball events were hot tickets that racked up strong ratings for NBC.
The big question is whether Armato can turn the AVP into a reliable marketing vehicle for Corporate America. With its renegade roots, beach volleyball has always been home to unfettered athletes who bridled at efforts to charge admission, stick to broadcast schedules, and adhere to the rules of the international sanctioning body, the Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB).
Armato has unified the men's and women's tours under FIVB rules. And he's requiring players to sign contracts precluding them from cutting the sort of side deals with rival brands that infuriated past sponsors like Miller Lite.
So far, most players have gone along, if sometimes grudgingly. With prize pools plummeting and few enticing alternatives, 150 of the top players have signed up, including four-time MVP Holly McPeak and heartthrob Kevin Wong, one of People's 50 Most Beautiful People of 2000. "It's amazing what a few years in the wilderness will do," says NBC Sports Senior Vice-President Jon Miller.
Still, most commitments remain modest and short-term. Gatorade and Microsoft have one-year deals. NBC is airing just the two events, at a time of year when it has to scramble to fill a sports-programming void.
With more titillation in sports than ever, though, beach volleyball does seem well positioned. "It's an incredibly sexy sport," says Armato. "We're not embarrassed that the men are wearing just shorts and the women bikinis." In fact, the one certainty about beach volleyball's comeback is that the uniforms won't be getting any bigger.
By Gerry Khermouch