Beach volleyball has a new ally as it tries to grow from an Olympic phenomenon to an every-year attraction: ESPN.
The sports network will broadcast the World Series of Beach Volleyball, an international pro tour stop in California in July. Event organizers hope the exposure will help beach volleyball attract new fans and hold onto the ones who watch during the Summer Games only to drift away until the next Olympics.
“The fact that ESPN is partnering with us is just a game-changer,” said five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings, who has committed to the event. “That’s something that beach volleyball has never had. I think the average sports fan takes the sport more seriously when they’re on ESPN.”
Like the Iowa caucuses or Feb. 29, beach volleyball has its moment in the sun every quadrennium but then largely disappears for another four years. One of the most popular events at the Olympics, the sport has struggled to translate that success into a full-time audience.
ESPN thinks it can change that.
“Like so many other people, I watched the Olympics in Rio; volleyball — the indoor and the beach — was a primetime staple many nights,” said Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice-president of programming and scheduling. “There’s great enthusiasm around the sport, and it just kind of disappears into the ether.”
Magnus said beach volleyball is attractive to the network because it’s popular among both men and women, domestically and globally, and still has a lot of room for growth. ESPN already broadcasts the men’s and women’s NCAA (indoor) championships, giving it familiarity with the sport.
“We’d like to put our shoulder behind it,” Magnus said. “Maybe acquire other volleyball content, give it a good try and see what happens. We’ve never put a concerted effort behind the sport at all.”
This year’s broadcast from will include 30 hours of play spread across ABC, ESPN and ESPN2, and streamed on ESPN3 — “our full array of networks and platforms,” Magnus said.
Although some will be condensed or otherwise on tape, the women’s final will be live on ESPN on Saturday night, said Leonard Armato, the chief executive of the World Series of Beach Volleyball. It will be the first prime-time beach volleyball broadcast other than the Olympics.
The ESPN deal calls for three North American events next year, which Armato is hoping to promote as a Triple Crown.
“We both bring our areas of expertise to the table,” Magnus said. “Ours is our megaphone. And he has the relationships in the industry. And, certainly, he has the experience with putting on an event like this.”
A former agent who represented Shaquille O’Neal and Oscar De La Hoya, Armato served as the commissioner of the AVP domestic tour and is married to three-time beach volleyball Olympian Holly McPeak. He started the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach in 2013, envisioning a festival with the kinds of attractions that will bring in the young, active spectators that advertisers covet.
The centerpiece of the Long Beach event from July 13-16 is an FIVB-sanctioned pro tournament, called the President’s Cup, that is expected to draw the world’s top players. But there will be open, junior and co-ed tournaments, four- and six-person competitions and a “big electronic music artist,” whose name Armato wasn’t ready to announce.
“These big, festival events are resonating in a significant way. Not a travelling circus, but the kinds of events that people are flocking to in today’s world,” Armato said. “We think we have a really good formula for success.”
This year he has an added attraction: Walsh Jennings, who is sitting out from the AVP tour this year.
The three-time Olympic gold medallist felt so strongly about beach volleyball’s growth potential that she refused to sign on to the biggest domestic tour because it would have limited her options. The decision forced a split with April Ross, with whom she won the bronze medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games.
But Walsh Jennings is committed to the Long Beach event — even though she doesn’t have a partner yet. She said bringing the pros together with amateur and younger athletes is part of what makes it appealing to her.
“Connecting the dots of the sport is a really powerful thing for me, because I feel like once you make the connection, you’re a lifer,” Walsh Jennings said.
“I was that little girl,” she said. “And I still feel like I am that little girl.”
Jimmy Golen has covered beach volleyball for The Associated Press since 2008. Follow him on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/jgolen .