Former beach volleyball commissioner Leonard Armato interrupted a telephone interview to play a song from his computer, explaining: "I thought that would be better than me singing it myself."
The song, "Rude," had recently climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot Digital Songs chart, and Armato was so excited about bringing the reggae group Magic! to this summer's World Series of Beach Volleyball that he couldn't resist. In its second year, the event is planning an expanded music festival mixed with the sandiest, sexiest sport in the Olympics.
"We're trying to appeal to pop culture in a way that hasn't been done before," said Armato, who along with running the AVP domestic tour has also been an agent with clients including Shaquille O'Neal and Oscar De La Hoya. "It's just a matter of how much we're going to push the envelope beyond last year."
Although the Americans have dominated beach volleyball since it joined the Summer Games in 1996 — Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor have won three straight gold medals — the sport has struggled here between Olympiads. The AVP went bankrupt in 2010, returning the following summer; the international tour, which also serves as the Olympic qualifier, pulled up stakes in this country in 2003 and didn't return until last year.
That's when Armato brought it back with the inaugural World Series of Beach Volleyball.
More than a tournament, the event sought to be a beach-themed festival, with musical stages along with four- and six-person beach volleyball competitions surrounding an FIVB grand slam event with the traditional 2-on-2 matches that are familiar to Olympic fans. After a successful run in 2013, the World Series is back in Long Beach, California, on July 22-27, and organizers are hoping that bigger is better.
"It's just great summer entertainment and great programming," said Rob Simmelkjaer, a senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures and International, which is a partner in the event and will also broadcast 20 hours of competition. "People are in a summer state of mind; they want to see something that reflects what they're doing. It just sort of fits in with the rhythm of summer."
The total purse for the beach volleyball events has doubled to more than $1 million — the biggest ever for the sport. NBC and its sister networks will be broadcasting the men's and women's finals live. And, to expand on the musical offerings, Armato has brought in Clear Channel and iHeart.
"We learned that if we want to incorporate music and make it even bigger from a festival perspective, we needed to get someone involved that knew what they were doing," Armato said.
This year's musical lineup also includes Bleachers, the new project from Grammy winner Jack Antonoff, along with DJ Irie. The event website also boasts of a bikini contest with a $1,000 prize that is "not only a great networking opportunity but also an ideal portfolio builder for aspiring bikini and fitness models."
But at the center is the beach volleyball tournament that draws the world's top players to the United States. After a decade without an FIVB-sanctioned event in the country, the Asics-sponsored World Series puts the sport back in front of the American eyeballs more than once every four years.
Walsh Jennings will be there, with new partner April Ross, a silver medalist in London (May-Treanor has retired). Also in attendance will be Phil Dalhausser, the American gold medalist from the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and many of the top international players who went a decade without having a reason to play on U.S. sand.
Simmelkjaer, already salivating over the opportunity to broadcast Olympic beach volleyball from Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach in 2016, said any advance buzz the event generates is just a bonus.
"Certainly it's helpful to use an event like this to develop story lines," he said. "It gives us an opportunity to continue to tell the story of a player like Kerri Walsh Jennings, but also to develop new stars and new names people aren't as familiar with because people aren't as focused on Kerri and Misty.
"But it's not the reason we're doing this. We think that people will tune into beach volleyball for the Olympics, especially in a place like Rio."
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