Wednesday, June 21, 2006

AVP Sacramento Qualifier (volleyball)

Beach Volleyball-The Base of the Iceberg

During the 2005 Super Bowl, a tv commercial aired with Kerri Walsh and Misty May trekking to an iceberg to play beach volleyball in their swimsuits. Eventually, the ball rolls off the court and into the ice cold water and the players ro sham bo to determine who has to go get it.  I’m not sure that the ad inspired Visa sales, but it may be the only volleyball ad ever to appear during the Super Bowl, the most-watched sportscast in America.  The iceberg though does serve as an apt metaphor for the sport. May and Walsh are certainly part of the high profile ten percent of the sport whom one gets to see above the surface, but at minimum some ninety percent of the sport can’t be seen unless you’re willing to put in considerable effort to find it.

This may be the first time that Sacramento in the middle of June and base of the iceberg have ever appeared in the same sentence, but that’s exactly what the Sacramento AVP qualifier last Thursday happened to represent. Volleyball remains a minor sport in this country (despite impressive participation levels among teenaged girls) and the Beach version has a disproportionately high profile both for the sport as a whole and relative to the indoor game.  For the last couple years, pretty much every weekend of the tour’s twenty three stops winds up on national television on weekend afternoons.  In general, you only see the final and on the women’s side one half of the final has consistently included May-Treanor and Walsh.

72 teams or 144 players entered the women’s side of the Sacramento AVP event.  Realistically none of the roughly 80 teams in the qualifier Sunday were going to make it to next weekend’s TV broadcast except in the sideline crowd shots.  Only 4 of the 40 teams from the Thursday’s women’s draw would even make it to the main draw of 32 teams on Friday.   There were 76 men’s teams in the tournament.  One of the smarter things Mr. Holly Mcpeak, Leonard Armato, the current chief operator of the AVP did  was to combine the men’s and women’s tours into a single product which means that men can pretend that they’re there to see the men play rather than to watch women in bikinis. There are always lots of people with cameras at sporting events, but it seems that beach volleyball draws more than its share of photography buffs.  

Until last week, I’d never seen an AVP event live, so it may seem  odd that I chose to go to the qualifier.  The reason is simple - I went mainly because my daughter’s high school coach, Elsa Stegemann Binder (UOP), had decided that she wasn’t done playing and wanted to give the AVP, the only professional volleyball in America, a try.  Sacramento is the tour’s only stop in Northern California.  It takes a while to get back into competitive form after not playing seriously for more than a year.  It also usually takes a while to make the transition from the indoor version to beach.  The result is that my best chance to see Elsa and her partner Charnette Fair (Minnesota)  play was to get to my home town during the qualifying rounds which started  at eight in the morning on Thursday.  

First the good news, watching the qualifying rounds is free.  The bad news is Cal Expo charges you seven dollars to park your car.  If Cal Expo and Sacramento don’t exactly conjure images of the ocean for you, you’re not alone.  Armato made the decision to promote the sport as a lifestyle.  Several years ago, I remember seeing a sand court set up for a tournament next to the University of Minnesota.

The acres of asphalt at the Expo that normally house roller coasters, water rides, and bumper cars during the fair season at the end of the summer got transformed by Teichert Construction into a chunk of Huntington Beach sans the Pacific Ocean.  This included eight railway-tie  plastic-linered boxes filled with some two thousand tons of sand, several tents, and the same stadium arrangement for the feature court that you see on tv most Sundays.   It looks from afar like the movie Gladiator with sunblock and bathing suits. Between the courts, a series of trailers sold carnival food and beach wear.   Next to the vertex, there was also a tent that lets you get photographed with the Jose Cuervo girls who for some reason decided to skip the qualifier. Women’s beach volleyball walks a not so fine line between feminism and blatant exploitation of the near-naked babes side of the sport.  (I still get a surprising number of searches on my website for pictures of Rachel Wacholder) In any case, the atmosphere between AVP matches is certainly far more pleasant than your average high school or college gym and certainly better than maneuvering the ice chest and folding chair obstacle course at the Reno Convention Center unless you’re the Church Lady.  

As it happened, the only other people in the parking lot when I got to Cal Expo happened to be the rest of the El Molino connection to Elsa Binder who coached there for four years. Bear Grassl, former El Mo coach now the coach at Sonoma State-Leslie Mckinney-Grassl (St. Mary’s) the school’s first volleyball star, its soon to be JV Coach (she used to be the co-coach of the varsity and also was Nicole Branagh’s high school coach), current math teacher there, Grassl’s wife, and Elsa Binder’s cousin by marriage- their two sons- and Crystal Matich (Santa Clara) my older daughter’s successor and my younger daughter’s predecessor on the right side for the El Molino volleyball team were unloading their van.  Most of the haul seemed to be big yellow metal Tonka trucks brought to keep the children busy.  Volleyball is a small-deeply interconnected world.  Volleyball in Sonoma County sometimes resembles marriages in the Ozarks.  Between the five of us, we accounted for some twenty years of volleyball at that one high school.

We walked into together and it seemed as if every third person at the qualifier came up to say”Hi” to someone in the group (other than me of course)  I’d have to say that’s never happened to me at a professional basketball, football, or baseball game.  

One of the challenges for the tour in all its incarnations has been to both make it more businesslike while retaining the free-spirited charm of the sport itself.  The qualifier retains the latter in many ways.  No one knows court assignments or times until they post a sheet of butcher paper with the draws for the men and women’s teams on a kiosk near the stadium court.  There are no names posted by the matches themselves.  On most of the courts, there’s no way to track the score.  The only official is whoever is in the chair.  This gives the tournament the authentic feel of two pairs of players who just picked up a ball and decided to have it out on a net hastily set up in the sand.  While there’s a certain purity to this, it also makes it really hard to figure out what’s going on and almost impossible to tell who’s playing as you wander from match to match.  

One of the surprising things about an AVP qualifier is that there are some very recognizable names playing on Thursday (at least to volleyball fans).  For instance Jose Loiola who has 55 tournament titles was qualifying with Mike Morrison, as it turns out unsuccessfully.  A couple people commented that Loiola, who used to be featured in photos in Volleyball Magazine with hands above the top of the antennae, seemed to be playing mostly backrow while Morrison did the heavy-lifting at the net.  There were a range  of standouts from the women’s indoor game from Julie Bremner Romias (UCLA) who I assume competes on the beach between shifts as a practicing physician to the fifteen year old Alexandra Jupiter who won two matches on Thursday with her partner Leilani Kamahoa Kamahoa, an assistant coach at Seattle Pacific.  In addition, I recognized April Ross, Jamie Gregory, Kaeo Burdine, Tara Conrad, Chrissie Zartman, and Stacy Rouwenhorst.

Actually, one of the fascinating things about the beach version is that success indoors doesn’t necessarily translate into success in the sand.  It’s common in the qualifiers for well known indoor players to lose to teams of players made up of individuals who had modest college careers or in some cases did not play college at all.  Like tennis doubles, the best teams tend to be the best two players together not the best two single players.  

Because there is more open space on the court, even on the short court, there also seem to be many different ways to win in beach.  The basic strategy in the indoor version, at least in America, is to hit higher, harder, and more consistently than your opponent.  In one day on the beach, I saw teams win over the top, going side to side, going short and long, and by doing any of the four at unpredictable times.  In addition, because there are just two players on the court both have to do a little bit of everything.  As a result, the range of ages, body types, and styles is much more varied than the indoor version where all but a few teams have big tall players up front who hit and block and smaller ball handling types in the back row.  Even the variety of pairings can be fascinating.  You’ll find two tall long players, Mutt and Jeff pairs, two medium-sized players, and even occasionally two small players (the Lindquists for instance) all managing to be competitive on the beach.

Binder and Fair both look like they could be bodybuilders.  Both hit extremely well,as well if not better than any of the women at the qualifier.  Fair hits high and down.  Binder hits harder and at sharper angles, occasionally making the tape marking the sideline buckle and jump.  In their first match with Chrissie Zartman (UCLA) who is one of the smallest players on the tour at what looked to be an optimistic 5’5” and Sarah White (SDSU) who at 6’3” is one of the tallest, the roles and strategy seemed clear.  Zartman and White served Fair 95% of the time which generally made Fair the passer/hitter and Binder the setter.  The only problem was that the 6’0” Fair dominated the matchup at the net with the taller White who also had problems putting the ball away consistently.  Zartman made several spectacular saves near the baseline.  Binder also made some amazing backrow plays, on two occasions diving into the sand and into the sideline to save points, enough to balance off whatever points Zartman happened to save.  On match point at 19-20 in the second game, Zartman and White rather suddenly switched strategies and Zartman wound up one on one at the net with Fair.  It didn’t work.  

I wandered over to glimpse some of the other matches and while the lack of posted scores and names made it a little hard to know who was who and what the score was at any given point, it was also clear that the overall level of play was very high indeed.  Even this, the base of the AVP iceberg is highly competitive-entertaining volleyball filled with how’d he or she do that plays.  In particular, I watched Claire Robertson (Northern Arizona) and Tiffany Rodriguez (Arizona) methodically take apart Stacy Millichap (UCLA) and Christina Hinds (Pepperdine) without either team seeming to hit a ball hard.  Since Robertson and Rodriguez were next up for Binder and Fair, I found myself seeing the matchup with an indoor mindset as I saw visions of Fair’s blocking and hitting and Binder’s hitting dominating the match.

As the second match approached, it was also getting hotter.  I noticed several players had to go from playing barefoot to “sand socks”.  Although the rallies in Beach are often shorter and fewer in number than the college women’s game, the Beach version is aerobically much more demanding because you are covering more of the court and handling at least three times as many balls.  Heat, sun, wind all become factors as the day wears on and it means that strategies change as conditions change. By the time of the second match, it was hot to the point where players kept coming up to the hose in the corner of the stadium court to rinse themselves off and none of the sparse crowd was willing to sit in the main bleachers directly in the sun.

Throughout the first game Robertson and Rodriguez dominated the match by running the same simple play.  Robertson would pass any serve and Rodriguez would bump set the ball straight up in the middle of the court about a foot off the net.  Robertson would then go up straight on with Fair then look to see which way Binder was going to move in the backrow, then drop the ball either to the right or left  just out of Fair’s very long outstretched arms.  In addition, instead of serving Fair they served Binder who passes very well and hits very well but this exposed Fair’s relative inexperience as a beach setter.  Fair is a player with a huge upside on the beach, but I suspect that she hasn’t played a lot of backrow in her career.

Whatever hitting and blocking that Binder and Fair managed in their first match basically disappeared because they simply couldn’t get the ball in positions where they could play their style.  It also helped that Robertson and Rodriguez were digging Binder’s swings enough to turn what had been an 80-20 proposition in match 1 into something like 60-40.  Robertson and Rodriguez also seemed lighter-footed in the sand which combined with Binder-Fair having to hit three balls well to score a single point and the mounting heat to give the more experienced pair the tactical high ground and an easy first game.  With a  couple notable exceptions on blocks by Rodriguez, Robertson and Rodriguez won the first game entirely by going side to side with the ball instead of over and down.  

The second game started in much the same fashion, then Binder/Fair made an adjustment on defense and came back from 9-12, without a scoreboard it was hard to tell.  Because the sides switch every seven points, one gets very good very quickly at using multiples of seven as a cue to the actual score.  At one point, the score was confusing enough that I let Leslie Grassl who was holding her younger son in her lap talk me into going up to the ref during the timeout to get the score.  Again, I’ve never talked to the ref at any other professional sports event.  Fair started  getting a hand on balls tipped to the side by Rodriguez/Robertson.  Binder also began disguising  her guess on the drop shot just a bit longer.  After Binder saved a ball diving to the left sideline then diving to the right sideline on the same point with her last dig crossing over the net and hitting the tape about six behind the net on the other side, Binder and Fair suddenly had their 19th point.  Binder then hit a low hard serve the hit the right sideline tape to give them their first game point of the match at 20-18.  

On game point, in beach the teams change sides.  With Robertson and Rodriguez both guessing right side again on the next serve, Binder got off a mirror image of her last serve to the left sideline only it went six inches wide.  The game and match went on for 18 more points that included a couple great swings by Fair, several incredible saves by Robertson and Rodriguez, Binder’s usual hard swings to the sidelines, a great kill by Rodriguez, until Binder/Fair made consecutive mistakes to end the match.

Unlike a professional league where all players are paid and travel expenses absorbed by the team owners or the league, AVP is a tour.  Teams are independent contractors who cover their airfare, food, training costs out of pocket against winnings and endorsements.  Occasionally, with  some success, they find sponsors but most who have sponsors only get a small percentage of their expenses paid. If you are not one of the three teams who win three matches in the qualifier, you make no money.  If you lose in an early round of the main draw, you might earn your motel room back.  I overheard one player looking for a place to stay in Sacramento that evening after her team had been eliminated.  One of the issues is that you buy your plane ticket to leave on Saturday night just in case you make the draw.  Just doing the math, I’d guess it costs about thirty thousand dollars a year to keep a player in 15-16 events for the year. If you look at the money list, you’ll see that only a handful of pairs are even breaking even as professionals.  Most must keep some sort of day job that can accommodate their trips to tournaments.  

That said, the fact that the 23 tour stops regularly have 30-40 pairs in the qualifiers on the men’s and women’s side testifies to how many players simply want to keep playing at the highest possible level. In the meantime, the Darwinian pressures of the tour with its premium on finding a partner who has enough points to keep you from having to deal with the extra day and risk of the qualifier make the partnerships between players very volatile. Binder and Fair did not start the season together and there were dropped balls, missed signals, and moments when they didn’t read  the other’s position, signs that this was just their fifth tournament of playing as a pair.

Although the economic structure of the AVP is similar to golf or tennis, the team sport aspect makes a difference in the way players interact.  In tennis for instance, it’s very rare for a top ten player to socialize or hit with a qualifier.  As a lone wolf sport, those at one end of the food chain try to mark their differences from those on the margins.  While some of these separations exist, Kerri Walsh was wandering the qualifier in the afternoon doing interviews but also just socializing and cheering on various friends.  The players too tend to be quite friendly with one another before and after matches and across the men’s and the women’s parts of the tour.  

At this point, I can’t honestly say if there will be an AVP on tv five years from now.  I’m  very nervous about the fact that even volleyball people don’t know the names of most of the better players on the men’s tour beyond Karch Kiraly, who is almost as old as Julio Franco, and Mike Lambert.  On the women’s side, Walsh and May are genuinely famous and McPeak, Wacholder, and Youngs have a reasonable level of name recognition, but there needs to be at least fifteen or twenty more names in the mix before the tour will have hit a “sports talk” kind of critical mass.  Try the test yourself. Ordinary folk who follow golf even a little can recognize the names of at least a dozen players beyond Tiger on the PGA tour.  On the LPGA Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie are actual celebrities.  In women’s tennis, at least half a dozen players have some level of recognition, though I fear that Anna Kournikova is still much better known than the bottom half of the current top ten.  Of course, AVP has Amber Willey (UNC) who paired with actress Molly Sims (Vegas and SI Swimwear Issue)  for one tournament ( one of the scores was 21-8).  One big step would be to show something other than the final on television.  I would point out that very few sports fans can name male tennis players other than Federer and Nadal, but it’s felt by many that the men’s tour is in some trouble because of it.  In the meantime, AVP has a somewhat similar profile to Arena Football, but may be on more questionable structural ground.  At the same time, I do believe that Armato has done an admirable job of both promoting the tour and identifying a marketing niche for it as a cross between a lifestyle and a sport.  

I also have no idea if Binder and Fair will get through the adjustment process to the beach.  I would guess they are a physical match for any team at the top, but it appears to be a long haul.  In some ways the beach version is familiar, in that the skills are very similar, but the game and tactics can be surprisingly different.  It’s very hard to be accomplished in one form of a sport and then start at the bottom in an incarnation that seems so similar.  One thing that is clear is that most of the players seem to be having fun even if they aren’t yet winning as often as they think they ought to be.  Imagine developing a talent and having nothing to do with it after age 21.  I suspect, many are just happy to be able to keep playing and dreaming.

I do know that it’s genuinely fun to watch beach volleyball and that the product itself is strong even with that part of the iceberg most of the public never sees.  I hope the AVP prospers and grows before Al Gore turns out to be right.

Link to my other volleyball articles



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