By Andy J. Gordon
For the first time in 2011, it felt like the glory days of professional beach volleyball. The Manhattan Beach Open, the sport’s most prominent event in the United States, and maybe the world, took place before enthusiastic crowds on a beautiful, late August weekend. The United States Volleyball Association, with expert production from IMG Action Sports, and flagship sponsorship from Jose Cuervo, put on a successful, fun, and exciting tournament.
Pro beach volleyball has been in a state of disarray in the United States since the demise of the AVP near the end of the 2010 season. After several years of turmoil and financial hardship, the AVP called it quits before last year’s Manhattan Beach Open. The structured tour disbanded, and the players were left in the dust. A couple of start-up tours, the NVL, and Corona Light Wide Open, have tried to step in to fill the gap left by the AVP, but with limited resources or different objectives. The American pros have been forced to make a hard choice – take a big financial gamble by committing to playing overseas; play the significantly less lucrative domestic events; or give up the dream and get more mundane day jobs. Several players retired, and those that chose to keep competing in the USA have done so at a number of smaller events throughout the country. While all this was taking place, the USAV was working behind the scenes to bring the pro beach game back to a level of success that was enjoyed in past decades. Once a deal was struck with IMG to run the events, and sponsors like Jose Cuervo (www.cuervo.com/,) Paul Mitchell (www.paulmitchell.com/,) Spalding (www.spalding.com/volleyball.html,) and Bud Light (www.budlight.com/) were signed, there was a short time window to put together the Manhattan Beach Open, the marquee event on beach volleyball’s calendar.
In spite of the time constraint, IMG pulled off a major coup. The Manhattan Open was an enjoyable event that worked on nearly all levels. The fans had the freedom to roam the outer courts and sit just about anywhere in the stadium thanks to the free admission policy. The players got their first taste of how an expert production company runs an event. With vast experience in action sports, IMG made sure the players were taken care of with first rate court equipment, food, and medical care. Fans enjoyed great volleyball action and a variety of fun Jose Cuervo inspired beach activities.
The action on court was heated as the best available American talent participated. Only the players committed to the FIVB international tour and those recently retired were missing. On the men’s side, that meant no Dalhausser/Rogers, Rosenthal/Gibb, or Fuerbringer/Lucena. On the women’s side, the big hole left by the absence of May-Treanor/Walsh, Kessy/Ross, Fendrick/Hanson, and Akers/Branagh left the field wide open for a new team to get their names enshrined on the Manhattan Beach pier. The year’s dominant men’s team, and #1 seed, Sean Scott and John Hyden swept through the field on their way to the semifinals. Their close win over #4 seeds Ty Loomis and Mark Williams in three sets (18-21, 21-13 and 18-16,) thrilled the crowd and almost knocked them to the contender’s bracket. The other men’s team entering the semifinal undefeated was the new duo of #7 seeds Brad Keenan and Billy Allen. They won a hard fought three setter against #3 seeds Matt Prosser and John Mayer to get into the semis. Prosser and Mayer made it through the contender’s bracket on their way to a semifinals showdown with Scott and Hyden. The effort they expended getting to the semis and the efficiency of Scott/Hyden were too much to overcome as Prosser/Mayer lost 21-14, 21-18. Scott/Hyden faced Keenan/Allen in the finals after the new team defeated #9 seeds Ryan Mariano and Ed Ratledge 21-17, 21-17. The final had some amazing action and athletic play. Scott/Hyden were too steady for Keenan/Allen, as they won their first Manhattan Beach Open 21-18, 21-13. It also continued their unbeaten streak for the year.
On the women’s side, #1 seeds Jenny Kropp and Whitney Pavlik had relatively easy straight set wins on their way to the semifinals. Their opponents in the semis, #2 seeds, Kristen Batt and Brook Sweat also swept through the draw. Their semifinal battle was close with Kropp/Pavlik winning 21-17, 21-18. The other semifinal had #5 seed Jennifer Fopma/Tracy Jones facing off against #3 seeds Emily Day/Heather Hughes. Fopma/Jones pulled out a close three setter 18-21, 21-18, 15-10. The final match ended with a straight set victory for Kropp/Pavlik 21-13, 22-20. The second set was a back and forth struggle that ended with a Kropp stuff block to earn the championship. The victorious ladies joined Scott/Hyden as first time Manhattan Beach Open winners and will be getting plaques on the pier to honor their achievement in addition to the $20,000 prize money.
What’s the future like for pro beach volleyball in the USA? Well if you ask Dave Williams, the Managing Director of Beach Programs for USAV, he’ll tell you things are looking up. Williams loves the way IMG runs events and is looking forward to the addition of a few more tournaments being added to the 2012 schedule. He is also confident that the improved relationship with FIVB will lead to international competition on USA soil in the future. We can look forward to seeing the best players from all over the world on the American sand, most likely in South Florida and the Los Angeles area. Other American locations should see Jose Cuervo pro volleyball events, and with the summer Olympics in 2012, we are likely to see more TV coverage as well. With IMG running the events, multinational sponsors coming aboard, live TV coverage, and the best players participating, fans should be thrilled that pro beach volleyball is making a strong comeback.
The next chance to catch the action is in Hermosa Beach, Calif. on Sept. 23-25 for the $150,000 Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series National Championship. For more information go to http://www.josecuervoprobeachvolleyballseries.com/ or www.usavolleyball.org/.
Photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon