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Before Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings became household names because of their back-to-back-to-back Olympic gold medals, they competed on the beaches from New York to California on the Association of Volleyball Professionals circuit. For more than 25 years, the AVP was synonymous with beach volleyball.
Countless pro players got their start on the AVP tour, including 2012 Olympic beach volleyball silver medalist Jen Kessy.
"The AVP tour is where I started and became a professional," Kessy said. "I started at the very bottom and I worked my way through qualifiers. I worked my way for a full year of not making it to a Sunday, of playing five matches a day, working really hard."
Fans would tune in on a weekend afternoon and catch the best players in action competing in front of large, raucous crowds. The AVP's popularity helped propel beach volleyball into the Olympics, where it has become both a ratings and spectator favorite since its introduction in 1996.
Despite the big crowds and Olympic exposure, the AVP had been built on an unsustainable business model of exorbitant overhead costs, television time buys and too much risk. Faced with overwhelming debt, the AVP declared bankruptcy in August 2010. The remainder of the 2010 schedule was canceled, and despite a brief attempt at a comeback that resulted in one event in 2011, the AVP ceased to exist. Until now.
In an unlikely turn of events, the AVP will be back on the beach this weekend with the Cincinnati Open, running Friday through Sunday. More than 170 professional and aspiring pro players -- including Olympians Kessy and her playing partner April Ross, Todd Rogers and partner Phil Dalhausser, and Jake Gibb and partner Sean Rosenthal -- will take to the beach in Washington Park in the Queen City to compete for $175,000 in prize money, U.S. pro beach volleyball's largest purse. The AVP also announced Walsh Jennings will compete in Cincinnati with new partner, 2008 Olympian Nicole Branagh. This pairing sets up a potential 2012 gold medal rematch (without former partner May-Treanor) against Kessy and Ross.
The tour's newest incarnation is not the result of a large international sports marketing entity. Southern California businessman Donald Sun, 37, left his 13-year career in the technology industry (his father, David Sun, is the owner and founder of Kingston Technology) to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to purchase the AVP earlier this year. Sun hopes to bring the tour back to the prominence of his youth.
"I grew up playing volleyball in high school and I followed the AVP religiously when I was younger, so volleyball was always in my blood," Sun said. "When I heard this opportunity come up, I did my due diligence and realized it's a challenge, but at the same time it's the AVP. I know getting the right people in place to make it profitable is key, but it's something that, from a passion point of view, you don't get these opportunities very often."
Sun knows long-term success will require a slow and steady approach, rather than overexpansion of the brand. It's particularly important to be fiscally responsible because the AVP doesn't have sponsors or television deals lined up yet. Sun is effectively bankrolling the new venture himself. "I'm the tour sponsor right now," he said, laughing.
Rogers, a 17-year pro and the 2008 Olympic beach volleyball gold-medal winner with Dalhausser, appreciates that the new owner wants to take a long-range view.
"The first time I spoke to someone at the AVP, they were talking very much in a long-term sense," Rogers said. "When I say long term, I mean three to five years out. That's what this plan was all about, and I personally appreciated that because I don't think I'd ever heard someone in the beach volleyball industry really speaking in those terms before."
Though Sun is taking a patient approach, he felt strongly that the new AVP should launch this year and attempt to capitalize on the momentum generated by this year's Summer Olympics.
"I could have waited for everything to be in order not only in-house but outside, but waiting for one year, people might just forget about it and move on," Sun said. "I felt compelled to revive something -- to the fans, players, potential sponsors and media -- because I feel like I owe it to the sport of beach volleyball, to bring it back. This is a huge -- I would say it's not the NFL or NBA -- but in a lifestyle sport it's a big name, and to not have it for two years would be completely detrimental to everybody including myself."
There will be two events this year, this weekend's Cincinnati Open and the 2012 AVP Championships on Sept. 7-9 in Santa Barbara, Calif. Sun hopes to have between four and six tournaments next year (the AVP's 30th anniversary), which would serve as cornerstones upon which to build.
"We'd like to be calling them 'the majors' like golf or tennis and building tournaments around them," Sun said. "We definitely need to build cornerstone tournaments, marquee tournaments beyond 2013, but those at least will be the beginning."
The AVP has also announced an environmental initiative called AVP Serve and Protect America's Beaches, in conjunction with the Surfrider Foundation, which will be present at the tournaments for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.
"For players and fans, their office is on the beach," Sun said. "We want to call out that this is something important for the AVP, but it's also important to the world and we want to do our best to maintain and serve and protect its beaches, for not only our players but for everybody."
Though the response from pros to the new AVP has been overwhelmingly positive, some doubts remain based on tour history.
"At first I was very excited, of course, because it was another tour for us to play on -- we haven't had a lot for the last few years and the AVP brand is a big name," Kessy said. "But then you start to get a little skeptical because I have played for so long and have played through a few owners and I've watched it go under a few times, and you're just skeptical and you cross your fingers and hope it's different this time."
Despite her hesitation, Kessy appreciates that having the AVP back provides another legitimate opportunity for female athletes to compete on the pro level.
"It's something great for women," Kessy said. "The fact that it's always equal prize money and equal air time is really important, and that's why women and men at this point are always going to be fighting for it to be equal, because it is so important for men and women in our sport to stick together. I'm excited to see a lot of young players getting out there and trying to become professional and making it their careers."
For Cincinnati Open schedule and ticket information, visit http://www.avpcincyopen.com/index.html