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Reflections on the Hermosa Beach Open

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Fall had officially begun just one day earlier, but it shouldn’t have mattered. Southern California residents are accustomed to the summer season extending well into October and November. Unfortunately for USAV’s Hermosa Beach Open, fall came early this year. The normal bright, sunny and warm waning days of summer were replaced by overcast skies and gloomy, gray clouds that sometimes yielded mist and even a few drops of rain. Not exactly the scenario folks normally associate with beach volleyball.

Needless to say, the event was not well attended, at least on Saturday. The majority of the blame for the empty grandstands can be put on the weather. It certainly wasn’t because the tournament wasn’t well-run or because the volleyball wasn’t high quality.

But that said, there are some other questions that need to be asked. If passersby who had no idea your event was happening make such an enormous difference in attendance levels, is your sport on solid ground?

The easy answer for beach volleyball is of course, no. I’ve talked extensively on this site about the state of the game right now, which can best be described as “flux.” But let’s examine what that really means and how that impacts what we may see next year.

There is nothing wrong with the attraction of passersby. Sponsors want exposure and passersby are potential buyers of many of the products on display as much as true fans of the sport. At the Hermosa Beach event on Saturday, both groups were present and accounted for. That niche group of informed and long-time beach volleyball fans were there. They’d probably be there regardless of the weather.

Late on Saturday, I watched Sean and John play Mayer and Prosser. It was a well-played three-set contest that took place on one of the outer courts. Folks gathered around and the crowd continued to grow as the play got more intense.

To my right was an older gentleman who knew the players by name, was cheering encouragement to them and knew a ton about the game. I had a debate over a disputed setting call with him and it was clear he’d been around the game his entire life.

To my left was a couple from San Diego who were visiting Hermosa for the weekend. They had no idea this tournament was going on, but they were thrilled about it. They didn’t know the player’s names and had only a basic knowledge of the sport and its rules. Both remarked on how much better it is live than on TV. And they couldn’t wait to share with me that before I sat down, the space I was in had been occupied by none other than Sean Scott’s father.

They had learned from him that Sean and John were undefeated against Mayer and Prosser and that they had enjoyed a lot of success this summer. They learned that Sean just had a new baby and that the reason they win so much is that they don’t make many mistakes. When the game entered the third set, the couple and I both realized that if we stayed, we’d never make it back to our cars before our parking meters expired. Both of us decided to stay anyway. The game was that good and the atmosphere around the game was worth a potential parking ticket to us.

Isn’t that what the players and proponents of the sport are always saying is the case – that people who see beach volleyball love it. That once you get the people down to the beach, they truly enjoy themselves? So the question remains, how do we, those who love the sport, make others love it enough to go out and see it on any given weekend. On purpose.

If you listened to Hans Stolfus’s interview on The Net Live recently, you heard Hans say that most people didn’t know the AVP had folded. That was the case for the couple on my right. I think they just assumed that the tournament they were watching was an AVP event. They were surprised when I told them that it was USA Volleyball.

When Hans made the comment, he seemed to be implying that the AVP could come back because people didn’t realize it had folded. He asserted that the name recognition still meant something to fans. The show’s host, Kevin Barnett, turned that argument on its head. Maybe the fact that people don’t know the Tour folded means that they don’t care enough to know. And maybe that speaks to the larger problem, not enough interest in the sport to maintain one tour, let alone four.

The couple next to me had a great time and really enjoyed their day at Hermosa. And if they luck up on another tourney they are far more likely to stay a while. But next year, will they take the time to check a few websites, find the dates when the tours are coming to their neighborhood and make a concerted effort to be there again? Probably not.

Therein lies the problem that promoters will have to face next year and beyond. How do we make this sport successful in terms of building a dedicated fan base? How do we get more people to follow the action consistently, seek out events and purpose to frequent them?

With all the different choices for sports and entertainment being offered to potential fans and consumers in the U.S. and around the world, that is one very tall order. Beach volleyball has managed it before. Can they do it again?

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