According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), more high school girls played volleyball (444,779) than basketball (430,368) in 2016-2017. Further, in the past decade, NFHS’s data shows an increase of more than 400,000 volleyball players and a decrease of 23,000 basketball players.
As more girls set aside collegiate basketball recruiting letters in favor of volleyball scholarships, the sports property poised to reap the benefits of an influx of women in volleyball is the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals).
Established in 1983, the AVP’s rich 34-plus year history is recognized as the home of the most respected professional beach volleyball players. Although, after suspending operations in 2010, it appeared that the AVP Pro Tour would never be the same again or serve as the premier beach volleyball association.
Enter Donald Sun, AVP Managing Partner and former computer technology executive, who purchased the brand in 2012. Having played volleyball while growing up in southern California, Sun idolized the AVP’s players and followed the tour up and down the coast.
Professionally, acquiring the AVP trademark and doing something with it was a dream come true for him. Admittedly, Sun describes the last several years as a learning process; noting that he understood operations and logistics on the technology supply chain management side far better than sports and entertainment.
“It has been a challenge, but we’ve gone past all of those hurdles. The first few years have been about reinvigorating the brand. And for me, learning what it means owning a sports and entertainment property, what makes fans and players tick, and what they want from us,” said Sun earlier this month during the 58th Annual AVP Gold Series Manhattan Beach Open, which doubled that of all previous 2017 events and marked the highest participatory numbers in the history of the AVP Pro Tour.
Along with learning the business of professional volleyball, Sun commented that early on a considerable challenge was overcoming the damage to the brand that occurred over the last 10-15 years and reversing the lack of trust.
For April Ross, the two-time Olympic medalist and who joined the AVP Pro Tour in 2006, the biggest change that she has seen over the years has been the difference in leadership and ownership.
Previous AVP owners “went beyond their means and stretched the pie too far,” said Ross during a phone interview before the Manhattan Beach Open. Behavior that she believes came back to haunt the tour and ultimately “ruined [the AVP] for the players.”
“That’s when Donald came in and took over for where we are now. For me, that has been the most positive thing, and that is what I want people to see – his vision and how sustainable he is trying to build the AVP,” Ross added. “The roots are growing, and that is going to stabilize our sport for a long time.”
Both Ross and her partner, Lauren Fendrick, are optimistic about the future of professional beach volleyball and recognize the opportunity for growth.
“One of the pros has been the NCAA adding beach volleyball. First, as an emerging sport and last year as a sanctioned sport,” said Fendrick who joined the AVP Pro Tour in 2003 and serves as a volunteer coach at Stanford University. “That has been huge for the women’s side of the game to develop young players to provide a platform for them to play in college with coaching and all of the support that comes with a college athletics program.”
Sun and his team have moved away from the previous business model, which was focused on the top-tier players; now, they are concentrating on the “whole ecosystem” with developmental programs like the AVP Academy, AVPNext, and AVPFirst. This year the AVP Junior Nationals Championship hosted over 215 teams, next year Sun anticipates hosting 150 AVPNext events.
“The more participation you have, the more revenue and also the more interest in the AVP brand,” Sun said. “We are creating that pipeline just like in soccer. The base of the participation are girls and women. You have to go where the crowd is going. Also, it is a testament to our brand that we can have equal opportunities for both sides.”
And those opportunities extend to equal prize money for men and women.
“You see the NBA and how big a lot of other sports are, and of course we want to be up there with them. It is a growth process, and the AVP is doing a great job trying to find a way to get there,” said Fendrick. “One of the cool things about our sport is that males and females are equivalent. We both get paid the same amount, which is not the same for all sports. I am proud of that fact for the people of volleyball.”