Sun, sand and sports: Pro beach volleyball returns to Massachusetts

Mike Loftus

The first balls will be served at 8 a.m. Thursday. Sometime between 1 and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, the AVP Bob's Store Boston Open at Marina Bay - and a 10-year wait for pro beach volleyball to return to the region - will be over.

Wedged into a summer sports schedule dominated by the Red Sox, the New England Patriots' standing-room-only training camp sessions and sundry pro golf events, the men and women of the Association of Volleyball Professional bring the Crocs Cup tour to town, and tournament organizers and officials anticipate success.

And who would argue with the man who once represented Shaquille O'Neal or the marketing strength of the Sox and Major League Baseball?

Leonard Armato (he's the ex-agent), CEO and commissioner of the AVP, and Fenway Sports Group are in the business of identifying growth potential for sports that traditionalists might consider outside the mainstream. And if it involves a partnership that might not seem conventional, so be it - just as long as those who come out to watch have a good time, and find themselves anxious for the next time they can catch some world-class athletic competition, some rays and perhaps the occasional eyeful of eye candy.

Starting with Friday's main draw competition (Thursday is devoted to qualifying matches), fans will see 24 two-person teams battle for prize money and Crocs Cup points on a tour that almost ceased to exist as recently as 2002. Only seven tournaments were held that year - a drastic reduction from the 23- to 27-event schedules of the late 1980s through most of the '90s.

But 2002 proved to be a watershed year. Armato, who had helped found the tour in 1983 (he's married to AVP player Holly McPeak, a three-time Olympain), took control of the financially ailing circuit and began to rebuild. He unified the men's and women's tours under the AVP umbrella, developed the image of beach volleyball as "lifestyle sports entertainment," and slowly began to win back sponsors and TV executives. NBC (which will telecast from Marina Bay) or FSN carry the final matches of all 18 events this season - up two from last year.

"We're on the radar screen now," Armato said, "and we're growing fast."

This week's stop is evidence of that growth. The men's pro tour hasn't stopped in this state since the last of seven events on the Cape between 1988 and '97, and the women haven't played here professionally since '93.

Fans who took in those events, or who haven't caught the AVP on TV this season, probably won't notice subtle changes to the game itself. The court has been shrunk by about 20 percent, and a point is scored on every serve as opposed to traditional "side out" scoring that only allows a serving team to score. Long rallies are frequent, but the pace of matches is fast, and the competition is intense.

The AVP wants to entertain via more than on-court competition, though. Music is a staple. PA announcements are designed to whip crowds up before a point has even been played. Sponsored booths encourage fans to compete against former Tour players like past Olympian Sinjin Smith, or play video versions of the game. And players love it when the fans are animated during matches.

"We're always energized by fans who are active," said Karch Kiraly, a three-time Olympic gold medalist (twice indoors, once on the beach) who, at 46, is retiring at the end of the season. "A lot of guys play better when the crowd's alive. The more energy in the stands, the better the match."

Kiraly is perhaps the only "household name" in the sport at the moment, but Armato doesn't fear the AVP's growth will stall without him. In fact, with the 2008 Olympics around the corner, and AVP players already competing for the two men's and women's berths the United States is allotted, the commissioner thinks the AVP is poised to grow even more.

"The Olympics has the potential to be a huge catalyst for us," Armato said. "People all over the world watch the Olympics, and when it's seen in prime time in the United States, we have a tremendous opportunity. This is an exciting time in our sport."

The tour stops in Quincy after one of its oldest, most prestigious events - the AVP Manhattan Beach Open. Only three more regular-season events - Marina Bay, Brooklyn and Cincinnati - follow Manhattan Beach, so competition for post-season berths in tournaments at Las Vegas and San Francisco is keen. The team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh are dominant on the women's side, but there's a fairly tight battle for first place among three teams - Todd Rogers-Phil Dalhausser, Stein Metzger-Mike Lambert, and Jake Gibb-Sean Rosenthal.

Nearly everyone with a hand in bringing the sport back to the area is curious and optimistic.

"I'm excited to be coming to a new venue," Rogers said. "I think all of us are. If people have seen us before, either in Boston when the tour came through at other points, or on TV, hopefully they'll come back out, and bring some people back with them."

Said Kiraly, "It's a great sign for the tour to be back in the Boston area. I always enjoyed myself when we played there before (he has five career victories in different local venues). I remember the fans being knowledgeable, and it's nice to see there's still interest."

Fenway Sports Group, which isn't the only baseball-related entity involved with the AVP - Major League Baseball Advanced Media operates the AVP Web site - doesn't feel like it's competing against itself in bringing the tour to town while the Red Sox are playing a weekend series against the Los Angeles Angels.

"It's meant to be a different sort of event than a single game," said Jay Monahan, an executive vice president. "The AVP appeals to people who enjoy the lifestyle, who fit a different demographic group. Our group looks for opportunities like this, so we're psyched we're able to bring it to Quincy."

Armato thinks that, with a taste of what an AVP event has to offer - sun, sand, sports - the area will be psyched to the tour back.

"As with any event, we expect to learn a lot in our first year," Armato said. "We don't want to put too high an expectation on a first-year event, but we are optimistic.

"We want to be a breath of fresh air. We want to be the kind of sport where people know they're going to have a good time when they come, and see that our athletes are people their kids can look up to. We all want to put on an exciting, entertaining show that leaves people wanting to come back."

Mike Loftus of The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Mass.) may be reached at mloftus@ledger.com.