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Playing Ball

When Newport Beach resident Donald Sun bought the Association of Volleyball Professionals brand last April, it was a financially fraught league that many thought was down for the count. But the brand is being resurrected with a vengeance.

Kerri Walsh battles it out at the net during the women's championship match at the 2012 AVP Championships. Walsh, part of the 2012 Olympics gold medal-winning team for beach volleyball, and her partner, Nicole Brangh, lost this match to 2012 silver medalists April Ross and Jennifer Kessy.

Dig It
The AVP celebrates 30 years in 2013.
General plans include a season-long
celebration revisiting the AVP Tour’s
past, present and future, and
tentative plans involve four new
AVP Tour events collectively known
as the AVP Majors: The Classic,
which will honor professional beach
volleyball legends; The Open,
which is open to any and all players
wishing to compete; The Players
Tournament, which allows the
players to vote on the rules and
format; and The Championships,
the culmination of the Tour that
highlights the best players based
on performance ranking. Locations
are TBA.
:: avp.com

Except for the large grandstand erected squarely in the middle of Santa Barbara’s West Beach, it could have been any post-Labor Day weekend. It was warm, with the clear blue of the ocean in the background and a matching cloudless sky, and the atmosphere was calm after the frenzy of a tourist-filled summer. We didn’t know it at the time, not being aficionados of events of this kind, but there were celebrities in our midst – real celebrities, the kind who make their living by being exceptionally good at something. In this case, it’s a sport – beach volleyball – and the players, the likes of Olympic gold medal winners and international sports superstars. They’re heroes to many, including Donald Sun, who this past April bought the brand responsible for the hoopla going down at West Beach: the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP).

On the day before the festivities will begin for the AVP Championships in Santa Barbara, the 37-year-old Sun appears to be relaxed, maybe even a bit excited and anxious to get his first championship event under his belt. But make a small scratch across the surface and Sun’s all-too-human feelings come pouring out. “It’s a risk alright,” he says. “If you look back at the history of the [AVP], any sane businessman would see that it’s gone bankrupt twice and say, ‘I’m not going to do this.’ I’m not saying I have the magic formula either. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know that if you just put your head down and just keep grinding it out, show good faith to everybody and have a little bit of luck sprinkled along the way, how can it go that bad?”

It’s a good question – and one that Sun has asked himself more than a few times since December 2011, when he first learned the news that the AVP was up for sale. At the time, Sun was in a state of career purgatory, deciding where to go next after leaving his job of 13 years as head of purchasing for flash memory at a technology company. But that state of indecision didn’t last long. “It almost didn’t take me that long to decide whether or not I should [buy the AVP] because of the timing,” he says. “Of course, I did my due diligence, but the AVP is a brand that I always loved growing up, and I thought, ‘How cool would it be to shape the future of the next generation of people who want to follow the AVP and the athletes?’”

Certainly, it’s going to take a lot of shaping. The AVP hasn’t seen its glory years since the early to mid 1990s, when corporate sponsorships, legendary athletes and unprecedented attendance were at their peak, and prize money for the AVP Tour approached the $4 million mark. Then, due to a number of factors including lawsuits, financial woes and mismanagement under then-AVP CEO Jerry Solomon, sponsors began to flee and prize money dried up, culminating in the first of the AVP’s bankruptcies in 1998. New ownership temporarily revived the players association, reaching 11 events in the 2000 season. Off-season events such as Hot Winter Nights (indoor beach volleyball in January and February) were added in 2007 to keep the momentum going during the cooler beach months, but despite these efforts, the AVP again found itself in a financial quagmire, canceling its 2010 season just before the Manhattan Beach Open in August. This time, however, in addition to questionable business leadership, the AVP’s downfall was also linked to a sluggish economy and skittish investors who were hesitant to financially back the Tour. The AVP was dead – again – and the future of beach volleyball hung in the balance.

And then Sun stepped in. The AVP’s assets were for sale, and to Sun, the possibilities were endless. “At its height, everyone ate up the lifestyle, the glamour, the hard bodies. Just living the California lifestyle and bringing it to other places – that was something huge, the big draw, and that was what sponsors and athletes wanted to attach themselves to,” he says.

This is a topic Sun knows something about, having grown up in Orange County playing volleyball himself, starting in the 7th grade, after a self-described rocky athletic start in elementary school. “All of a sudden [playing volleyball] hit a fever pitch for me,” he says. Sun and his friends began playing every day after school, and then he began playing on the beach “because it was cool, girls liked to watch and you got to be outdoors.” Soon, volleyball became a year-round sport for him and his friends, and part of playing the sport involved watching it, including following the AVP. “I’d watch it religiously,” says Sun, “and then it just snowballed.”

That love for the sport is not only essential for breathing new life into the AVP, but it’s also a passion that fans and players can sense and relate to. Throughout the weekend of the recent AVP Championships in Santa Barbara, a flood of athletes and spectators passed along their gratitude for Sun’s leadership, thanking him for bringing back the AVP and making it clear that they were happy with his athletes-first style. “It made me feel like I did the right thing,” he says. “It’s a lot of pressure, but of course the joy outweighs the fear.” And with AVP participants like Kerri Walsh, who won the 2012 London Olympic gold medal along with her partner, Misty May-Treanor (now retired; Walsh’s partner at the AVP Championships was Nicole Branagh), 2012 silver medalists April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, 2008 Beijing Olympic gold medalists Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers, and up-and-comers such as Jenny Kropp and Whitney Pavlik, all competing for the largest volleyball grand prize in the world at $47,000 per team (total prize money for the two 2012 AVP events was $400,000), and all of whom draw crowds with their names, talent and athleticism, it becomes clear that the draw for professional beach volleyball may have been dormant, but it is still very much alive.

That being said, Sun is taking a measured approach to his first year as owner of the AVP, holding a total of two events – the AVP 2012 Cincinnati Open, which took place over Labor Day weekend, and the 2012 AVP Championships in Santa Barbara. Compared to the AVP’s high of 29 tournaments in one year, it doesn’t seem like a lot, but given that Sun has been the owner of the brand for a mere five months at press time, it’s a testament to his drive and enthusiasm that anything is happening at all. “We’re trying to get our house in order and get our brand out, and in the long haul, it’s better to produce something this year to instill some faith that we’re real,” says Sun. “And just imagine, if we can make the events amazing now, how great will they be once we get the support of sponsors?”

The thing is, it was amazing. Even if you took away the beautiful setting, the flawless weather, the crowds, the beer garden, the merchandise, and the music-spinning DJ, there were still spikes hitting at crushing speeds, serves pounded into invisible openings in the opposition’s territory and athletes jumping to what seemed like NBA heights – with their bare feet. The crowds packed into the grandstand loved it, the athletes couldn’t have been happier to have their favorite tour back and fans waxed rhapsodic about the return of the AVP’s good old days. But if there’s one thing that can make the AVP succeed, it’s not any of this – it’s Sun’s refusal to get served.

The Abridged History of the AVP
The origins of beach volleyball are murky, but a survey of the most credible sources reveals that the sport started in Santa Monica, California, in the 1920s. “This may just be legend,” says Donald Sun, “but in the early days, the reason there was beach volleyball was that people finished surfing and they had nothing else to do so they put up nets and played to pass the time away. People started watching and it became bigger and bigger until now, where it’s its own culture.” Beach volleyball eventually got organized, forming the AVP in 1983. And what a history it’s been. A compilation of the professional players association’s milestones show a roller coaster ride fluctuating between wild success and extreme hardship, with one constant silver lining: love of the sport.

1983 The AVP is formed.
1984 The AVP begins running its own tour.
1986 Professional beach volleyball makes its network debut on ABC’s "Wide World of Sports."
1988 The AVP is hired by Miller Brewing Company to produce 23 Lite Beer events, out of a total of 27 AVP events that year. The three-year contract with Miller results in $4.5 million in prize money.
1993 NBC broadcasts 10 AVP events in one year – more than ever before – and more than 600,000 people attend AVP tournaments.
1995 A record high 29 events is held by the Miller Lite/AVP Tour.
1997 The AVP runs into significant financial problems. The CEO, Jerry Solomon, is fired, and former Olympic organizer Harry Usher is hired to run the 1998 Tour.
1998 The AVP files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
1999 Major League Volleyball, run in a partnership between Spencer Trask Securities; Dan Vrebalovich, a former pro volleyball player; and Billy Berger, who ran a marketing company representing several pro players, buy the AVP and fund the 1999 Tour.
2001 The men’s and women’s professional players are brought together under the same Tour and the AVP begins allowing its players to compete in other official tournaments on their way to the Olympics.
2001-2009 The Tour goes on, during which the indomitable women’s team of Kerri Walsh and Misty-May Treanor go undefeated in the 2003 season with a 39-0 record, and in 2008 become the first team in beach volleyball history to top $3 million in career team prizes. The men’s duo of Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers match the women’s undefeated streak of 39-0 during the regular 2010 season.
2010 After a relative calm of nearly a decade, the economy’s woes, in addition to high overhead costs, television time buys and too much risk, take their toll on the AVP and the rest of the 2010 season is canceled due to insufficient funding.
2012 Donald Sun buys the league from Nick Lewin, a managing member of DFA PVA II Partners, LLC, in April, and the first event, the AVP Cincinnati Open, is held in September, followed by the AVP Championships in Santa Barbara.

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