Ryan McDonald

Crowded Court: Conflict with 2020 Olympics reveals ongoing challenges for Hermosa Open AVP Tournament

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Alix Klineman celebrates at the 2018 Hermosa Open. The event will overlap with the Summer Olympics next year, raising questions about its viability. Photos by Ray Vidal

by Ryan McDonald

Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser couldn’t make the AVP Hermosa Beach Open volleyball tournament this past summer. He was playing in Tokyo at the time. His absence caused only minor disappointment for fans, but there are likely to be far more athletes in Tokyo when this year’s tournament opens.

Last week, Hermosa’s City Council approved a slate of special events for the coming year that included the AVP Hermosa Open, which will run from July 24-26, with extensive set-up and tear-down time before and after those days for the stadium seating and athlete’s village the professional volleyball organization constructs for each tournament. A quick look at any sports page, however, reveals a rather significant conflict with those dates: the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo hold their opening ceremony on July 24. Beach volleyball competition begins the next day.

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It’s why event organizers asked the city for an earlier time slot this year. AVP COO Al Lau said some of the sport’s top athletes and many of the event’s “key personnel” will be in Tokyo before the first serve lofts into the air. 

The battle over space on the summer sand is an annual Hermosa Beach ritual. Professional volleyball and a half dozen youth volleyball organizations compete for a finite number of days and beach courts, especially in July. Since the AVP emerged from bankruptcy and the Hermosa Open returned in 2017, youth organizations have generally drawn the short straw, and have been forced to relocate their tournaments, some of them longstanding, to other parts of Southern California.

This year, however, it was the AVP that did not get what they want. Their request for earlier dates would have dislodged two more youth tournaments from Hermosa. If the AVP happens in Hermosa this year, it will happen at the same time as the Olympics. It is unclear what this would mean for television coverage of the tournament, which the AVP in the past has presented as both a benefit to the city, and a reason that it cannot be easily rescheduled. NBC, the network that the AVP has partnered with since 2015, is also set to broadcast the Olympic games.

On the one hand, the decision by Hermosa’s City Council felt cabined to the circumstances of the overlap with the Olympics, which Lau alternately referred to as a “one-time thing” and a “once every four years” occurrance. Council members, in explaining their unanimous decision to deny AVP its first choice of dates, portrayed it as the best option amid a series of constraints, and one in which an ideal compromise could be forged with enough advance planning.  

“To date, the junior tournaments have sacrificed quite a bit. To double down on that is a tough one,” said Councilmember Justin Massey.

But the decision also exposed underlying tensions among AVP and the youth organizations with whom it competes for space, as well as deeper currents of skepticism about how Hermosa’s highly desired public space is to be used, that darken the event’s future prospects. The inability to get its first-choice dates year in and year out, AVP has maintained, makes it harder to ensure the event’s long-term survival. Lau told the council that there was “a certain degree of incredulity among all the potential partners that we have when we try to explain that we’re actually running an event the same weekend as the biggest showcase for the sport,” Lau said. 

Asked earlier this month at a Parks, Recreation and Community Resources Advisory Board meeting whether the 2020 event would happen at all were the AVP not to receive its first date, Lau was noncommittal. 

“We’ve enjoyed the opportunity to be here, and we’re grateful for the chance to do it. Depending on the outcome, we’re going to do our best to be able to continue to be here,” he said.

Lau did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment for this story. In an emailed statement in response to questions, an AVP spokesperson said, “Although we didn’t get our initial selected dates, we will continue to move forward. The AVP will continue to uphold the gold standard we upheld and cultivated over the past 36 years on beaches across America.”

Tough competition

The AVP’s return to Hermosa was born in controversy and has been reared in confusion.

Approval of the 2017 tournament, the first in the city since the AVP declared bankruptcy in 2010, went directly to the City Council, rather than passing through the Parks and Rec Commission as traditionally occurs. The council granted AVP a slot on the beach in the heart of the summer season, which forced the Amature Athletic Union, one of the organizations hosting youth tournaments in Hermosa, to relocate its long-running Junior Olympics Tournament to Long Beach. The move was met with criticism and accusations of backroom dealing, with concerns that Hermosa had pushed out a longtime event in order to take advantage of the exposure that the AVP’s network television deal could provide.

“How did AVP grab 12 days right in the heart of all that?” Denny Lennon, national beach volleyball director for the AAU, said at the time.

The “all of that” is the alphabet soup of tournaments seeking space on the sand in Hermosa every summer. Along with AVP and AAU, there is USA Volleyball (USAV), Beach Volleyball Clubs of America (BVCA, which partners with the Junior Volleyball Association, known as JVA), and the California Beach Volleyball Association (CBVA). Almost all of these currently hold Hermosa tournaments in July, or did at one point. What was already a month with little room to spare became, with AVP’s reemergence, a house with too few rooms.

The city responded to complaints about AVP’s return by revamping its event approval process in the fall of 2017. (Events for a year are typically considered in the fall before the year begins.) Events seeking the use of city property are sorted into three levels, with “Level I” for those with the fewest impacts, and “Level III” for those with the most. And the high-impact events would have to pass through the Parks and Rec commission before heading to council.

These changes could not undo a sense that the AVP was forcing out youth tournaments. When considering 2018 events, the city decided to approve Level III events first, with the rationale that these require the most attention from staff and are more visible to residents and visitors. But the system had the unintended if perhaps foreseeable consequence of encouraging higher-impact events: If a Level II event was seeking dates that overlapped with those of a Level III event, those dates were no longer available by the time the smaller event came up for consideration. This is what happened with USAV, which had sought similar dates as AVP for one of its tournaments, but as a smaller event had a later application date, and was out of luck by the time it came to be considered.

For the 2019 slate of events, the city finally thought it had it right: it would collect lower-level applications earlier, so that it could take into account potential conflicts. The process put events on a more even playing field, but also underlined that weariness with the AVP that was starting to show. Parks and Rec Commissioners, given the power to consider events, had rejected the AVP the previous year. Their decision was later overturned by the City Council, who cited the exposure the event brought to Hermosa. Given another opportunity, some commissioners exorciated the AVP for what they felt was its inflexible position on its tournament dates.

But it’s not just the AVP that has unwilling to move: youth beach volleyball organizations are also wedded to July. Tournament organizers say that the Hermosa events, which are among the most prestigious on the beach volleyball calendar, cannot be moved, because the players are kids in school nine or ten months of the year, and that July is the only month that can guarantee attendance for players from all over the county.

These organizations are often headed by people who used to be AVP players themselves, and they use their own experience to suggest that the AVP can be more flexible with its dates. They recalled the AVP’s heyday when more than two dozen tournaments were scattered across half the year. Today, the AVP holds eight events between May and September. The Hermosa open, they point out, has previously taken place in both August and June.

Lau dismissed these “halcyon” memories, saying that the more profligate era of the AVP ultimately collapsed because of its tendency toward “hop-skotching around the calendar.” This meant that individual tournaments struggled to develop stable identities that could attract travelling fans and marketers. The pared down schedule and fixed tournament dates are key to keeping the organization financially afloat, Lau said. And though the AVP uses Hermosa’s historical connection with volleyball as a selling point, Hermosa is the most recent of the eight tournaments to join the calendar since the organization emerged from bankruptcy. As a result, it is not easy to get other cities to move things around on its behalf.

While the professional game has contracted since the ‘90s, beach volleyball is booming among younger competitors. What was once seen as a way to stay in shape for the indoor game has become a dominant sport in its own right, with athletes opting to spend more time on a surface more forgiving than parquet.

Much of the growth is taking place outside the sport’s ancestral home in Southern California. Of the current top 50 girls in the AAU’s rankings, for example, more are from Texas than any other state. California is second, but Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas and Virginia are also represented. In JVA/BVCA’s 2019 championships in Hermosa Beach, first prize for the women’s 18-and-under division went to a club team from the San Diego area, but the second place winners were from Louisiana. The top five were rounded out with players from Washington, Missouri, and Arizona.

“Ten years ago, there were 5 to 10 beach clubs across the nation. Now there’s 300 to 350 beach clubs that focus on coaching junior kids,” said BVCA founder Jeff Smith. Ninety-five percent of JVA/BVCA’s membership is from outside the South Bay.

AVP has also gotten in on the youth game. In making its case to Hermosa, the organization touted that the professional tournament was sharing space with AVP First, its youth division that it describes as the “national pipeline” for the AVP tour. Lau highlighted for the council that, by running the youth and pro events together, the AVP was giving kids a chance to play on the same court as their professional idols.

In a letter to the City Council, AVP CEO Donald Sun wrote that the tour had engaged in “extensive discussions” with Smith, and offered, if given the dates it wanted, to combine the BVCA’s tournament with AVP First. Sun also said that the AVP had offered “a very generous financial package” to BVCA to make up for any potential loss of revenue the youth organization would experience.

The offer appears to have gone nowhere. In comments to Hermosa’s council last week, Smith rejected AVP’s offer and suggested more sinister motives, implying the AVP was trying to use the pro tour to strengthen its youth division by freezing out competitors.

“They’re a pro event. But there’s five days of youth programming. They’re a direct competitor. They’re asking you, under the banner of a pro tour and global brand, to eliminate two national championships for their one national junior championship, and their pro event,” Smith said.

Right sized

Avery Drost dives for a ball at last year’s Hermosa Open.

The beach event that may have had the greatest impact on the AVP’s fate this year isn’t from AAU or CBVA. It isn’t a volleyball tournament at all: it’s the Teen Choice Awards. The annual awards show was held in Hermosa for the first time this year, and drew thousands of screaming kids to the sand on a Sunday in August. But businesses in downtown Hermosa complained that the closure of streets and parking lots cost them tens of thousands of dollars in missed revenue.

As with the return of the Hermosa Open, Teen Choice was dogged by concerns about its approval process. It too skipped the Parks and Rec Commission, and was approved in a special, Friday afternoon meeting of the City Council. Teen Choice producers said they regretted the secrecy, but that it was dictated by agreements with the Fox television network, which broadcast the event. And council members, in approving the event, cited the branding opportunity for Hermosa that exposure on national television could provide.

There is an impossible-to-ignore resemblance between this and the pitch the AVP made last week to the council. Lau described the Hermosa Open as a “global event” that would be televised nationally by NBC, and all over the world through a partnership with Amazon. But the idea of branding as a reason to approve events rankles many in the community. When considering AVP’s request earlier this month, Parks and Rec Commissioner Jessica Guheen alluded to the frustration created by the Teen Choice Awards, and wondered how factors like “exposure” were supposed to play into the commission’s decision.

“When I’m considering these Level 3 events, am I thinking about how many tweets and Instagram photos I’m going to get, or am I thinking about the mission statement in our event policy?” Guheen asked, her tone somewhere between irritated and sarcastic.

Community Resources Director Kelly Orta assured the commissioners that exposure was not among the factors they were to consider in approving events. This, however, is difficult to square with the past comments elected officials made when approving the Hermosa Open and Teen Choice Awards.

The aftermath of Teen Choice revealed concern among residents about the number of high-impact events the city ought to hold each year. The question is far from answered, though the council, in a nod to the intensity of last summer’s intense calendar, did approve two event-free “Nothing Weekends” for the coming summer. Driving some of the concern is a measure of uncertainty about how high-impact events benefit city businesses. In the context of volleyball, it’s unclear whether, if forced to choose as the city was this year, the AVP represents a greater financial boon than the youth tournaments, which require less set-up and tear-down time.

Business owners on Pier Plaza don’t like the commitment of parking lot space that the AVP requires for its extensive load-in. But the AVP has managed to streamline the process since a rocky first year, city staff have said, and restaurants and taverns say that the tournament brings excellent business, once up and running. Following the Teen Choice Awards, Baja Sharkeez owner Ron Newman singled out the AVP as an event that, despite occupying city parking lots, creates sustained foot traffic. 

Marje Bennets is the general manager of the Beach House Hotel on The Strand, whose rooms look out at the courts where the various youth tournaments and the Hermosa Open take place. She told the Parks and Rec commission that the AVP does help area hotels like her. But the youth tournaments — which bring whole families from around the country, many of them booking extended stays to play in multiple events — are a boost of a different magnitude.

“The AVP is wonderful, but it does not bring us the business the other three do,” she said.

In its statement to the Easy Reader, the AVP said, “The AVP strives to create lasting and meaningful partnerships with event host city that we work with.” But even if the Hermosa Open goes on as planned this summer, the problem of overlap with the Olympics is likely to recur. Lau said that getting shuffled around, even if only once every four years, would compromise its ability to secure long-term sponsorship deals. He alluded to a worst-case scenario in which the city hosts the Hermosa Open in 2028 the same weekend that, on another beach in Southern California, athletes set and spike in the battle for Olympic gold in the Los Angeles Summer Olympics.

The prospect of having to juggle competing demands year in and year out is unattractive to elected officials as well. Council members are hoping that the various volleyball organizations, despite proving repeatedly unable to come to an agreement in the past, take 2020 as a lesson.

“I would encourage you in the strongest possible terms to work together to solve this problem. Because if you don’t, then we’re going to have to solve it for you,” Massey said.

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