A few years ago it could have been seen as an apt metaphor for the state of pro beach volleyball, a sport that was imploding under the weight of its excesses and infighting. But when the giant inflatable Michelob Light volleyball sprung a leak and started crumpling into the sand at the Association of Volleyball Professionals tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif., on Aug. 19, it was a minor problem quickly resolved. A sponsor rep alerted a tour rep, who radioed someone who reconnected an air hose. Within seconds the ball was again bobbing in the breeze.
It was one small, quiet display of how things are being run under new AVP boss Leonard Armato, a former top-rated beach player who is better known as Shaquille O'Neal's agent. "Sponsors have to be taken care of at every level," says Armato. "They are the biggest key to our growth."
Two other keys had stepped onto the court for an elimination match the previous afternoon. Former beach partners Karch Kiraly, 40, and Sinjin Smith, 44, the two winningest beach volleyball players in history and until recently the principals in a long-standing internecine feud, faced each other in an AVP match for the first time in years. Moreover, they actually spoke to each other afterward. "We've put our differences aside for the sake of harmony and unity," says Kiraly, who did so at Armato's request. "We all want to get this sport back to—and beyond—its glory days of the '80s and '90s."
It wasn't all that long ago that the AVP was a hot and prosperous circuit on which players were competing for $100,000 first-place checks instead of the $14,500 on offer at Santa Barbara. Started in 1983 by a group of players and Armato, then a 30-year-old lawyer and newly minted sports agent who served as the tour's executive director until 1989, the AVP grew meteorically. It reached a peak of popularity in the mid-'90s, when NBC was broadcasting 10 of the tour's 26 events each year, and an impressive stable of sponsors—most notably Miller Lite—supplied prize money that annually hovered around $4 million.
Despite the AVP's apparent health, however, several problems were eating away at it. Thanks largely to the promotional efforts of Smith, the sport had caught on overseas, and in '93 it was granted medal status for the 1996 Summer Olympics, held in Atlanta. But that sparked a major battle between the AVP and volleyball's international federation (FIVB) over how Olympic qualification would be regulated. That fight put Smith and Kiraly on opposite sides of the fence and pushed Smith into self-exile on the FIVB beach tour.
The AVP's biggest problems, however, were mismanagement and selfishness. The player-run board of directors showed more interest in funneling sponsorship money into prize money man into marketing. On more than one occasion players were seen, on camera, covering up tour-sponsor logos with towels or T-shirts bearing individual-sponsor logos. "As the players started making more money, they became more difficult to deal with," says NBC senior vice president Jon Miller.
Beach volleyball's debut at the '96 Olympics seemed like the perfect opportunity to catapult the sport to even greater popularity in the U.S: Kiraly and Kent Steffes won the gold medal, on American soil, in front of wildly enthusiastic crowds. Instead of capitalizing on that moment, however, the AVP continued to self-destruct. At the end of the '97 season, with ratings down, NBC pulled out, and Miller Lite followed a year later. That sent the tour into Chapter 11, and it limped along in 1999 and 2000 under the ownership of Spencer Trask Securities, a New York City financial firm. The tour appeared to be on the verge of shutting down for the 2001 season when Armato placed a call to Spencer Trask.
Armato, who lives with women's beach star Holly McPeak, saw an opportunity to unite the women's tour—which was also suffering—with the men's and upgrade a sport loaded with what he calls latent equity. "It's like we have a beautiful, one-acre ocean-view lot that used to have a house, but the house crumbled," he says. "We still have this great lot to build on."
Armato and his company, Digital Media Campus, took over both tours under the AVP name, but only after getting the players to agree to certain conditions: Everybody gets along. Everybody uses FIVB rules and follows the FIVB Olympic qualification guidelines. Everybody signs a four-year contract agreeing to play on the AVP tour. "We are going to need a little time to build this thing," says Armato, who scheduled eight events for this year, all of which are being televised on tape delay by Fox Sports Net, with $887,500 in prize money. (Men and women get equal purses.) "And I can't do it alone. It has to be a collective effort."
Most players are relieved to have someone with Armato's business savvy and all-world Rolodex in charge. "We call him the Prophet," says seventh-year pro Lee LeGrande. "He's here to save us."