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AVP Does Some Networking

Beach volleyball tour to get about $5 million in three-year partnership with NBC, Fox Sports Net.

August 05, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

The Assn. of Volleyball Professionals has two new partners, and they aren't breweries or sun-block makers.

They're networks.

NBC and Fox Sports Net have agreed to invest in the AVP and will receive minority stakes in the beach volleyball tour as it continues to crawl out of the fiscal hole it fell into more than five years ago.

For their combined investment of about $5 million over the next three years, NBC and Fox Sports Net will televise AVP events without paying rights fees and will receive seats on the AVP's board of directors as minority shareholders.

"We felt that this has the chance to become an important part of the American sports mosaic," said Ken Schanzer, president of NBC Sports.

NBC's deal resembles the low-risk revenue-sharing partnership it has with the Arena Football League. It remains to be seen whether beach volleyball fares as well on NBC as Arena football, which had a built-in head start because of the nation's traditional fascination with football.

The AVP is emerging from a 1998 bankruptcy declaration and has been buoyed by multiyear deals with several national sponsors. The tour also has been boosted by the recent addition of the top U.S. women's team, Misty May and Kerri Walsh.

NBC is searching for successful sports properties other than the Olympics after losing the NFL in 1998 and the NBA last year. NBC made a slight profit on Arena football last spring and committed to another season, despite dwindling ratings that averaged 1.1 nationally.

NBC's investment in the AVP won't be as extensive as its commitment to the AFL's 20-week season, but it was welcomed by the AVP, which had to pay for some of its airtime on NBC last summer.

"We're building momentum every day," AVP Commissioner Leonard Armato said.

Acquiring a low-risk stake in the AVP was an easy decision for NBC, sports marketing experts said. The AVP deal was a bargain, compared with the $4.6 billion shelled out last year by Disney and AOL Time Warner for six years of NBA broadcasting rights.

But is beach volleyball marketable to an entire nation?

"It's got a youthful edge to it," said Paul Swangard of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "When it's played to its highest level, people can say it's good TV. When you pay less than traditional sports programming and still get some guaranteed advertising revenue, why not?"

AVP athletes could also profit. More NBC appearances could mean more endorsements for successful players, who earn less than athletes in more conventional pro sports. The winners of this weekend's Manhattan Beach Open will split $17,400.

"It's obviously good news that the sport grows," said Eric Fonoimoana, a gold medalist at the Sydney Olympics. "We think we have a good sport. The Olympics think we have a good sport. It's just a matter of letting everybody else be a part of it and see what we have to offer."

NBC and the AVP were partners once before but had an acrimonious split in 1997.

The AVP had a decent run on the network during its peak in the early and mid-1990s. Ratings were steady enough to fill NBC's dead zone between the end of the NBA season and the start of the NFL.

The relationship ended when the AVP defaulted on payments to NBC and when Miller Brewing Co. pulled out as the title sponsor after the 1997 season.

The AVP and NBC renewed their acquaintance last August with telecasts from Chicago and Manhattan Beach that averaged a 1.5 national rating.

"We've always liked beach volleyball," Schanzer said. "We felt that, when properly managed and promoted, it had the opportunity down the road to be a great sport. When Leonard got involved initially, we felt that it was getting into the right hands."

This year's NBC telecasts, which begin Saturday at Manhattan Beach, will have a different format. For the first time on NBC, the women's final will be shown live on Saturday. The men's final will be carried live on Sunday. NBC will follow the same format Aug. 16-17 at Huntington Beach and Aug. 30-31 at Chicago.

Fox Sports Net, which has shown AVP tournaments on tape delay in recent years, will continue with that format. The network also is expected to announce beach volleyball spin-offs, among them a 30-minute lifestyle show.

On the sand, the AVP continues as an Olympic training ground.

With the Athens Olympics a year away, Walsh and May might be the top team in the world, having won three international tournaments and all four of the AVP tournaments they have entered. Walsh and May had played solely on the international circuit in recent years before signing with the AVP during the off-season.

Dain Blanton and Jeff Nygaard have taken a slight lead in a crowded, more competitive U.S. men's field. An intriguing team that will debut this weekend, Fonoimoana and former Olympian Kevin Wong, could become an immediate success in front of the NBC cameras.

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