Beach volleyball has emerged as one of the most popular and visible sports at the Olympic Summer Games since its introduction in 1996, so it's no surprise the sport is in the news as the London Games approach.
But this summer, there's extra buzz in the beach volleyball world with the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series, which IMG and USA Volleyball launched in 2011. The tour, in its second season, hopes to build on the boost the sport receives every four years with a revamped pro series hitting beaches across America this summer.
"After every Olympics there's a lot of momentum around these sports," said James Leitz, senior vice president of IMG Action Sports, owner and operator of the Cuervo Series. "The key for us now is to maintain it and to be able to build a domestic series that's going to satisfy the appetite for the next quadrennial. It's an opportunity for us to build off the momentum of the Olympics and have something that's sustainable."
When the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) Tour folded in 2010, it left a void in the pro beach volleyball circuit in the United States. IMG and USA Volleyball saw an opportunity to breathe new life into the sport.
"The sport of beach volleyball was not broken. It was doing very well at the Olympics; it was growing on the beach," Leitz said. "The sport was vibrant. While the other tour had folded and gone under it didn't mean that the fan base or the talent and player talent had dissipated, so we felt like there was a huge opportunity for us to step in and feed a need and take an ownership position in a lifestyle sport that fit our strategy."
The Cuervo Series launched in 2011 with three events, establishing a foothold in key markets including Manhattan Beach, Calif., Miami and Milwaukee. This year's tour, which kicked off Memorial Day weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and continued June 22-24 in Belmar, N.J., has seven events on the schedule, all sanctioned by USA Volleyball. Admission to every tour event is free for fans and the prize money totals nearly $700,000.
The tour provides a great opportunity to showcase veteran superstars like Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh and also introduce rising stars in the sport like Christal Engle. Engle, 26, won NCAA national championships at Washington in 2005 and 2007, where she was a four-time All-American. She's currently a member of the USA Elite Development Team and is ranked in the top 25 players nationally.
"There's some amazing athletes out there and now, with the series, it's taken it to another level and just drawn the best athletes in the country, which are the best athletes in the world, in my opinion," Engle said. "Misty and Kerri and Phil [Dalhausser] and Todd [Rogers] are Olympians playing at a really high international level and are competing on the same tour we play on. Just as much as there are superstars, there's a lot of rising stars, as well. A lot of younger female athletes as well as male athletes that are stepping up and becoming the next wave of beach volleyball."
Engle had only competed indoors and played professionally in Europe after graduating from Washington. Two years ago, she decided to return home to the United States and pursue her passion for beach volleyball.
"I always knew that I wanted to play beach volleyball. I always knew that there was something about the beach, just the intensity of the atmosphere that drives it -- it always drew me to beach volleyball," Engle said. "I made a decision to give up the indoor game and called up Hall of Famer Holly McPeak and told her that I wanted her to coach me, and I ended up moving to California the next year and haven't looked back since."
With lively crowds and a good mix of veterans and up-and-coming players, the tour has lived up to Engle's expectations so far.
"The [crowds] are always just rowdy and loving it," Engle said. "It's amazing that the atmosphere around the tournament really drives from Cuervo and what they do to set up the tournament. They've set up the tournaments to be a lot of fun and at the same time you can watch the most incredible athletes compete at the highest level. It's a good combination of a really good time, but also watching some amazing professional athletes."
With Jose Cuervo's history with the sport -- the brand became beach volleyball's first major sponsor in 1979 -- the event marketing expertise of IMG and the emergence of social media as a means to build awareness, the tour seems primed for long-term success beyond this year's Olympics-fueled boost.
"We're building off that equity and that memory," Leitz said. "When you combine those things -- the equity that [Cuervo] has in the sport for all those years dating back almost 30 years to their leadership and their desire to really make this part of their lifestyle marketing strategy going forward -- I feel really confident that we can put the kind of product out there and a sustainable business model that's going to help the sport of beach volleyball for the long haul."
The Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series continues in Chicago on July 13-15. Visit the tour's website for more information and dates of future summer tour stops.