Why is beach volleyball struggling financially? (long version)

Apparently, nowadays, I have a blog. And you can use your blog to write down some thoughts, that then people might or might not find worthwhile reading. This blogpost won’t necessarily go under the “beach volleyball instruction”-category like most of the content in this project.. It is rather going to be me rambling off some thoughts, that I haven’t heard anyone else discuss before - regarding beach volleyball as a sport, a financial system (which almost all sports are to some extent) and future enjoyable activity/entertainment for us humans living on planet earth! If my thoughts have any resemblance of truth in them, they might be able to help better and grow the sport in the long run - which we would all benefit from. If my thoughts are not true, maybe they can still start some discussion or thought processes in others, which in the long run might lead to the same thing… Allright let’s get started!

In general, I do see quite a bit of talk around how the sport of beachvolleyball is struggling financially. Whether I am listening to the Sandcast podcast, reading threads at Volleytalk, lurking around in Old school volleyball Facebook groups or seeing that something called the IBVPA (International Beach Volleyball Players Association) is created, there is an underlying thing that sometimes is expressed directly, sometimes indirectly - there’s not enough money in beach volleyball. Top players are barely making a living, and are certainly not in a financial state where they can “be professional” - for example hire the coaches they need to be the best they can and truly devote their whole lives to the sport without needing to worry about financials - like the case is in many other sports.

I have nothing at all against people voicing this “sad fact”, in fact, unless I’d have heard Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter talk about it quite a lot on their Sandcast podcast in the last year and a half or so, I’d probably never be writing this blogpost. However, the way my mind works is that usually, if it get’s bombarded with the same problem often, it starts asking: “Why am I having this problem?” as a first step in a process towards finding a solution. I have in the last year or so been building some more or less vague theories about why this is the case (beach volleyball struggling financially as a sport), but when I was recently reading a book about mastering golf quickly (John Richardsons book “Dream On”, John by the way is also my first guest on my podcast!), I read something that I found really interesting which led to the theory I’ll present here today:

In the book, John talked about many golfers falling into the trap of buying new golfing gear and gadgets in hopes to become a better player. He meant that in absolutely most cases, the natural drive the players have to spend money to become a better golfer, would be much better spent on coaching rather than a fancy new club the player won’t be able to utilize fully anyway.

I do think the above phenomenon is quite natural. If there is one thing I have understood since starting out in business, is that it is easier for people to spend their money on tangible physical products compared to “coaching” or “information”. You buy a club - you get a club. No question about what you will get. You buy "information” - you get.. who knows what? Hopefully something valuable and worthwhile, but to REALLY know how valuable that information is, you need to actually experience the impact that the information will have on your life, and thats something you will know only after both purchasing and consuming. It’s hard to predict beforehand. Of course, there are countless marketing tactics to make both information as well as physical products easier to understand for the customer before they buy, but all things being equal, I’m ready to say I do think making customers understand the value and ultimately buy a product, is much easier done with physical products rather than “coaching” or “information”. Considering this, I’m not surprised that the average golfer who wants to get better, will naturally go and look for gadgets rather than a coach most of the time.

Ok, so the “average player” (or “the masses”) are spending money on golf specific gear, and this is a natural side effect of just people being hooked on a sport and wanting to become better at it. The companies who make the gear, make great money and see that they can make even more money if their brand gets more awareness, which means it makes sense for them to sponsor tournaments - to get the eyeballs of the masses to see their logo/product. This now means that the competitions have sponsorship money, which means the pro’s get paid, and the sport is healthy. There is a natural economic system in place, which makes money trickle from the masses of average players to the top players, so that they can properly devote their lives to pushing the boundaries and further development of the sport. The sport is financially healthy.

Now - what does this look like in beach volleyball?

Beach volleyball can be an incredibly cheap sport to play. Grab your shorts/bikini that you own regardless, and head down to the beach. That’s pretty much all you need if you want. There is very little “beach volleyball specific gear” out there, except balls, the occasional sandsock and some net systems - all products that probably don’t generate enough money movement in the big scheme of things. My guess based on observation is that the average player spends about $40 on beach volleyballs a year, net systems are often shared by many people and the money people spend on sandsocks is so small that we can pretty much completely neglect that in this discussion.

Also note that none of these products can really be seen as “performance enhancing” (and therefore tapping into that natural drive of players to become better!) In beach volleyball, you need to get more skilled to become better, no way to upgrade your racket, shoes or other details by dropping some money at the sports store. (Although I will be creating a video about some unconventional thoughts on platform creation soon, which I guess could be seen as the equivalent to “upgrading your racket” in beach volleyball, hehe.)

Note that this is not a discussion about “right” or “wrong”, one sport being “better” or “worse”, overconsumption, political correctness or anything like that. I am purely just trying to state pure facts about how money flows in different sports based on natural human behavior combined with the nature of different sports.

I hope this is slowly unfolding to why I do think it’s very natural for beach volleyball to struggle financially, considering all of this. We have pretty much no “performance enhancing gadgets” for the people wanting a quick fix to buy, and even just playing the sport in the first hand is really cheap in terms of gear you need to buy - therefore the money that naturally flows to the top is limited.

Of course, there is money in beach volleyball, and the pro’s do make a living. My guess is that one of the biggest reasons for that is the beach volleyball ball brands and their sponsorships. After all, they do create a sport specific, tangible product that people do buy. It’s just that there’s not enough money. If we guess that the average beach player spends $40 per year on balls, while the average golfer spends $300 on clubs and gear, which sport will pay better money to the pros?

So what’s the solution? I do believe the solution is some type of product that makes the masses spend dollars in a way that the money ends up in the pro’s pockets in the end. To gain a clearer understanding of this, I’m about to explain why the money that beach players DO spend, doesn’t end up in the pro’s pockets. But in order to do so, let’s first have a look at the two requirements of a product that will create this effect:

1. The product needs to be something that the masses of average players will NATURALLY want to spend money on. Something that they are motivated to drop cash on, for example gear that you need to be able to play, or gear that gives the player hopes of becoming a better player.

2. The product needs to be specific to beach volleyball. This is so that it makes sense for the brand creating the product to sponsor beach volleyball events and therefore reaching a beach volleyball audience specifically.

Now with those in mind, let’s look at some common ways beach players do spend money, as well as some potential solutions to this whole financial problem, and see why they don’t work:

Clothes. Even though beach volleyball is often played in minimal clothing, players still do have clothes, and many people have clothes also for playing in colder weather. This means that clothes do clear the first requirement above, even though not in an optimal way. However, since there are not really clothes that are “beach volleyball only”, meaning designed for beach volleyball and not replaceable with some other clothes that are not beach volleyball specific, it kind of does not pass the second requirement. Surely there have been sponsorship money flowing in beach volleyball from clothing brands, but as long as shorts, bikinis and hats from surfing brands or even H&M work functionally just as well, I believe it’s wishful thinking to hope that a clothing brand would pump in enough sponsorship money into the sport to make it thrive. At least until someone designs a piece of clothing that is just absolutely genious for beach volleyball, and can’t be bought from a non beach volleyball specific brand.

Gas and transportation. Honestly, I believe this is for many players the biggest expense in the sport, and it surely is a requirement to play the sport unless you happen to live right next to a court(s) and never travel to competitions further away than those courts. But the companies producing these products that maybe most of the average beach volleyball players “playing budgets” are going towards, are also too broad for it to make sense to those companies to sponsor beach volleyball events. Would a specific gas company sponsor a beach volleyball tournament in hopes for visitors to get gas at their stations rather than somewhere else? Not so sure about that. Would a car company sponsor beach volleyball events and seriously think that the money they invested in the sponsorship, would actually pay off because in the years after that, so many beach volleyball people would be driving their exact car brand to the beach? Now, let me play around with an idea: What about a beach cruiser bicycle with a cooler, cart for 10 balls and other beach volleyball gear? Maybe (!) that would be a product that could make a viable business in very specific places around the world, but I doubt it would become a business with millions of customers.

Admission fees to tournaments. This works for many bigger sports. People pay big money to watch basketball, baseball and other sports, and I’m sure the pro’s salaries consist at least to a degree of this money. The product for the average fan is that they get to watch their favorite players play live. This should technically also work for beach volleyball, but I’m afraid the sport needs to be bigger first, before it will start working properly. Once it gains more momentum, it might happen. It’s like a negative/positive spiral that needs to be turned around first. Maybe the reason people are willing to pay to watch basketball today is because the sport grew so big FIRST with the help of sponsorship money from maybe basketball shoe brands? And once the pro’s were able to become really really good with the help of that money, now it’s really really interesting for the average fan to come and watch that live, even if it costs money?

Donations from the average player. This is a slightly weird one, but IF there was a possibility for the average player to fully see the impact and benefit that growth of the sport would have for them in the next 10 years, IF every player on the planet would have to pay a $50 yearly “tax” just to be a beach volleyball player, my guess is most people would actually find that to be a sound investment. Under 14 cents a day to live in a world where our favorite sport would be as big as basketball or tennis, might very well be a very good use of money. Of course, this is not going to happen because of requirement 1 in the list above, it’s not natural for a player to go around and wonder how they can donate money to the sport. My guess is that for in example golf, this happens much more in line with requirement 1 above: The clubs that people buy, might on average be overpriced about $50, money that the brand will then use to sponsor competitions and tours. So in effect, when you buy a new club, you are paying for the club in itself, plus $50 “golf tax”, but you don’t realize this because you are so stoked to get out on the golf field to try your new club out.

There are probably more examples I could bring up, but maybe this is good enough for now. As far as I understand, in the “golden years of beach volleyball” when the pro’s did make a good living, the main sponsors for the tours were beer brands. And the tournaments were one big party for the fans. This might not be a bad solution, if the average fan at a tournament buys 2 beers that are overpriced by $2 each, that could mean about the same thing as having a $4 admission fee to the tournament. I guess same could go for food.

So what’s the conclusion?

I think there are 2 ways forward. First one is probably what is happening now, trying to combine a lot of less than optimal solutions into something that works. Some ball sponsor money, some clothes sponsor money, some admission fees, some money from random sponsors (the Brazilian tour is sponsored by a bank?) etc. If someone becomes really skillful at combining these income sources in the right way, we might be on a track to a better future.

Second way is to invent a physical beach volleyball specific product that would be in high demand for the average player, like a learning gadget/performance enhancing gadget. Not sure what this would be (coaching of course, but that’s not a physical product), but maybe I will come up with something one day? Maybe you have something in mind?

I think there is actually a third way, that will have some socialistic feeling over it. All the major ball producers (Mikasa, Wilson, Spalding, Molten at least) would sign an agreement together and raise the average ball price for competition quality balls with $30 or something like that. All the big tours would promise to only use balls from brands within this “union”. All the brands agree that those $30 per ball go directly into paying pro’s better money and growing the sport. In reality, this “solution” would have countless problems in terms of trust, making sure the money would actually go where it should, political ideological crashes etcetc, but maybe it could work, I’m not sure. I’m just putting out ideas, I can see good and bad sides in all of them.

I think my work here is done for now. As I said, these are ideas that slowly built up in my head after listening to Sandcast for over a year and then reading this golf book which explained a lot of golfers love spending money on gear. When I think of it, I can’t come up with many sports that require as little gear to be played as beach volleyball. Beach volleyball might even be the biggest sport in the world compared to what it costs in term of stuff to get started. This is great in many ways, but might also be the root cause for the professional players struggling to make a living.

Is my thinking around this subject fundamentally wrong? Do you have any ideas that I missed? Do you have any solutions that I’m not seeing? Do you have any questions? Do you have any type of feedback?

I’m leaving the comments section open for this one, feel free to add any thoughts below, maybe we could together come up with solutions that would actually help the sport?! :)

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// Alex