A typical day for Donald Sun involves putting pieces in place so professional beach volleyball players can spike and dig and show off their sport on American sand.
But on one afternoon last year, there came a serve from across the globe.
Sun is the managing partner of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, and he was up to his neck organizing the 2017 tour when he got a phone call from a Federation Internationale de Volleyball official who broached a collaboration between the opposing tours.
“Are you ready?” Sun was asked.
“Ready for what?” he replied.
From there, the volleyball got rolling on a unique partnership between the AVP and FIVB to stage this week’s FIVB Huntington Beach Open, which brings together the top U.S. and international beach volleyball players in a new format for the venerable event and a possible prelude to future joint ventures.
The AVP and FIVB have partnered on at least two events in recent years, but the entities generally have operated separately, sometimes with conflicting tour dates; the FIVB handles international events, while Sun runs the American tour from his Newport Beach office. Sun in 2012 took over a tour that had financial problems, contrasted by its deep history of star beach players, from Karch Kiraly to Misty May-Treanor.
“I think it’s a testament to what we’ve been able to accomplish here in the AVP, to even have [FIVB] entertain this idea,” Sun said. “So far, it’s been a really good communicative collaboration, unlike what my understanding of what it was in the past.
“We’ve always wanted to have a deeper relationship with FIVB. It’s just a good relationship to have.”
The benefit for both sides is to grow the sport by giving international athletes exposure stateside and by having a high-caliber tournament as a pipeline for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Players can earn AVP and FIVB points at Huntington Beach while chasing the $300,000 purse, which would be the highest on the AVP Tour this year, Sun said.
The main obstacles to work out in the yearlong partnership process were the format, open qualifying and equipment. AVP, which uses Wilson volleyballs, agreed to use FIVB’s Mikasa balls for the event.
The double-elimination format is in line with the AVP. And for the first time in FIVB history, 16 U.S. men’s and women’s teams are automatically in the main draw, and there is open qualification for all countries.
“For any of these international teams, this gets their foot in the door,” tournament director Jeff Conover said.
Casey Patterson, partnered with Stafford Slick, said that the 16-team guarantee raised eyebrows with international players, but everyone saw the big picture with the AVP and FIVB “willing to make that happen to see what growth and what can come of the game when we let it happen. [It’s] a good compromise in an epic location and the right people. All the cool kids are involved, so everyone wants to be here.”
Olympic gold medalist Phil Dalhausser and two-time Olympic medalist April Ross are among the U.S. players. With FIVB hosting a tournament in Huntington Beach for the first time, Americans can have a home-sand advantage in an FIVB event. Some international players have never played on an actual beach before, let alone in Southern California.
Conversely, fans will get to see such international players as Olympic medalists Agatha Bednarczuk and Bruno Schmidt of Brazil.
“I think it’s going to introduce a lot of people into the highest level of beach volleyball, if they haven’t seen it before,” Ross said. “I just think the level is going to be so high, a lot of fans are going to be shocked and impressed.”
Sarah Pavan, the FIVB world ranking leader, is from Canada and lives in Hermosa Beach. She knows the culture of both tours and said the atmosphere in Southern California makes it special.
“Californians are very protective, and this is largely one of the locations of the birth of beach volleyball, so people have definitely a little more swagger than the average fan,” Pavan said. “[They’re] very opinionated, very involved in what’s going on, which you don’t get anywhere else in the world, so it’s definitely an adjustment for the international players.
“But as an athlete, I like that personally. I like when the crowd gets involved.”
The main draw began Thursday. Sunday’s medal matches, with $20,000 on the line for the winning teams, will be played in a new, steeper-pitched stadium court that Conover said is “intimate the way a soccer stadium” is built. With the iconic Huntington Beach backdrop, it’s the scene that FIVB envisioned tapping into.
“In general, we really want to create the beach atmosphere because we believe this is a lifestyle,” said Yu Cao, beach volleyball events director for FIVB. “That’s why we need to be in California. You can really feel authentic. You cannot resist it.”