International beach volleyball is getting a fresh start this year with the Beach Pro Tour. Introduced by Volleyball World last October, it is finally time for players and fans to see what the new FIVB partnership has to offer. Players have expressed concern about the impact of the new new three-tiered system on their sport ,but with the first tournament of the new system only three weeks away, there is no turning back. Let’s check it out.
For the Pro Beach Tour to be successful, it has to grow it’s fan base dramatically. That has to be done while maintaining a good relationship with the players and ensuring there will be a new generation of players to continue the sport in the future. The choices Volleyball World has made to grow the sport’s visibility make ensuring its future more challenging. This difficult balancing act could lead Volleyball World into a virtuous cycle of growth or send it into a death spiral. From the players there is a lot of skepticism and concern, but as a fan, there are a lot of things I like. Lets start with the good.
Sports fans love rivalries. Is there anything better than watching Federer play Nadal in a Grand Slam final? And how many times has that happened over the years? Sports fans that knew nothing about tennis still tuned in to watch those two battle in the biggest tournaments. Beach volleyball needs that.
Last year Americans Alix Klineman and April Ross won Olympic gold, world tour gold and three other medals. Brazil’s Agatha and Duda won three gold medals, and a silver. They played in almost all the same tournaments, so you would think they developed an epic rivalry, right? Nope! The two best teams in the women’s game played each other a grand total of ZERO times in 2021. How is that even possible. What should have been a hugely compelling grudge match week after week didn’t materialize once.
The new system of only 16 teams playing in the main draw will put rivals on opposite sides of the net much more frequently. Seeing top teams play against each other on a regular basis will build those rivalries and should keep fans coming back for more.
Promotion and Relegation
I love the added drama that comes from a promotion / relegation fight. European football fans are familiar with the urgency that a late season match between two struggling teams holds when the threat of dropping to a lower level looms large. These matches have huge implications on the future of the team’s finances and rosters. Fans of second division teams also get to dream of future glory as their teams fight for the chance to play in the limelight.
Beach volleyball has always had a bit of a promotion system. Teams had to earn their right to play in qualifiers for larger events by proving themselves at lower levels. But with huge fields and large qualification draws, top teams were never at any real risk of being sent down. It was never evident that an early loss would hinder a teams future opportunities.
Now, with the limited size of the Elite 16 draw (bigger than first announced, but more on that later), the fight to get to the top tier and stay there brings a new level of drama for fans to enjoy and teams to fear. A first round match that may have held little interest for fans will be super compelling if a teams future in the top flight is at stake.
Well produced TV
This remains to be seen, but the promise is that Volleyball TV will be well produced with commentators for every match of the tournaments. No more silent, grainy live streams of the teams you are interested in from fixed cameras above the court. Beach volleyball fans will get what they have been craving.
Volleyball World already made huge strides in 2021 with their live center court commentary from the quarterfinals on at many events. There is no doubt that hearing Lewie Lett describe the action added immensely to the fan experience. With a greater percentage of matches being played on center court, it will be even better for fans. And the announcement that all of it will be available for free means those fans on the fringe can check it out and get pulled into the sport.
Pay attention to these changes
The new Pro Beach League structure introduces four big changes that everyone should keep their eyes on. First is the limited places in the top tier tournaments. Second, there is a change in the tournament entry ranking formula. Third there is no longer a country quota. And finally, the point system for the three tiers should create more upward mobility. Lets start there.
A new point systems
It came with very little fan fare, but we finally know the points structure for the three-tiered Beach Pro Tour. The team at Volleyball World hasn’t made any big announcements, but buried in the event competition regulations section for the Tlaxcala, Mexico website is a pdf document that answers the biggest question remaining: What is the points system in the new tour?
I have been waiting for this because the biggest complaint about the new system has been the lack of mobility between the levels. My first impression is that it is quite well designed and we should see lots of movement between the Elite 16 and Challenge levels.
For simplicity sake, I’ll compare the new tiers (Elite 16, Challenge and Future) to the top middle and bottom tiers of the old system (five, three and one-stars). In the old system, winning a top tier event earned six times as many points as winning a one-star. In the new system that difference between winning an event at the top and bottom tiers is only three times.
More importantly, winning a three-star was the equivalent of finishing 9th at a five-star. Going forward, winning a Challenge is better than finishing fifth at an Elite 16. Making a semifinal at a three-star was roughly the same as being bounced from a five star during pool play. Now fourth place at a Challenge is close to the value of making the quarters at an Elite 16. This means success in the second tier can send a team up the rankings in a hurry.
Change to entry rankings formula
The reduced number of tournaments considered for entry rankings also enhances movement in the entry rankings. This is a bit complicated if you aren’t aware of how entry rankings work. In the past, teams were seeded in tournaments based their best four finishes out of the past six tournaments they’d played in. Now it is their best three of most recent four tournaments. What this means is that teams can move into and fall out of the Elite 16 much more quickly. Before, two very disappointing results had no impact and allowed inconsistent teams to stay in the main draw. Now, one bad result puts huge pressure on the next tournament, because another flop will count in the entry rankings and keep a team out.
Fight for limited places
The most controversial change is inviting only 16 teams to the top events. Big tournaments in the past had 24 teams placed directly into the main draw with an additional 32 fighting in the qualifiers. 56 teams had a path to earning prize money and ranking points at the start of each event. The first announcement of the new system limited that to 16, eliminating 40 teams. Last week Volleyball World updated the Elite 16 to include a 16-team qualification tournament. I haven’t seen all the details, but imagine this means 12 teams have spots in the main draw with 16 more competing for the final four places.
The number of teams that can play in the Challenge and Futures levels is also smaller than the old star system events. The Challenge tournaments have the largest fields, but only 16 start in the main draw with 32 more in the qualifiers.
Goodbye country quotas
Two countries were affected most by quotas, Brazil and the USA. A single country was only allowed three teams in the main draw and four teams total in the old system. This created opportunities for teams from a greater variety of countries. The removal of these limits is being celebrated by Brazil and America, but mourned by players from most other countries.
This change is on full display in the first Challenge tournament. Four American women’s pairs are in the main draw and two more are in the qualifier. Brazil has five teams directly into the main draw. On the men’s side the impact isn’t nearly as great. At any rate, the already shrinking number of teams in tournaments is compounded by the flood of teams from the most dominant countries.
As details of the new format have come into focus, the concern among players has increased. Swiss player Quentin Métral and his partner Yves Haussener will start the new system in the qualification tournament at the Challenge level. Métral, one of the players that has expressed concern on social media, sees the changes as detrimental to the long term health of the sport.
Teams that practice year round but have limited access to tournaments may leave the sport. Métral worries that new teams made up of younger players have virtually no opportunities to get started in the current system. One of the main problems is that most confederations have not organized continental tours this year. With no continental tournaments, the only chance to earn points and climb the rankings is on the Pro Beach Tour. Only South America and Asia have tournaments at the continental level. European, North American and African teams without any points won’t even be able to play in the Futures this summer. This is a sadly ironic name since these players may see no future in the sport.
The most telling thing about Quentin’s Instagram post is the number of comments from players who express wholehearted agreement. Volleyball World took note of these concerns and added qualifiers to the Elite 16 level, opening the tournament to additional teams. This solution actually made the footing of more teams less secure. The 12 – 16th teams were guaranteed a payday when there were no qualifier rounds, but now face the possibility of traveling to tournaments in far away places and coming home empty handed.
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The tournament sequence is a big concern for players as well. There are only two Challenge tournaments scheduled between May and October, and they aren’t confirmed yet. That feels like a lost summer for teams outside of the Elite 16 and it is hard to see where points can be earned to push into the higher level.
Most of the scheduling issues are blamed on the pandemic. Finding willing hosts is a huge problem in the middle of a global pandemic with economic uncertainty facing every society. Questions about travel restrictions continue to frighten potential host cities and sponsors. Hopefully in future years there will be a full slate of events at all three levels.
Decisions about playing down
Playing down refers to teams that are in the Elite 16 draw, yet decide to play in a Challenge tournament. There is no restriction on playing down, so elite teams can take already limited places away from teams at lower levels. The competitive nature of these athletes and the chance to earn prize money may make this a common practice. Brazil’s Andre Loyola and George Wanderley are ranked third out of all men’s Elite 16 teams, yet they are playing in the first Challenge tournament. Note: Andre and George have withdrawn from Tlaxcala. Many other elite men’s and women’s teams will do the same in Tlaxcala. That obviously pushes even more teams into the qualifiers or out of the tournament all together.
Teams that play down, will be taking a big risk. A poor performance at the lower level tournaments will count as one of their most recent four results. It is possible for teams to slide out of the Elite 16 based on poor performances at the Challenge level, so playing down may become less common with time.
Beach Volley Blog’s Verdict
I am extremely sympathetic to the players concerns. It has already been many years since the sport of beach volleyball was a financially viable career path for most. The concern is that even fewer teams will be able to make ends meet and the sport will lose its future stars. Ideally, players should be able to make money and develop their skills on domestic and continental tours. Sadly, in most countries that isn’t possible. The lack of opportunities for young teams and the fewer entry places available for existing teams is a big concern for the long term health of the sport.
However, I think this new system is an improvement. The old system was even more problematic as I wrote in my unsolicited advice to the FIVB post. I like my back to back to back tournament solution more, but I see potential in the Beach Pro Tour. The Beach Pro Tour allows the most talented teams to rise, but they need a path into the system in the first place. If the limited entry opportunities can be addressed by confederations and additional Futures tournaments then I am looking forward to watching this develop over the coming years.