Nick Butler

For some strange reason, I didn’t receive much sympathy when I told friends I would be unable to see them this weekend because I had been sent on a last-minute trip to Florida for the beach volleyball World Tour Finals.

It may have been something to do with the chance to see some top level athletes compete in one of the last big tests ahead of next year’s Olympic Games. Or, perhaps, it was something to do with a sport which stirs excitement levels probably more than any other, not to mention the prospect of 30 degree-plus heat as temperatures plummet back in Britain…

Held under blue skies slap-bang on the sun-kissed beach virtually within a miscued shot of the Ocean, the event, the International Volleyball Federation’s (FIVB) flagship World Tour finale, fulfilled just about every stereotype associated with the sport.

No doubt encouraged by free admission, the 4,000-seater stadium was filled to capacity with scantily clad chanting and screaming fans, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. Outside the stadium were stands selling beer and cocktails. Inside it were cheerleaders, tee-shirts being fired into the crowd and booming 10-second edited clips of rock and dance music, consisting mostly of modern hits supplemented with old classics by bands like Status Quo and Iron Maiden.

Fans were stirred further by an excited announcer who focused on ambience as well as action, prioritising stirring popular sentiment over political correctness with lines like: “why are the girls dancing still wearing tee-shirts?” At the beginning of the day a group of Red Bull skydivers parachuted in, landing on the beach to officially open proceedings.

The FIVB World Tour Finals took place in a festival-style atmosphere in Fort Lauderdale ©Getty Images
The FIVB World Tour Finals took place in a festival-style atmosphere in Fort Lauderdale ©Getty Images

Coming as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) battles hard to appear fresh and “hip” and in touch with young people, beach volleyball is already several steps ahead. Last week, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were proposed as new additions for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and having watched beach volleyball, the original sport of innovation which has appeared on the programme since Atlanta 1996, it is not hard to see why.

Most other sports have now introduced gimmicks like music and cheerleaders to supplement the sport, but no others do it in such a natural and effortless way. Fans present this weekend would probably have spent most of the summer at festivals and parties and, while sport-for-education and sport-for-wider-development are buzzwords of choice within the Olympic Movement, this was sport-for-entertainment. Pure and simple.

But, and crucially, this was not to the detriment of the action itself, much of which was gripping and the clear source of attraction despite everything else going on.

This was best shown on Saturday night when United States stars Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser took to the court for their semi-final. Until then, it had been the Brazilian and Italian fans who had been the most vocal, but suddenly the stars and stripes was everywhere, and to our surprise and slight awkwardness, us Brits in the media stand were even handed miniature US flags as an atmosphere akin to a college football match was generated.

“U” chanted the crowd as Dalhausser blocked the ball high into the sky. “S” as Lucena manoeuvred it up into a hittable position. “A” as Dalhausser smashed it onto the sand for a decisive winner.

US stars Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser provided most excitement for the home crowd ©Getty Images
US stars Nick Lucena and Phil Dalhausser provided most excitement for the home crowd ©Getty Images

Although it is women’s beach volleyball which tends to generate most excitement, it was the men’s competition which topped the bill as, after winning their last-four clash, the Americans took on Brazilian world champions Alison Cerutti and Bruno Oscar Schmidt. Given the billing, it was a slight disappointment with the final proving one game too far for the home duo as the Brazilians proved simply too good in a straight-sets victory.

But there is no doubt these are exciting times for the sport, as well as for its indoor cousin, with three successful World Championships held in the last year in Poland, Italy and The Netherlands, and next year’s Olympic event on Copacabana Beach is expected to be one of the highlights of the Games.

For the FIVB, ambitions extend far beyond just next year. The body’s Brazilian President Ary Graça used the occasion to publicise nine new strategic goals designed to make the sport the number one family-orientated event.

Based around those often-used concepts of technology and innovation, these range from boosting sponsorship, revenue and the number of players to reaching two million users on FIVB digital platforms and rolling out a TV or internet feed for "key FIVB events" in all 221 National Federations by next year.

Graça, not unlike his sport, has a fairly unique style but throughout his rambling 40-minute presentation his enthusiasm and passion shone through. A colourful figure who has survived questions of malpractice during his time at the Brazilian Volleyball Confederation, he is well-placed to propel the sport to greater heights, having hired figures like former IOC marketing director Michael Payne to support his cause.

The FIVB have ambitious plans to expand the scope of the sport further ©FIVB
The FIVB have ambitious plans to expand the scope of the sport further ©FIVB

Perhaps the most innovative element is their partnership with Red Bull, who are making available, for free, clips of matches and highlights to be rolled out to other broadcasters. Stunts like the skydivers is a key part of their drive to bring more viewers to the sport, while they are also utilising social media forms like Snapchat, rarely seen in the Olympic Movement.

Boosting their stature within the IOC is another stated FIVB goal, with an ultimate aim of moving up to become a tier-one sport alongside aquatics, athletics and gymnastics. This remains a long way off, and, as these things tend to do, depends on political clout as much as anything else.

But, the weekend did remind me of the presentation by Sir Martin Sorrell, the boss of PR giants WPP, to the IOC members during July’s Session in Kuala Lumpur, and it would be hard to see a better example of an Olympic sport embracing social media than in Fort Lauderdale.

And perhaps the best thing about Graça’s speech, so far as I was concerned anyway, was the fact that he never once mentioned his “respect” or “commitment” to the IOC’s Agenda 2020 reform process.

Volleyball does not need to follow the IOC’s lead and, although much more work remains ahead, it is setting a trend itself which the rest of the Olympic Movement would do well to emulate.