Americans have been piling up Olympic medals since beach volleyball joined the Summer Games in 1996. Domestic pro tours have come and gone. The NCAA has even sanctioned the sport for collegiate competition.
For the last 10 years, though, the biggest international beach volleyball tour has skipped one of the world's biggest markets.
"What happened in the United States? You're much bigger than the other countries," FIVB president Ary Graca said last week as the sport's international governing body finalized plans for its first tournament on American soil since 2003.
"My idea is very simple: We must be more aggressive in the USA," he said from Brazil in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I am a businessman. I have a vision of business. For me, it's impossible to get good sponsors, good TV, without being in the U.S., the land of the money, the land of the TVs. For me, it's obvious that we must invest a lot of money in these markets, for the good of the sport, and also because we need sponsors."
After a decade away, the FIVB is returning to the United States with the World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach, Calif., from July 22-28. In addition to the grand slam event using the 2-on-2 format familiar to Olympic fans, organizers are also planning 4-on-4 and 6-on-6 tournaments, as well as a World Series Cup that pits the top two-person teams from the U.S. against the top international pairs.
The total purse will be $500,000. NBC and its sister networks will broadcast more than 20 hours, with the finals of the World Series Cup on the flagship station.
"I've always wanted an international tournament to be in the U.S.," said Phil Dalhausser, who won the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics but has never played an international event on his home soil. "I can sleep in my own bed and drive to the tournament, which is awesome. ... It should be fun."
Organized by Leonard Armato, the former commissioner of the AVP domestic tour and the former agent for sports stars from Shaquille O'Neal to Oscar De La Hoya, the event will also feature a beach music festival with acts like D.J. Steve Aoki and the band Tap City, along with other performers to be determined.
"I want to celebrate all forms of beach volleyball and beach culture. I want the event to become a pop culture phenomenon," Armato told the AP. "If we pull this off the way I envision it, I'm confident it's going to be something that's never happened before."
Although the United States remains an international beach volleyball power — Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor have won three straight Olympic gold medals, with fellow Americans Jen Kessy and April Ross taking silver in London — the sport has struggled back home. Quadrennial attempts to capitalize on Olympic success have failed to materialize, with the AVP tour declaring bankruptcy in 2010 and emerging in a crowded field of mini-tours competing for the sport's biggest stars.
Having the FIVB's backing virtually guarantees that the Long Beach event will draw the best players; in addition to prize money, the FIVB tour has been the primary way that pairs qualify for the Olympics.
"We have the most important thing: very good athletes," Graca said. "This is the correct moment, the right moment to be more aggressive in this market. I'm quite sure that we can make a very, very good tournament in the United States. It's not enough to have a big success in the Olympic games, as the United States are now."
And, with 20 hours of coverage on NBC, NBC Sports Network and Universal Sports, people will get to see it. NBC has broadcast every Olympics since beach volleyball joined the Summer Games in 1996, and the bikini and beach party sport has become a well-rated staple of prime time.
"We know that there's a large audience of people in the U.S. that enjoy watching the sport," said Rob Simmelkjaer, a senior vice president of NBC Sports Ventures and International. "It has a great fan base and participation base in the U.S., and it's a sport that we felt had untapped potential in the U.S. during non-Olympic years."
The network began discussing the idea about six months ago, Simmelkjaer said, and he went to Lausanne, Switzerland, with Armato to meet with FIVB officials. Combining Armato's experience running beach volleyball events with NBC's history broadcasting the sport helped sell the idea.
"I don't think that anyone ever came with all those pieces lined up," Simmelkjaer said.
Graca said he hopes that this year's event will lead to more U.S. tournaments. Although California, the sport's birthplace, is the natural first step, Graca said he would like to expand to Florida or New Orleans or perhaps New York, where large populations of ethnic Brazilians, Italians and Polish would come out to support competitors from their homelands.
"Beach volleyball is the 16th sport in the United States; this is absurd, because in the rest of the world we are the second sport," Graca said. "It's only the beginning. I have a plan over the next eight years."
Key to that plan is Armato's vision of a beach festival that will attract the young fans and viewers that sponsors covet. The varied events — from the traditional 2-on-2 beach format to a 6-on-6 that is more like the indoor game — is designed to attract volleyball fans of all types.
"I want an event that has mass appeal and not niche appeal," Armato said. "If you love volleyball, we want you to be able to play whatever form of the sport that excites you the most and fits your skills the best. We're politically agnostic. We just want to provide a platform for people that love the sport, to play or watch."
Dalhausser said the idea of a festival revolving around beach volleyball is also appealing to the players. The tournament in Klagenfurt, Austria, features a week of parties that last long after the athletic competition is over.
"It's a lot more fun for players to be in a fun atmosphere like that. There's energy around it," he said. "I feed off that energy and I think other players do as well."
NBC is controlled by Comcast Corp.
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