Sand, spikes and sunblock — that’s the atmosphere fans can expect this week at the AVP New Orleans Open in Kenner.
Starting with Thursday’s open qualifying tournament, the four-day event at the Laketown complex will feature 16 men’s and women’s beach volleyball teams competing for $150,000 in prize money.
Organizers are promising a festive atmosphere where seating ranges from plush setups in skyboxes overlooking four courts to grassy accommodations ideal for folding chairs and blankets.
Yet the event, the first of eight AVP tour stops this year, is part of a bigger movement: one volley at a time, local and national organizers want to push professional beach volleyball into the realm of mainstream U.S. sports. No longer satisfied with Summer Olympics publicity once every four years, New Orleans offers the AVP another tourist destination.
“In the past, how it operated was the AVP came in like the circus — came in, did our thing and got out,” said Donald Sun, managing partner of the tour. “Now we’re working on building relationships with cities and their people so the event can grow and grow, and grow in popularity.
“We don’t want to pingpong around the nation. These (eight tour stops) are good locations where we want to have longevity.”
So far, it’s working. Kenner signed a two-year agreement with the AVP, with hopes of a long-term plan.
“We saw first-hand how exciting of an event it is over three days,” said Sam Joffray, spokesman for the Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation, of a 2014 trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey, for an AVP tour stop.
“Officials built temporary courts on the boardwalk. We knew it was something that could be built here.”
Now the sport is heading to New Orleans. Approximately 1,200 tons of sand is scheduled to be dumped on the site Monday — weather-permitting, of course.
In 1999, AVP held the last of its five previous men’s tournaments in the New Orleans area. The most recent women’s professional beach volleyball tournament was held in 1995 under the Women’s Professional Volleyball Association’s auspices — before the tournaments merged.
Starting next spring, the NCAA will hold sand volleyball championships on three levels of competition, a move that is expected to increase the sport’s brand awareness as well as the number of participants.
State schools participating in the sport include LSU, Tulane, UNO and Louisiana-Monroe.
Can’t make it to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro? Then check out Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross next week at Lakeland. Since teaming up, the duo has won eight of its nine AVP tournaments. Walsh Jennings is a three-time Olympic champion; Ross lost to her in the 2012 London Games before changing partners.
“I’ve played beach volleyball in many states throughout the U.S. and countries across the world, but I’ve never competed here, so I’m excited to get the chance to do so,” Walsh Jennings said earlier this year.
Now, the tour just needs a few Brazilians for the double-elimination tournaments. While the United States has won a gold medal at every Olympic beach volleyball tournament since 1996 — in either the men or the women’s competition — Brazil has won gold or silver during the same span.
There are no Brazilians currently on tour. Beach volleyball, arguably, was born on the beaches of Southern California, Sun said, adding that of course Brazilians will argue it originated in Rio.
“Would we like to have more international players? Absolutely,” Sun said. “I think it’s definitely an international sport. But if it doesn’t come to that, I think it’s still great to have Americans.”