By Nila Do Simon
To the average sports fan, their names are not quite Brady and Gronkowski or Romo and Bryant. But on the beach, the names Dalhausser and Lucena, and Walsh Jennings and Ross conjure visions of sporting greatness. They are the kings and queens of beach volleyball, and from September 29 to October 4, they will rule our sands.
The Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Series Finals, which will be set on the beach just north of the B Ocean Resort Fort Lauderdale, seeks to brand beach volleyball as a premier sport that attracts the world’s best athletes. Scheduled to appear are some of beach volleyball’s top players, including gold medalist Phil Dalhausser and his partner, Nick Lucena—a Fort Lauderdale native—and three-time gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner, April Ross.
What makes this tournament different from other beach volleyball competitions? Think skydivers, flash dancing, live entertainment and VIP tents, scenes more reminiscent of a music festival than a serious sporting event. But if you think professional volleyball won’t be at the center of the commotion, then you’re wrong. A record prize of $100,000 will be paid to both winners of the men’s and women’s division champions—the highest paycheck in beach volleyball history.
In its inaugural year, the Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Series—which was established by Red Bull, Swatch and volleyball event promoter Hannes Jagerhofer—joined forces with the FIVB (Fédération Internationale de Volleyball), the sport’s governing body, to complement the five Grand Slams that currently make up the 2015 FIVB World Tour. The Fort Lauderdale stop is the culmination of a yearlong series of international tournaments (previous stops included Croatia, Norway and Switzerland) that count toward qualifying for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
The Major Series is the brainchild of Jagerhofer, an entrepreneur who began revamping volleyball events in his native Austria. Despite its landlocked orientation, Austria has long been a powerhouse of beach volleyball, producing top players Clemens Doppler and Alexander Horst. This past summer, Jagerhofer turned Austria into a beach volleyball epicenter during the CEV A1 Beach Volleyball European Championship in Klagenfurt, where the world’s top male and female teams competed amid a party-like atmosphere, with spectators loudly cheering with drums and to the beat of hip-hop. The tournament also attracted the who’s who of Austria, with CEOs, celebrities and politicians mingling at the VIP lounge.
“The Seimens CEO, who was very business-like, was there; all of a sudden, he started to get very excited during the match because of the energy,” Jagerhofer says. “This is what makes this exciting: seeing everyone from everyday citizens to the world’s top businessmen get out and enjoy top-level beach volleyball.”
For Jagerhofer, who brings his boundless energy and pure love of the sport to life, it’s all about making beach volleyball approachable and entertaining to the masses.
“This model that pairs professional volleyball with a fun atmosphere has worked so well that it has become the hot spot for summer activity in Austria,” he says. “We are looking to bring this spirit to other parts of the world.”
This year, the Major Series has four global stops, and Jagerhofer says that next year he hopes to add three more, eventually tapping out at 12 total tournaments a year. Jagerhofer isn’t the only one who’s thrilled for the future of beach volleyball. Even the players realize the new format could make a difference in their careers and the sport. Dalhausser, who took home the gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics with then-partner Todd Rogers, has played professionally since 2005 and says he’s never seen the spectacle associated with a beach volleyball tournament quite like the one Jagerhofer brings.
“He spares no expense to make sure the tournament is special,” Dalhausser says. “And to bring such a special game to Fort Lauderdale is huge.”
Dalhausser, who began playing the sport while living in Daytona Beach and went on to play on the University of Central Florida’s club team, compares the players’ tents at other contests, which generally include cold cuts and cheese to nibble on, to the Klagenfurt event, which has chefs cooking up entrees such as salmon, steak and tuna.
For Fort Lauderdale, this is more than just a sporting event. It’s a massive tournament that will showcase the Gold Coast on a global scale. Throngs of international spectators are expected to be in attendance. In addition, NBC picked up the rights to air the matches, which is a huge coup for the sport and the city.
Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, says the opportunity to host the final Major Series of the year hits all the markers: high-level competition, strong prize money and the right partners in Red Bull and Swatch.
While Red Bull’s ties to Fort Lauderdale aren’t new (the city hosted the season-opening Red Bull Global Rallycross in front of Bahia Mar Resort Hotel & Yachting Center last May), this Major Series brings a new level of exposure to the city.
“Being the only U.S. destination in the Major Series is an enormous boost for our city’s image as a sports destination,” Grossman says, noting that $5 million of revenue is expected to be generated during the days surrounding the tournament, as well as an additional $15 million of revenue in international advertisement.
Despite the dollar amounts and the global reach that Red Bull and Swatch have, Jagerhofer is quick to underline the most important value in the tournament: it’s free. General admission seating is open to the public, while VIP seating is available for a fee. For Jagerhofer, it is important to make beach volleyball an approachable sport that everyone can access. Discussions are currently being held to make the Fort Lauderdale stop an annual one, which Jagerhofer wouldn’t be against. As he says, “I don’t know many perfect spots like Fort Lauderdale in the world.”
Originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.