Why does a popular Olympic sport struggle year round?

Why does a popular Olympic sport struggle year round?

'I thought: Is this what professional sports has come to? Is it even a professional sport if we can’t make a living from it?'

By Melissa Humana-Paredes for CBC Sports
August 21, 2019

Rumours were flying for months.

It was Dec. 13, 2018 when the email arrived in my inbox, subject line: Cancellation of the Fort Lauderdale Event 2019. The Beach Major Series Company was forced to cancel the event due to financial and operational deficiencies. That fateful email optimistically signed off with: “we will do everything in our power to deliver to fans, athletes and partners an unforgettable Beach Volleyball FIVB World Championships in Hamburg.” Which they absolutely did.

Just two months shy of the anticipated event — which was scheduled for early February 2019 — I was one of the lucky ones who hadn’t already booked flights and accommodations. A product of my procrastination combined with years of tournament cancellation experiences.

Melissa Humana-Paredes competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images) Melissa Humana-Paredes competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

My heart sank.

I felt both anxiety and relief, strangely oxymoronic feelings. The relief was in knowing that I could spend a few more precious weeks at home... the anxiety was all about concern for the future of my beloved sport and my livelihood. The mind raced: Is this what professional sports come to? Is it even a professional sport if we can’t make a living from it?  Do I need to pick up a part-time job again?

Canada is one of the top countries in the world on the women’s side. One month ago, the city of Edmonton hosted the only North American tour stop this season. Four events in the USA were cancelled.  At the beginning of 2018, we held the top two world ranking spots. This year, my partner [Sarah Pavan] and I made history, becoming World Champions – a first for Canada.


Going to social media

So for context, the Beach Major Series is to my sport what the NBA is to basketball, NHL to hockey, WTA to tennis. The Fort Lauderdale 5-Star Major Series is a Grand Slam of beach volleyball.

As most millennials do, I took to my Instagram to voice my concern, but more importantly, to understand where popular opinion lay. I knew my followers were in it for a few reasons: bikini shots, my golden retriever and a love for the game of volleyball. But I also knew I had a core group who shared my concern for the future of the sport. So I asked them collectively, what we should do. 

I was floored by the response; 146 comments, countless private messages, more than 50 shares from athletes across different sports … it reached over 13,000 accounts. I have never felt so proud of a community.

A taste of the comments:

“Start actually charging admittance for events, doesn’t have to be a lot but we’re continuously devaluing the game by not charging admission.”

“I still can’t believe it’s free admission!”

“The FIVB needs to do better with marketing and drawing attention to these events. If it weren’t for your Instagram posts, I wouldn’t have known there was even a tournament down south.”

“The short answer is that the investors don’t want to play well together. It’s sad.”

“The sport is not mainstream enough to be broadcast on network TV.”

“If these tournaments continue to be cancelled how will Olympic qualifying be determined?”

“Focus on having matches in primetime to allow maximum exposure.”

“The structure of the game… it’s hard to be truly invested in a team for 30 minutes. The match just isn’t long enough for TV entertainment”

“You can’t overestimate the power of NAME VALUE. Not to be hurtful, but there aren’t, outside of Olympic gold medalists, household volleyball names out there.”

Some not so helpful…

“That’s shocking! Beach volleyball has the most beautiful women and the easiest thing to sell is sex. Maybe beach volleyball women need to do some more bikini shoots. That’s how women’s tennis got back popularity by marketing Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova.”

“Because the players are too ‘stupid​’ to stand together and fight for better conditions.”

I invite you into the conversation.


Creating awareness

Just last week, basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabar wrote a striking piece for The Guardian expressing awe and appreciation for Beach Volleyball. He is a long-time fan of the sport, and has particular praise for the women’s game. Compared to the men’s game, he says, “[Women] play with greater technique, variety of shots, and chess-like thinking, often making their matches more compelling.” A timely article indeed. I hope his sentiments are felt globally. We want this sport to continue to blossom, grow, foster, & thrive.

The International Beach Volleyball Player’s Association, established in 2017, was created by the players, for the players. Founded by Madelein Meppelink from the Netherlands and Anouk Verge-Depre from Switzerland, we are volunteer professional athletes who see value in creating awareness for our rights. The board, of which I am a member, is working to make sure our sport has a healthy future.

Humana-Paredes and partner Sarah Pavan are currently world champions. (Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images) Humana-Paredes and partner Sarah Pavan are currently world champions. (Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)

Perhaps, as a sport, we are just temporarily lost, just trying to find our way. We constantly try to cater to the fans. We change rules to make it more similar to our big brother, indoor volleyball. The idea is to make it a more seamless transition experience for the fans.

Perhaps we are ahead of our time, leaders in merging professional and amateur sport. A combination of lifestyle and entertainment is in the DNA of Beach Volleyball.

I just finished six weeks on the road, travelling to five different countries on three different continents. I saw first-hand the uncertainty our sport faces. I witnessed everything from 13,000 people packed into stadiums in Hamburg and Vienna to a venue that was starving for bodies in Tokyo — where worryingly, in just one year, the Olympics will be held!

It’s easy to feel pride and hope for the future after experiencing a roaring stadium jump to their feet when my partner Sarah and I won the World Championships in Hamburg. I have a fire burning so deep to see my sport reach its full, untapped potential, because we haven’t even scratched the surface yet.


Getting into the Olympics

Regardless of their sport, athletes decide to finish their careers for a wide variety of reasons. Some retire when they have accomplished all that they can or want, and are at peace with their decision. Some are forced out by injury. Others fall out of love with their sport. But our fear is athletes retiring because their sport has gone extinct. In beach volleyball, we have players who feel they are fighting for the survival of their sport and for their livelihood. The thought of what lies ahead can be disheartening.

2020 is an Olympic year, and if I wasn’t already qualified, I would be concerned for how many tournaments we will see in the months ahead. How strange is it to be in a sport that is among one of the most popular events at the Olympics, but at the same time, a sport whose athletes are starved for exposure and money.

Humana-Paredes and Pavan have already qualified a team for Tokyo 2020. (Melissa Humana-Paredes/Instagram) Humana-Paredes and Pavan have already qualified a team for Tokyo 2020. (Melissa Humana-Paredes/Instagram)

I am fortunate that part of my reward for winning the World Championships is a guaranteed berth at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, otherwise I would be continuing to race to get 12 Olympic qualifying events in, just to meet the requirements.

The players still fighting to qualify need reliable tournaments to attend. Let’s hope Fort Lauderdale’s fate is not repeated but like other beach volleyball players, I remain deeply concerned that even though our sport’s Tokyo Olympic tickets are already sold out, athletes are likely facing a coming year with too few tournaments, paying too little money.

So what do you do when the sport you love doesn’t love you back?

You give thanks for every minute of every day you get to play this sport. You do yourself, the community and the sport justice. You put on sunscreen and enjoy each moment in the sun. You give yourself fully to a dream you are lucky to live. And you don’t wait four years to feel alive, to feel fulfilled or accomplished. As long as the sport is around, you will have devoted athletes, waking up every day, putting everything on the line.

I will fight until the last ball drops. Will you join me?

(Top large image by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images; Middle large image by Buda Mendes/Getty Images; bottom large image by Martin Rose/Getty Images)

The Melissa Humana-Paredes edition

Q: The best book you've ever read? 
A: I hear she's a real bitch by Jen Agg. But if that's too inappropriate, The Giver or the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Q: Must-listen podcast? 
A: Science Rules! with Bill Nye.

Q: Best advice you've ever received?
A: "A ship in the harbour is safe. But that's not what ships were built for."

Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called?
A: The Smiling Assassin.

Q: What word or phrase do you over use? 
A: Sorry.

Q: What is a skill you wish you had? 
A: To play the drum kit.

Q: What's something no one would guess about you? 
A: I don't smile all the time. And I still wear a retainer at night.

Q: What scares you? 
A: People who don't believe in climate change.

Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the people you'd invite?
A: AOC, both Obamas, Emma Watson, Ellen DeGeneres, Chrissy Teigen, Emily Blunt, Muhammad Ali.

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Without fail, I'll cry watching any movie on a plane. It doesn't even have to be sad.

Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: Bringing home the gold medal for Canada next year in Tokyo

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