Sun Sees Rebound on Horizon for Pro Volleyball Circuit
SPORTS: Renews several key sponsors, seeks new TV deal
Monday, September 29, 2014
Donald Sun is facing another big challenge as his second year of running a revived professional beach volleyball tour comes to an end.
The Costa Mesa-based Association of Volleyball Professionals’ two-year broadcasting deal with CBS Sports Network and CBS Interactive concluded earlier this month with the AVP Championships in Huntington Beach, the last stop on the tour’s seven-circuit season.
Sun, who purchased the league for $2 million after it emerged from bankruptcy in 2010, hopes to secure a new TV deal by Thanksgiving.
“That’s my goal,” Sun said during a recent visit at the AVP’s modest second-floor digs near the Costa Mesa (55) Freeway. “That will help me to go out to other partners and have a full menu.”
Another two-year deal for AVP’s Pro Beach Volleyball Tour would be welcome, but Sun’s not taking anything for granted.
“I’m fine with one-year deals,” said the Irvine native, who has fond memories of playing volleyball at Newport Beach courts.
The 39-year-old hasn’t ruled out striking individual broadcast deals on an event-by-event basis, something that’s common with niche sports.
Negotiations on TV rights will be the latest for Sun, who already has managed to bring back a number of key sponsors for the tour’s next season, including Wilson Sporting Goods, the Barefoot Cellars wine label, and Gatorade.
He’s also got a head start on marketing for the individual events, with the Smart USA unit of Mercedes-Benz USA signed up as a title sponsor for the league and the Huntington Beach tournament.
Several other sponsorship deals are in the works, he said.
Sun brought some negotiating skills with him when he took over the league. He previously oversaw procurement at Kingston Technology Corp., flying around the globe to purchase NAND flash memory chips from suppliers such as Toshiba, Samsung, SK Hynix and Intel.
Sun’s father, David, cofounded the Fountain Valley-based company in 1997 with fellow entrepreneur John Tu. The two have grown it into the world’s largest memory products maker for computers and consumer electronics, with an estimated $5.4 billion in sales last year.
The younger Sun has taken many business cues from his father on the job and during their weekly dinners.
“My way of doing business is my dad’s way—be honest and be sincere,” said Sun, who took on a mess when he acquired the 31-year-old AVP brand, which abruptly shut down mid-season four years ago.
The league was dormant for two years and was even further from a heyday when the sport inspired feature films in the late 1980s. The AVP, meanwhile, peaked with about $25 million in annual revenue in the early 2000s.
The bankruptcy and shutdown of the tour left sponsors burned, players on the sideline, and fans disenfranchised.
“There was a lot of resentment,” he said.
“I’ve had to do a lot of good will,” said Sun, who persuaded marketing executives at Barefoot Cellars to take another chance on the AVP with a free sponsorship trial that is now on a paying basis.
Kerri Walsh Jennings, the sport’s most recognizable name and talent, said the AVP has regained the trust of the 100 professional players on tour.
“I don’t carry any grudges—anything that happened in the past wasn’t Donald’s fault,” said the three-time Olympic gold medalist and reigning AVP champion. “He has the support of every single player.”
Jennings and teammate April Ross, a Costa Mesa resident, won all seven events on the 2014 AVP Tour.
The duo became the first pair on the AVP to run the table with a 36-0 record in match play, culminating in a hard-fought victory over Heather Hughes and Laguna Beach resident Whitney Pavlik for a nice chunk of the $200,000 purse.
Huntington Beach residents Jake Gibb and Casey Patterson won their third consecutive AVP title on the men’s side.
The Huntington Beach event drew more than 30,000 over the weekend, according to the league, which doesn’t charge for general admission. The total is nonetheless an indicator that the sport still resonates with a loyal following beyond its popularity during the Olympics, according to Sun.
He is prepared to subsidize the league through the 2015 season, but he senses the tide is turning. Cities across the country are inquiring about hosting an AVP event. The league now is generating more than $2 million in revenue annually, and its schedule of seven to 10 events per season is sustainable—a clear turn from the 30-plus it scheduled when it was losing millions per year.
“In 2016 we should be turning the corner—I do expect to turn a profit,” Sun said. “It just takes time to build a brand and confidence. I have patience.”
Jennings, who has played on the tour since 2001, believes beach volleyball offers fans access to its star players and an intimacy no other sport can match.
“It’s competitive, it’s powerful, it’s dynamic, it’s sexy,” she said. “We need to make this AVP highly successful. We have a long way to go, but we have a legacy and history to build on.”