“Flight #2291 with service from Los Angeles to Chicago is now boarding Gate 3B. We are expecting an on-time departure at 12:56am.”
Lined up at the gate were a mixture of sleepy-eyed Chicagoans, AVP staff, and of course, the tallest people at the airport, the AVP athletes. The pros, standing at about half a foot above everybody else, stuck out like sore thumbs as everyone shuffled to get to their spot in line.
Catching the red-eye flight didn’t seem like a terrible idea at that moment, especially if it meant that we were able to swing by the Cubs game on Wednesday afternoon with the AVP family before the Qualifiers kicked off Thursday morning. It’s tradition!
But before I could think about the Cubs game at the legendary Wrigley Field, I had to focus on jotting down last minute ideas onto my laptop in an isolated corner of the airport. We were gearing up for the AVP Gold Series Championships, and as a part of AVP’s marketing team, I had to make sure I understood all of the storylines going into the tournament. But what else does my job entail, exactly? What do we do during tournament time?
I am Ricky Nguyen and I work with Brand Knew, AVP’s marketing and digital agency of 4 years. We handle a multitude of things that range from brand strategy & messaging, social media, and marketing to website development, graphic design, and video production.
And what is it that my team and I specifically focus on? Essentially, I help tell the story of the AVP through the digital world with my co-worker and pal, Cabo Dan (formerly known as Daniel Ross).
For all the fans who have never stepped foot on the sand with us or who have never met April Ross or Jake Gibb after a big match, I give you access to those moments and let you experience the AVP. We travel with the pros around the nation during the warm months of the year and during tournaments, and we capture their best moments and present it to beach volleyball fans like you. We are generally your first point of contact on the internet.
Think of us as digital journalists that act as flies on the wall, and back on that summer weekend almost a year ago, the AVP Gold Series Championships was the holy grail of it all. This was it. This was where all of the best teams in the US competed for their shot at glory — to be named the Champs of the 2018 AVP Championships. Winning this tournament meant that you received a larger purse prize, increased AVP points, and a chance at receiving a ticket to the AVP Hawaii Invitational.
“Gooooood morning and welcome to O’Hare International Airport. It is currently 6:45am local time and we are just about to land. Please make sure all seats are in their full and upright position…”
I’ve never really liked the volume of these morning announcements. Were they intentionally loud to wake everybody up in a grumpy mood? Or do they project it loudly so that we could hear the announcement over the hum of the Boeing engines? Either way, I slid open the window shade to let in a blinding beam of light. Yikes. I guess it is morning time.
Straight off the plane, our compact team of four immediately headed to baggage claim to pick up our equipment. Once we land, it’s go time. There was no time to waste. To operate on the ground, communication is KEY. We need to be able to transfer ideas and thoughts instantly over the air in case the 16-seed takes down the top seed or Phil Dalhausser is on a streak with his fifth ace in a row (all of which have happened!). Inside our equipment bag, we carry walkie talkies, gimbal stabilizers, extra battery packs, tripods, memory cards, microphones, and the list goes on. Whatever you need in order to capture high quality audio/visual, we got it.
Running the AVP’s social media accounts takes an incredible amount of preparation and strategy. For each AVP tournament we have a document that lays out our entire game plan for the weekend. It is our bible. Every detail of the tournament that we need lives in this document — hotel accommodations, cell phone numbers, matchplay schedule, social content with posting times, etc. For the 2018 AVP Championships, there were some key players to follow, along with a handful of outstanding athletes that had a fair chance of winning the trophy.
The first whistle technically blows on Thursday morning. The Qualifiers at the Championships brought a ton of great local competition, along with competition from athletes that traveled from around the country for their shot at glory. We keep our eyes on the athletes that bubble to the surface on this day. One storyline that emerged that weekend was about 22-year-old Sarah Sponcil who was fresh to the scene, teaming up with college rival, Terese Cannon (UCLA vs USC). In their professional debut together, Sarah and Terese worked their way through the Qualifiers to then win five matches in the Main Draw Contenders bracket to eventually reach the Semifinals. What a run for the newcomers!
During Fridays of tourney weekend, our team is in full throttle. In a venue full of people and moments, we need to be able to predict what may happen and be in the right place at the right time. From running through the die-hard volleyball fans in the Kona Oasis beer garden to squeezing my way through family and friends gathering around the outer courts, there’s constant action surrounding us. I could be stationed on Court 1 filming slow-motion Instagram Story segments of Geena Urango’s killer jump serve (who later was awarded AVP’s 2018 Server of the Year) when I get the intel from my team that Sean Rosenthal is ripping mile-high skyballs on Stadium Court. I would quickly hurry my way over to capture that essence in action so that you, the viewers at home, could feel what it’s like to vicariously experience an AVP moment.
Juggling all of these moving parts is already a more than full-time job on the ground, but our day becomes even more challenging when something doesn’t go according to plan. Say, the Amazon Prime livestream goes down and the AVP social accounts are flooded with messages from concerned fans, or I’m courtside and get hit by a stray ball (Cabo and I have been hit over 5 times). Or, we’re scheduled to interview a pro, but they were just defeated in a massive upset (or worse, injured), and we have to rework our schedule and content plan. At massive events like this, we expect that things can go wrong and will go wrong. When they do, we deal with them (while keeping the cameras rolling).
Day Two of the Championships opened with a brief lightning delay that quickly subsided. The buzz and atmosphere on Saturdays differ tremendously from the energy of Fridays. At the Championships, people were off work and flocked to Oak Street Beach to witness top-tier beach volleyball. The beers at the beer garden were flowin’ and the beats by DJ Roueche stayed knockin’. Not a lot of people realize this, but when you enter an AVP tournament, it is a party.
A sea of fans.
“MONSTER BLOCK! MONSTER BLOCK! MONSTER BLOCK!!”
The sound of the crowd only increases during the weekend. By noon, we had reached capacity on Stadium Court which allowed for standing room only. Moving around and setting up shots can be difficult in a packed house. Good thing we have our in-house professional photographers, Robert Beck and Mpu Dinani, to show us the ropes. They know all of the great spots and where to capture the action before it even happens! Each of them has years of expertise and knowledge under their belt in the professional sports entertainment world. If you’ve seen an action shot of an athlete diving through the sand or high above the net, chances are that they came from the lens of these fine gentlemen.
Whether it is updating the online brackets and livescoring system or tweeting out tournament updates, nothing can truly prepare us for the madness that is Championship Sunday. Players step onto the sand on Sunday in hopes of getting their chance to raise the AVP trophy, and our job is to capture that moment.
“And here we go, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to Championship Sunday. Let me hear it for your Chicago Championship finalists!”
Sundays at a Gold Series tournament are a huge deal not only to the athletes but to the staff as well. We go live on NBC as Broadcast Mark steers the crowd into cheers for national television. The Gold Series Championships drew in 53,000 people in attendance that Labor Day Weekend as friends, fans, and family filled the stands in the early morning for Championship Sunday. Against the classic, picturesque Chicago skyline, two teams were eventually awarded the Championship trophies: Taylor Crabb & Jake Gibb and April Ross & Alix Klineman.
I’m always in awe at how well these athletes are able to zone in on their moment to execute what is needed. Sundays bring out a different level of competition and focus from the athletes, especially during the Gold Series when much more is at stake.
Professional beach volleyball players are SERIOUS athletes. The sand isn’t a force of nature that is necessarily easy to deal with, nor is the beating sun that unleashes rays all weekend long. Yet, somehow, your favorite AVP pros are the most down-to-earth humans you’ll ever meet. That’s what the beach culture brings to this sport.
Another noticeable aspect of Sundays is the crowd. Chicagoans are some of the most dedicated sports fans in the world, and you could literally feel it on that Sunday. This is where a live AVP tournament departs from the digital experience we create. No matter how many videos/Instagram Stories/photographs/tweets we send out online, nothing truly captures the raw environment of a roaring crowd. You have to be there to experience it— the true AVP moment.
After the celebratory champagne rained down onto the courts and the sand had settled, everyone from the fans to the athletes to the staff couldn’t help but leave Oak Street Beach wanting more.
However, the fun didn’t end there for us. There was still one more stop on tour for that season: Hawaii.
From my perspective, traveling with the AVP is the endless summer experience. There is truly nothing quite like it.