by Kevin Cody

In 1990 Leonard Armato presented an ultimatum to the player-owned Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP). Give him equity in the association or he would resign as AVP’s executive director.

The players voted to let Armato go.

Two Mondays ago Armato presented the players with a strikingly similar proposal. If a sufficient number of players would sign four-year contracts with the AVP, his company Digital Media Campus would buy the AVP.

Approximately 75 of the AVP’s top players attended the meeting in Armato’s office — his personal office at Digital Media Campus in El Segundo. The players included 1996 Olympic gold medallist Karch Kiraly and 2000 Olympics Gold Medallists Eric Fonoimoana and Dain Blanton, as well as 1996 Olympians Singin Smith and Holly McPeak.

"There was plenty of room. Leonard has a big office," recalled Fonoimoana. Behind Armato’s desk was a size 22 basketball shoe signed by his client Shaquille O’Neal.

In a tone that was part pep talk, part hardball, Armato outlined his vision for the future of beach volleyball. Players would be guaranteed $1 million in prize money for an eight-stop tour this summer, beginning June 8 with the Mervyn’s Beach Bash in Hermosa Beach. Women players would split the purse at five of the eight events. International rules would apply, not the traditional AVP rules. The players’ jobs wouldn’t end when they left the court. They were salespeople as well as athletes. Players must all sign identical contracts.

In a maneuver that absolved him of responsibility for players who might want to negotiate special deals, Armato announced that anyone who failed to meet the deadline, but subsequently wanted to join the AVP would have to be voted in by fellow players.

Underscoring the players’ limited options was the presence of Spencer Segura of Spencer Trask, the New York investment company that had bought the AVP out of bankruptcy in 1999. Segura encouraged the players to embrace Armato’s proposal.

The prize money, the players recognized, was half a million dollars less than guaranteed under their current AVP contracts. The international rules’ smaller court, net serves, and rally scoring were regarded as a "bastardization of the game," in the words of 1997 Hermosa Open winner Canyone Ceman And some of the players had been around long enough to remember the last time Armato had demanded equity in the AVP.

But a lot had changed in the intervening decade.

Armato ended the one and a half hour meeting by advising the players they had until noon the following Friday to sign the contract. Before the deadline had passed 110 AVP players had signed on, including Kiraly, Ceman, Smith and McPeak.

Notably missing from the list were Fonoimoana and his Olympic partner Blanton. Fonoimoana said this week that he and Blanton wanted to review the contract with Armato, but hadn’t had time to because they were in Europe last week and this week were in Oceanside, where they won the Beach Volleyball America tournament. The three-year-old BVA tour was negotiating to merge with the AVP. But when those negotiations collapsed, most of its players signed on with the AVP. Fonoimoana said he and Blanton expect to also. The BVA apparently is no more.

At a press conference scheduled for this morning at the Digital Media Campus Armato is scheduled to announce that Digital Media Campus is the new owner of the AVP. Matt Gage, the AVP’s highly respected tournament director and operations manager since the AVP’s early days will continue in that position. Armato will be the chief executive officer and his sports and entertainment management company Management Plus Enterprise will manage and market the AVP.

As word spread of Armato’s decision to acquire the AVP, players’ reservations turned to relief.

"We’ve all been humbled by the terrible state the sport is in. We keep getting thrown smaller lifeboats. But to a drowning person, a small lifeboat looks good," observed Ceman, who has economics and sociology degrees from Stanford University. Tuesday night he and two fellow AVP players Jeff Nygaard and Collin Smith competed on the Los Angeles Athletic Club six-man team in the US Open National’s Tournament in Milwaukee. The victory earned them a trophy and bragging rights.

Fonoimoana also expressed guarded optimism.

"I’ve seen him on the floor of the Lakers. He knows everyone at NBC, and Fox. And he has a passion for volleyball. If he can mix the two correctly, we have a chance," the gold medallist said.

Parallel courses, to a point

After helping found the AVP in 1983, Armato landed AVP contracts with Miller Beer and NBC. Tournament prizes grew from bragging rights to six figure purses. But the young Manhattan Beach lawyer’s career was also skyrocketing. His client list grew to include San Francisco 49ers pro bowl defensive back Ronnie Lott, the Lakers’ Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Houston Rockets’ league MVP Hakeem Olajuawon, the LA Gear shoe company and Italian fashion leader Fila.

Shortly after being rebuffed by the AVP, Armato negotiated the highest paying sports salary in history for 22-year-old NBA rookie Shaquille O’Neal. Four years later he negotiated the sports world’s highest salary a second time when he signed O’Neal to the Los Angeles Lakers for $120 million.

During that same period, the AVP appeared to be enjoying similar success, culminating in 1996 when four AVP players, Kiraly and partner Kent Steffes played Manhattan Beach’s Mike Dodd and partner Mike Whitmarsh for the first ever beach volleyball Olympic Gold Medal in Atlanta.

Following the 1996 Olympics, Armato’s career continued on its on its meteoric path. He made boxing superstar Oscar De La Hoya a media superstar, signed a contract with Microsoft to host O’Neal’s shaq.com, only to shift alliances to CBS-backed sportsline.com. In exchange, O’Neal received equity in the high-flying website.

Six months ago Armato moved his offices into a warehouse-size building in El Segundo, dubbed Digital Media Campus. A computer terminal in the lobby offers visitors a virtual tour of the building whose hallways bear names such as Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood Bowl and Melrose. Sports memorabilia on the walls include a Leroy Neiman lithograph of O’Neal, gold records by O’Neal and a framed collection of photographs and autographs from the "50 greatest NBA players from 1946 to 1996."

Armato’s only notable misstep over the past decades appears to have been his organization of the 1997 Volleyball World Championships at UCLA’s LA Tennis Center. With Nike as a sponsor, Armato brought the world’s best volleyball players together by negotiating a truce between the feuding AVP and volleyball’s international ruling body the FIVB. Armato insists to this day that the tournament was a success. But most observers, noting the estimated 3,000 paid attendance, didn’t see it that way. After the event FIVB president Ruben Agosta said if the world championship ever returned to the Los Angeles area, "I would go to Manhattan Beach."

For the AVP, the post 1996 Olympic years were not so golden. It lost its fight with the FIVB to select who represents beach volleyball players at the Olympics. It lost Miller Beer as a sponsor and went bankrupt. Gold medal winner Kent Steffes sued the AVP for unpaid prize money and got into a fistfight with local AVP player Brian Lewis. Last year the AVP suspended Fonoimoana and Blanton for skipping an AVP tournament so they could play in an FIVB sanctioned Olympic qualifying tournament.

When the two returned from the Olympics with Beach Volleyball’s gold medal they abandoned the AVP for the BVA, a woman’s tour, taking several AVP players with them.

Rising from the sand

Until Armato stepped forward just last month, players faced the likely prospect that there would be no AVP tour this year.

Armato is promising the players not only to stabilize their shaky organization, but to take it to what he calls "the next level."

In a 1997 Easy Reader interview, shortly before the UCLA tournament, Armato said, "When it comes to taking beach volleyball to the next level, it’s not going to happen on the beach."

The sport’s near collapse in the intervening years has not diminished that vision.

In an interview Tuesday, Armato outlined five levels of competition for beach volleyball. The first is the traditional beach tournament. Attendance is free at these merchandise- and sponsor-supported events. The upcoming Hermosa Beach Mervyn’s Beach Bash, a festival of beach volleyball, skateboarding, skating and extreme bicycling, represents the second level. The third level is Olympic-style stadium competitions with paid admission. During non-Olympics years these might involve Ryder Cup-type tennis competitions between rival countries such as the US and Brazil. A fourth level is off-season, paid admission, lifestyle events at venues such as Madison Square Gardens’. And finally, Armato envisions international "world series" events that offer overseas exposure to sponsors pursuing overseas markets.

Armato dismisses suggestions that volleyball, like gymnastics and skiing have too narrow a fan base for his ambitions.

"The sport has athleticism, beauty, and a lifestyle associated with a young, hip crowd. NBC’s ratings for beach volleyball in the ‘80s were double that of baseball and ice hockey. More girls play volleyball than any other sport. In Brazil its popularity is second only to soccer," he argued.

What the sport lost when he left the AVP, he said, was its marketing infrastructure.

He pointed out how Nike’s promotions with Michael Jordan also promoted the NBA. In the ‘80s when beach volleyball’s top players had major clothing sponsors, if not their own clothing lines, the clothing promotions promoted the sport. Sponsors like Miller brought television exposure. But the players didn’t take care of their sponsors, and as a result they lost their fan base. Which is why Armato stressed at the players meeting that if they sign his contract they are signing on not just as athletes but as salespeople for their sport.

The benefit to them, he said, is larger purses and more importantly, bigger endorsement checks.

And with growth, the AVP will regain the leverage it once had to set the rules for beach volleyball, and more importantly, to select who represents the United States in the Olympics, he told the players.

Ceman after hearing Armato’s pitch said what impressed him most wasn’t the promises, most of which he’d head before from different people in his seven years on the tour. And it wasn’t the fact that Armato was putting his money where his mouth was.

What impressed Ceman the most was that Armato was putting his reputation on the line.

For volleyball purists -- going back to the legendary Manhattan Beach Open over 40 years ago, when Ron Von Haggan and Ron Lang engaged in a side-out marathon against Larry Rendle and Henry Burgman that lasted until after the sun set and the car lights shone on the court began to dim as their batteries wore down -- the biggest purses in beach volleyball have always been been bragging rights. ER