Kerri Walsh Jennings is telling me about how great volleyball is. In her view, “Indoor and beach volleyball,” she says, “are the number-one sports at the Olympics.” She’s biased, of course. Walsh Jennings is one of the most decorated beach volleyball players in the world–she currently has three gold medals, one bronze, and is the sport’s leading female athlete in career victories. She plans on winning another gold in Tokyo at next summer’s Olympics.
For those who are up on the sport’s headlines, it might seem odd that we’re having this conversation at all: Walsh Jennings hasn’t been affiliated with the Association for Volleyball Professionals (AVP), the U.S.’s premiere league for the sport, for nearly a year due contract disagreements. Now she’s launching something new, in the hopes of reinvigorating the sport–and, while Walsh Jennings won’t say it outright, to provide other athletes what she feels the professional leagues never did for her.
Making Volleyball An All-The-Time Sport
Walsh Jennings describes the venture, which she’s launching with her husband, as a “platform.”
Called p1440 (a reference to the fact that there are 1,440 minutes in a day) and launching today, “it’s part Wanderlust, part Coachella, part volleyball league,” she tells me. It will operate similarly to a league–hosting brand-sponsored events for the top athletes to compete in–but there’s also a digital component meant to train and energize anyone (young, old, professional, amateur) who loves the sport. “Our whole goal is to elevate the game and give athletes more access,” she says.
The organization’s mission reflects from Walsh Jennings’s own experience. The AVP and others demand league exclusivity, which is something p1440 won’t require. The tournaments it stages, she says, will have more prize money to offer so that top competitors can make a living simply by playing the sport they love. “The state of volleyball,” she adds, “is healthy in many ways except at the top.”
According to Walsh Jennings, even the best athletes in the sport still maintain side hustles and usually have to wait every four years to make national news via the Olympics. Those who don’t make the Olympic team are pretty much screwed (trying out for the U.S. Olympic team isn’t conditional on which league an athlete may or may not play for). Walsh Jennings believes that with a more mainstream-fanbase volleyball can break free of that hyper-selective, cyclical pattern. “If you look at the successful sports that are also Olympic sports, their leagues and their tours drive the Olympics. It’s not the other way around,” she explains. “The Olympics is the only thing going for beach volleyball.”
She goes on, “We really need to flip that on its head–respectfully.”
Gearing Up For Tokyo 2020 And Beyond
That’s where the whole “platform” idea comes in. By creating not just a new league but a new way for volleyball athletes to learn from and connect with each other, Walsh Jennings believes p1440 will succeed where the AVP and other leagues have fallen short.
Members–both professional athletes and lovers of the sport–will pay monthly fees–maybe $5 or $6, she suggests–and brands will sponsor live events. The members can also turn to the platform for education from top coaches in addition to wellness resources, be they clinics at events or live webinars. She adds that the platform is working with Intel to add gamified elements to the digital experience. P1440’s four pillars, says Walsh Jennings, are competition, development, health and wellness, and entertainment. Taken together, the platform is “a celebration of the game of beach volleyball.”
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Getting p1440 off the ground right now leaves just under two and a half years to prepare for the 2020 summer Olympics. “Just after Tokyo 2020,” says Walsh Jennings, “we want 4 million subscribers.” p1440 has four events on the calendar for 2018: a first one in September in Chicago, followed by three more in California. But “we’re not just a tournament tour,” she stresses. “We have all the festival components,” including plans to host events around the world.
From here on out, Walsh Jennings expects to be in full entrepreneurial mode. She’s meeting with brands and sponsors who can help make her dream even more of a reality. She seems to like this new role–like any decorated Olympian, Walsh Jennings finds that she’s very good at multitasking. She does miss playing the sport, she admits, but that part of her life isn’t over. I ask if she’s going to compete in her own league down the line. Without blinking she says, “I want to win every event–I plan on winning a lot.”