Most professional sports have players’ unions that are charged with representing the interests of the people who play the sport at the highest level. Until recently this was not the case for individuals who play that ever-popular Olympic sport, beach volleyball, but now almost 100 professional beach volleyball players have united to form the International Beach Volleyball Players Association (“IBVPA”).

Player unions and collective bargaining may not be the first things that comes to mind when you think of beach volleyball. For many, the sport has become known more for the players’ outfits than their ability to spike a ball with incredible ferocity or elude the opponents’ block with a deft cut-shot, but the establishment of the IBVPA could signal a fundamental change to the way in which professionals are remunerated and may result in more changes to the way in which the sport is run.

Collective bargaining and player unions have long been a feature of professional sport, with the Professional Footballers’ Association (“PFA”) being formed in 1907 to represent the interests of England’s footballers. Continuing in that tradition, the IBVPA cited concerns around “cancelled tournaments, a significant drop in prize money and changes to the structure of tournaments” as just some of the reasons for the association’s establishment.

The IBVPA went on to state that the sport’s governing body, the International Volleyball Federation (“FIVB”), made these changes “without input by the players, despite the impact to their livelihood”. Some of beach volleyball’s leading figures have already signed-up to join the association with the likes of Kerri Walsh-Jennings and April Ross (bronze-medallists at Rio 2016) being named as members and Phil Dalhausser (gold-medallist at Beijing 2008) being named the IBVPA’s honorary  president.

Beach volleyball as a sport has found it difficult to capitalise on the brief waves of popularity it enjoys every four years at the Olympics, with high-value commercial deals thus far eluding the sport’s authorities. Part of the frustration which led to the creation of the IBVPA stems from the FIVB’s decision to drastically expand the number of stops on the World Tour from 19 in the 2016-17 season to 43 in the 2017-18 season. For some players, the accompanying increase in prize money from US$4 million to US$6.5 million may have sufficiently mitigated the impact of a more than twofold increase in the number of events. However, in a sport where even the best athletes have struggled to get sponsorship, the additional expenses associated with attending so many more events may deter them from competing at lower profile events where the prize money they are likely to earn may not adequately incentivise them to travel to the venue.

Of course the FIVB will hope that the increased number of events will boost the profile of the sport, thereby increasing its attractiveness for commercial partners. This in turn could enable the FIVB to increase prize money in the years to come; but the danger of increasing the number of events without a commensurate increase in prize money is that the product may become devalued if key players decide that an event is not worth attending. At the extreme end of the spectrum, this could raise the possibility of some events being cancelled where they are not viable due to players dropping out.

So what is the IBVPA aiming to achieve for its members? Article 1 of the IBVPA’s by-laws states, naturally enough, that its purpose is to promote, support, advise and represent professional beach volleyball players and their interests in any way possible. In particular, the IBVPA will represent its members in negotiations with national and international sports associations (including the FIVB) and sponsors.

Organisations like the PFA have been successful in obtaining a share of television revenue to support their activities on behalf of footballers. The gulf in commercial revenue between football and volleyball is of course vast, but it may be that the IBVPA tries to follow a similar model in pushing for a greater share of commercial revenue generated by the FIVB for professional players and indeed for its own activities.

Intriguingly, the IBVPA’s by-laws require members to transfer their collective rights to their photographs and names to the association in a move that is presumably designed to give it greater clout when negotiating on members’ behalf. It’s not clear how this collective assignment of image and naming rights operates as against any contracts which professionals sign with the FIVB when joining the world tour, but it could strengthen the IBVPA’s hand when it comes to negotiating player contracts for future seasons. Members will retain their individual image rights under the IBVPA’s by-laws, allowing them to enter into individual endorsement arrangements and sponsorship deals.

At the time of writing, the FIVB has not issued an official reaction to the announcement of the IBVPA’s establishment.  It seems likely, however, that if the FIVB wishes to conduct any major overhauls of competition structures or prize money allocation in the future, it will need to consult with the IBVPA.