It is 10pm on Saturday night and, as darkness descends over Poreč, its tenderly lit streets are unusually quiet. From the Croatian town’s centre, reverberations of music can be heard in the distance. A few hundred metres away, on the coastal municipality’s waterfront, sits a bustling beach volleyball stadium, packed to the brim.
Inside the Red Bull Beach Arena, Canada’s Sarah Pavan and Melissa Humana-Paredes are taking to the sand, preparing to face the Czech pair of Barbora Hermannová and Marketa Slukova in the women’s final of this year’s Poreč Major. Outside, queues start to stretch around the temporary stadium’s perimeter, and it soon becomes apparent that some fans won’t be getting in. Entry to this event has always been free to the public but, in a final moment of desperation, punters begin waving money towards stewards in exchange for the evening’s coveted entertainment. Seemingly, it is one ticket that riches can’t buy.
This is the Swatch Beach Volleyball Major Series, the sport’s undisputed hottest property. Launched in 2015 as a joint venture between Austrian entrepreneur Hannes Jagerhofer and energy drinks brand Red Bull, the series has established itself as a pillar of the global governing body’s FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour and, since its inaugural edition, Poreč is one of only two venues to have staged a tournament every year.
This year, relentless thunderstorms in the build-up to the tournament threatened to tear the branding from the stadium’s exterior, but it is testament to the event’s organisers that by the time SportsPro arrives, the only remnants of the adverse weather are a few isolated puddles shaded from the 30-degree heat.
“I think there’s not a better fit for a location than here in Poreč, where we can have the centre court so close to a traditional and very beautiful city,” says Jagerhofer. “If you wanted to draw the perfect venue on paper for a beach volleyball tournament it would look just like Poreč.”
Even at first glance, it’s difficult to disagree. The quaint town is nearly 2,000 years old and webbed together by colourful cobbled alleyways, while the competition’s centre court peers out on to the sun-drenched Adriatic Sea. The event’s accommodation partners, Valamar Hotels & Resorts and Laguna Poreč, build the tournament’s side courts on their own stretch of shoreline, offering a naturally stunning backdrop for players and spectators alike.
Poreč has hosted an annual beach volleyball event since 2015.
More significant, though, is that the town rests only a few hours from Klagenfurt. The Austrian city is the birthplace of the Swatch Major Series, and has garnered a fervent beach volleyball fanbase since it first hosted a tournament in 1995. Now those same enthusiasts frequent Poreč once a year, transforming the popular tourist destination into a beach volleyball hub, and creating a carnival atmosphere that has become synonymous with the event.
“In Poreč we have an Austrian invasion,” says Nika Fleiss, the head of international communication for the Swatch Major Series. “For beach volleyball in Croatia this is the best thing that could ever happen, because the country doesn’t teach the sport at development level, and it’s great that we are so close to Austria because we can have this amazing fanbase here so that the tournament is always a spectacle.”
Indeed, Jagerhofer’s beach volleyball community is blossoming – and a quick peruse inside the tournament’s venue makes it clear that it isn’t only Croatians who flock here. In one corner stand a group of fans kitted out in Austrian replica vests, in another sit a cluster of supporters wrapped in the Brazilian flag, and at the back of the main stand are a pair of Americans face-painted in their native red, white and blue.
For beach volleyball in Croatia this is the best thing that could ever happen
Poreč might be home to just under 20,000 people, but more than four times that figure are expected from around the world over the course of the week. For an event consistently keen to showcase itself to potential partners, Swatch Major Series’ international project manager Stefan Wankmüller explains, the crowd has become one of the tournament’s biggest draws. As the organisers are always quick to stress, the end product is a unique blend of high-end entertainment and world-class sport.
“It’s different here because we have a full stadium which attracts the VIP guests, and they want to come because of the atmosphere,” Wankmüller says. “Usually it’s the other way around, in that you have the VIP guests and celebrities showing up, and normally this is what attracts the people.
“The aim is to get the energy that the whole crew puts into this project back from the crowd. I think what Hannes [Jagerhofer] has done is create a new lifestyle, because I’ve never seen a sport connected to so many other facets of entertainment that work out so well as here at the beach volleyball.”
To ensure the atmosphere doesn’t dwindle, the series employs a dedicated entertainment team unenviably tasked with ensuring that a constant flow of energy spreads throughout the 4,200-capacity Red Bull Beach Arena. The audience is rarely given the opportunity to draw breath, as each break in play is plugged by cheerleaders, water cannons and signature dance moves developed and produced with accompanying soundtracks by the event’s DJs and stadium announcers.
“For us it’s about playing the full piano of emotions,” says stadium announcer Flo Rudig, the master of ceremonies for Swatch Major Series. “We are always going to record new things and produce new channels, it’s just a question of what fits to the game, what fits to the players and what we can build up as a goosebump atmosphere with all the people.”
For the series’ corporate partners, the sight of a full and captivated venue certainly implies return for their investment. The centre court is at the heart of an encompassing Swatch Beach Village, where title sponsor Swatch parks a luxury store next to a big screen live-streaming proceedings at the venue’s entrance, Samsung has its own private tent to carry out activations, and a Red Bull-sponsored main bar proves particularly popular with thirsty patrons.
If the extensive brand presence isn’t indicative enough, walking into the luxurious VIP area manifests how greatly the series values its commercial partnerships. The long carpeted entrance to the exclusive ‘Beach Majors Club’ seems more befitting of a Hollywood movie premiere, but this kind of eye-catching excellence has become the norm for Jagerhofer’s creation. Visitors are greeted with an assortment of cuisines prepared on site by Swatch Major’s long-term catering partners Do & Co, who have a rich history of feeding hospitality guests at Formula One races, Uefa European Championship soccer tournaments and the Olympic Games.
“If you wanted to draw the perfect venue on paper for a beach volleyball tournament it would look just like Poreč.”
Perhaps the only danger of such a flawlessly constructed VIP offering is that it almost becomes too enticing not to leave. Beyond the array of buffets and bars is an exclusive grandstand overlooking the action, a private lounge, and an outdoor terrace hovering over the sea, which more adventurous fans are dared to explore on a speedboat that whisks hospitality guests around the Poreč bay.
“If you dive in here you are in a different world,” Jagerhofer proudly proclaims, “and this is the success and what is attractive for our sponsors. We invite them to stay in Croatia for three days, so they eat great food, they go out at night and they spend time together in the exclusive VIP stand and watch matches. They are excited and it’s a different kind of way of networking and getting to know each other.”
So great is the event’s draw now that stars from other sports are queuing up to be involved. At the Fort Lauderdale Major in February, the series struck a deal with online community platform SportBible, which saw British boxer David Haye commentate on a live game via the company’s BeachStream over-the-top (OTT) service. The former world heavyweight champion also appeared in the Swatch Major Series’ ‘Beach Meets’ YouTube feature, which films players from the Beach Volleyball World Tour swapping roles for a day with athletes from sports including cliff diving, ice hockey and surfing.
In Poreč, the organisers went one step further, granting Croatian international soccer star Ivan Perišić a wildcard entry to the group stage of the tournament, which saw him pair up with countryman Nikša Dell'Orco to headline the town’s first ever line-up of beach volleyball night matches. Games under the stars have opened new avenues for event organisers, and the Inter Milan midfielder’s cameo is quickly followed by a stunning fireworks display which brings thousands of tourists to a standstill along the town’s marina, before the event flawlessly filters into an on-site party where live bands entertain guests into the early hours of the morning.
Croatian international soccer player Ivan Perišić made his beach volleyball debut in Poreč.
Perišić’s beach volleyball debut wasn’t just popular with the sell-out home crowd, but also with the 64 worldwide television channels which requested footage of the 28-year-old’s games, as well as the 1,500 new subscribers who signed up to the BeachStream during his night match. This digital approach is where the opportunity lies, explains Philipp Schwarz, chief strategy officer for the Swatch Major Series, for a sport that’s not always in the public eye, creating crossovers with athletes from other disciplines is becoming increasingly important to grow beach volleyball’s global profile.
“The strategy behind this is to reach a broader audience,” he says, “because if we want to succeed as a niche sport we really need to be attractive as a sports product which everyone understands. The beauty of our project is that everybody loves it because it’s so positive. It’s not edgy in any way, it’s just fun. Whenever we have the chance to introduce it to our partners or some celebrities, they say they love it and want to come back.
“This means we are doing a lot of activations like the Perišić story now. One thing is that he comes here and wants to play but the big thing from our point of view is what we make out of it. By linking the two different sports together and connecting with his fans immediately makes them our fans, so we are working to produce a lot of content about it and try to have the right distribution angles, because this is the only way to create the reach we need, and figures are showing that it’s really picking up.”
The beauty of our project is that everybody loves it because it’s so positive. It’s not edgy in any way, it’s just fun
The clear objective, then, is to create a world-class media product that can transcend the series’ local reach and begin appealing to global broadcasters. The series recently agreed a deal with NBC, which sees its exclusive content distribution partner Red Bull Media House produce a variety of personalised content for the US network, including exclusive interviews with American players, clips for its social media channels, and up-to-date information about the competition. No fewer than 17 cameras are covering the Poreč Major from every angle and, this year, chips are being inserted in player vests to measure the height of their jumps, while trackers have been installed in the volleyballs to measure the speed of every serve.
“You can see the interest of bigger TV stations is now growing,” says Christian Baier, chief executive at Capcom media and moving images director for the Swatch Major Series. “They are recognising what is going on here and that it is a really interesting sport because of our overall product. More and more broadcasters are recognising that this is a high-class product with huge potential.
“The challenge is bringing this extraordinary atmosphere from the centre court into the living room of people watching at home, and at the same time we need to show what kind of world class athletes these guys are and how spectacular the sport is.
“We introduced three-dimensional tracking so viewers can understand the effort. It’s hard to appreciate how difficult it is to jump out of the sand and to reach a height of over three metres and our goal is to visualise that and incorporate the graphics into our TV signal.”
If the series hasn’t yet had the chance to showcase itself to the world, the opportunity will certainly be afforded by this year’s FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Vienna. The flagship event is part of the Swatch Major Series for the first time, and no fewer than 30 worldwide broadcasters have already purchased the rights to cover the showpiece. Poreč plays host to the drawing of lots for the tournament, and a bustling media room is filled with players and representatives confident that Jagerhofer’s team can produce an event that will cement the series as the sport’s crown jewel.
“The World Championships is the perfect opportunity for us,” Jagerhofer explains, “because we can execute it to the same high standards and even more than we normally do for our Major Series events. But it is also a huge challenge, because everything is doubled: the amount we spend is doubled, the size of the stadium is doubled, and we have never produced something this big before.”
This year's FIVB Beach Volleyball World Championships in Vienna are part of the Swatch Major Series for the first time.
Indeed, the scale of the tournament will be significantly greater than anything the series has done in the past, with a 10,000-seater stadium already erected next to the Danube River in one of Europe’s biggest capital cities, and up to 300,000 spectators preparing to attend. While that might seem a daunting prospect to some, Jagerhofer is keen to assert that it’s merely a benchmark of the rapid progress that the series has made, and he seems stoically determined to deliver the best Beach Volleyball World Championships ever.
“I think for me beach volleyball can be a real diamond but it’s like a puzzle,” he says. “If you’re missing one of these pieces then it doesn’t really work. I think the most important parts are the combination of entertainment, the interaction between the fans and the athletes, and a world-class service. Our aim is to deliver all the pieces of this puzzle and I think as it is shaping up now, if our plans come true for the World Championships you will never have seen anything like it.”
And as those words start to resonate following another successful Major in Poreč, it’s hard to do anything but believe him.