“We’ve extended the golden era of volleyball”: the FIVB’s Fabio Azevedo on the sport’s global growth

Fabio Azevedo, general director of the FIVB, has ambitions to turn volleyball and beach volleyball into tier-one Olympic sports. Here, he discusses his plan for achieving that, as well as the future rebranding of the organisation and a potential appearance for snow volleyball on the Winter Olympic programme.

“We’ve extended the golden era of volleyball”: the FIVB’s Fabio Azevedo on the sport’s global growth

The sport of beach volleyball began its upward trajectory in the late 1980s, and has hardly slowed down since.

It first gained a spot on the Olympic programme at Atlanta 96 and quickly became one of the Games’ most recognisable sports, taking over famous venues - from London’s Horse Guards Parade to its spiritual home on Rio’s Copacabana, with a spot already earmarked at the foot of Paris’ Eiffel Tower for 2024 - and creating some iconic imagery along the way.

Its world championships have become famous for occupying entire cities, drawing huge crowds and creating a festival atmosphere around the arenas. This year, a temporary venue was constructed on an island in the Danube in Austria’s historic capital city of Vienna - a country whose surprising passion for beach volleyball has seen it become one of the premier destinations for the game.

Fabio Azevedo, general director of the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), the global governing body for volleyball and beach volleyball, has further ambitions yet. SportsPro caught up with the Brazilian in Vienna to discuss his aspirations, including a potential rebrand for the organisation, and the development of the sport’s winter version.

Fabio Azevedo, secretary general of the FIVB. Source: FIVB.

SportsPro: You’ve said that your intention is to make volleyball and beach volleyball globally popular sports. How are you working to achieve that goal?

Fabio Azevedo: The intention of the FIVB is that we want to revolutionise the sport. We want really to move volleyball and beach volleyball to the next level. One way we want to do that is make clear that we are about entertainment plus sport. We want to have our fans to attend our events and have an active entertainment. It’s not just them being there, it’s them being there dancing, singing, being educated about what’s happening on the field of play. What we want to have is fans who are really engaged and participating.

In beach volleyball, we have many intervals, and we want to take advantage of that. We have around 180 points per match, which means 180 intervals, 180 opportunities to engage people and educate people about what is happening. What we want to see our fans doing is recognising what’s happening, we want to have them with a simple movement repeating what’s happening on the field of play.

What we’re realising is that we have to improve the communication of volleyball and beach volleyball. A question that we come to is, “Why do we not yet have a huge volleyball star?” The answer we have is that it’s because we are not communicating properly the big moments, the great moments in our matches. What’s the goal in volleyball and beach volleyball? What’s our touchdown? Our touchdown is precisely the moment that we have a long rally and the public become crazy and start cheering for that. We want to communicate much better and integrate our public in what’s happening on the field of play.

We want to show much better the faces of our players. We’re not doing that properly yet. It’s like Lionel Messi scoring goals and we are not repeating those goals properly, we’re not showing Lionel Messi’s face. That’s the link between a better production and a better integration between the audience and the field of play.

This is also an accessible sport for everyone. We can have every single member of the family on board. Because we can see a great energy around the bleachers, we can see an amazing friendly environment around, people are dancing or singing, and I also believe that it’s a reflection of what’s happening on the field of play. Our athletes are adversaries, they’re not enemies. They win, they lose, but at the end they hug each other and they have this friendly environment and that’s reflected on the bleachers. I’m very confident to bring my kids here without any problems. I know that they will enjoy it a lot. I bring them for some events and they enjoy it a lot.

Beach volleyball in particular has become an Olympic staple after huge success in London and Rio. How are you planning to develop in Tokyo and what are your thoughts on the 2024 and 2028 decision?

We want to have another amazing success in Tokyo. Volleyball and beach volleyball combined in Rio 2016, according to the official report of the IOC, was the number one sport in terms of viewer hours in the world. It was incredible. We had 99 per cent of the tickets sold. It was the number one sport. It was an amazing result. And in Tokyo we have to do better than that.

Another thing we should bear in mind is that Japan is a volleyball country. Tokyo is actually the Olympic birthplace of volleyball, in 1964. That was the first Olympic Games for volleyball and we want to come back 56 years later and celebrate the amazing success of volleyball in the world.

The news about Los Angeles and Paris could not be better. France is a country that is very much in our targets as a big country that we want to develop a lot. And LA… come on. LA is the birthplace of beach volleyball! It’s cultural in LA. We can see beach volleyball everywhere. You cannot believe. Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach, they have the culture in their blood. I can see only good things ahead of us. We have said that the golden era of volleyball should be from London 2012 to Tokyo. So now we’ve extended it to 2028.

Gold medalists Kira Walkenhorst and Laura Ludwig of Germany. Source: FIVB.

We know you’re aiming to become a tier-one sport at the Olympics. Can you give us an update on that? Doesn’t your success at Rio justify that upgrade?

As you know, that’s our number one strategic goal. We are doing our job. I believe that after Rio’s results, having Tokyo ahead of us, it’s a matter of time. We must be there.

It’s a huge number of factors that the IOC is looking into, around 74 points that the IOC uses to evaluate the sports. What we are doing is that we are checking every single point and we are improving the entire organisation on every single point.

I can tell you one example: unfortunately we didn’t have an athletes’ commission. A simple thing like that, which is one of the 74 points. Now we’ve implemented the athletes’ commission last year. We’re not sure we’ll move from tier two to tier one, but we are doing our job. We expect to happen after Tokyo because the IOC take in the last three Olympics - London, Rio and Tokyo. We have to do a really great job in Tokyo to maintain the progress. If it doesn’t happen, we will keep working.

There have been reports that the FIVB is considering a name change similar to that which World Taekwondo, World Sailing and World Rugby all recently undertook. What’s the timeframe on that and what can you tell us about the process?

We are definitely looking into it. It’s an ongoing process. But it is not an isolated action. We hired a new marketing manager and a new marketing agency, and we are doing a complete repositioning of the FIVB, rebranding of the FIVB, and it must be aligned not only with the governing body but also our competitions. It’s an ongoing process but we want to be consistent and align the names of the competitions and the organisation.

We have lots of competitions with the word “world”. It’s making some confusion with some people. We want to make it more appealing, position volleyball and beach volleyball more clearly.

Finally, can we touch on your plans for snow volleyball and its potential inclusion in the Winter Olympics?

It is our goal to get it on the programme, but we have to be realistic. I believe that snow volleyball is an amazing product. But in snow volleyball we are like beach volleyball in the 1980s - it must be developed. Of course, nowadays, with all the technology around digital ecosystems and all the platforms we have, it will not take so long to be recognised as a great product.

We are working very hard on it. We have people dedicated to snow volleyball now, they’ve been at the Beach Volleyball World Championships to learn from this experience. The intention in the future is to have a Snow Volleyball World Championships on the same level that we have Beach Volleyball World Championships.

Why? Because the FIVB had to show to the IOC in 1993 how great beach volleyball was in order to get a position in 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. We had to showcase, we had to consolidate. The great thing is that we all the experience we have, all the knowledge, we will not make the same mistakes that probably happened then so we can move forward very quickly.

The intention for the future is to have snow volleyball on the Winter Olympic programme. I don’t know where, of course.