Seconds before the first serve, while techno music wound up the crowd, the announcer with the orange microphone singled out a sore spot in the tournament's history.
"We got you all riled up last year, and then we just walked away," he said, referring to thunderstorms that had canceled the event just before the finals. "We have unfinished business here."
The weather held this time, thanks to a few minor adjustments, such as a change in scheduling, said Donald Sun, managing partner of the Association of Volleyball Professionals. Now, he and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman both say the tournament is poised to stay.
The seven-stop AVP tour, which started Friday in St. Petersburg and ends in September in Huntington Beach, Calif., annually attracts elite athletes and fans from across the country. Sun did not have an estimate of how many attended but said he thinks it was more than the roughly 9,000 people who flocked to Vinoy Park last year.
This year, the tournament was moved a tick south on Beach Drive to Spa Beach Park, a larger venue for building crowds, Sun said. The peninsular park also offers views of Tampa Bay with a backdrop of the city's skyline. He said crews positioned their cameras intentionally to capture the buildings rising over the grandstands.
The tournament was bumped up five months from September, the height of hurricane season, in favor of better weather (though Sun acknowledged June 1 marks the first day of the Atlantic hurricane season).
Before the finals, Mike Bosso, Rick Bosso and Joe Trentley huddled on a shady patch beneath a palm tree to eat a lunch of gyros and shish kebabs.
Trentley, 36, drove from Orlando to meet his cousins, the Bossos, in Tampa. They all drove to St. Petersburg for the tournament. Trentley said he's been to six or seven AVP events in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and New Jersey. He said that Florida doesn't see many volleyball tournaments, and he likes St. Petersburg as a venue with the park surrounded by water. Will they be back? "Absolutely," Trentley said.
But he noted: It's not a beach.
Sun laughed when a reporter pointed out that in a state surrounded by wide swaths of sand, he chose one of the few spots on the coast that isn't. Instead, 1,200 tons of sand was trucked in from Stewart Mining in Fort Pierce to build the courts. Sun said he chose this spot for the people.
"They're just so welcoming," he said. In a city that's landed events like the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, Sun wants the people to feel like the event is theirs.
Shortly after delivering the opening serve (which cleared the net but landed just out of bounds), Kriseman said the tournament fits with the image he has for the city.
"Quality of life is why people want to be here," he said. "Having events like this adds to that quality."
At Cassis American Brasserie, where Second Avenue NE meets the mainland, general manager Elliot Gunther said the restaurant has seen business over the weekend driven directly by the tournament. Some of the players dined there Saturday night. Large parties made reservations. During a usually slower month for business, he was glad for the uptick. As a native, he was proud for his town.
"It's such a cool thing to have in St. Pete," he said. "If I wasn't at work today, I'd be out there."
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