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King of the Court: The Origin Story


June 14, 2017, Utrecht, Lucasbolwerk, in front of the city’s Stadsschouwburg theater. Five teams from the Netherlands, Brazil, the United States and Latvia are about to play the first ever international King of the Court match. The stress is high with creator Wilco Nijland, will everything work out? Suddenly the livestream falters, the power fails. Over than 1,500 people are gathered around the court full of expectation. Who will be the first international Kings of the Court?

That fourteenth of June in 2017 symbolizes the beginning of the beach volleyball sensation that has since taken the world by storm. In the following years, international top beach volleyball players played eleven international tournaments at six beautiful locations. But that beautiful summer day in 2017 at the Lucasbolwerk is of course not the start of this beach discipline that has now been recognized on the world stage. It all started a year earlier. The creator of King of the Court and director of Sportworx Wilco Nijland reminisces about a wonderful evening in 2016.

"We organized the Top Dutch League ‘Eredivisie’ for the first time in Utrecht and we had nothing on a Wednesday night," Wilco remembers. "I called friends to play a big King of the Court tournament. We only had 1 court, so I thought: 'we're going to play King of the Court with 25 teams, all levels mixed up'. That was the King of the Court training format that we know from indoor volleyball. With one adjustment: it was mandatory to drink a beer when you came from the winner's side to the challenge side. So, there were 23 teams waiting each time. It was hilarious, footballers won a point against beach volleyball players for instance."

But, this was not yet the birth of a new beach discipline, the next day the seed was planted. The director of events and sports of the Dutch Volleyball Association Michel Everaert came to watch the Eredivisie and got into conversation with Wilco. "I told Michel: we did something great yesterday. We played King of the Court with 25 teams. He said: 'I've always thought about having more teams on court. That way you can have five nationalities in the final, making it more interesting for television.' I continued to work with that idea, to develop it further."

Wilco and his people from then Music and Sports, the company he started in 2008 to develop Bossaball (another volleyball discipline) worldwide, continued to work. It had to be a knock-out race, and just like in Formula 1 qualifying, teams had to be eliminated per round. They concluded that five teams was ideal and that three rounds had to be played.

"The next step was that we tested the format in The Sport Box (an indoor beach location, run by Music and Sports, ed.) with guys who played third division. I then expanded the rules of the game a bit more. I had made up rules for a fault service and defined rounds had to be played on time. I think the first round at that time was 20 minutes, then 16 minutes and finally 12. After that test, we fine-tuned everything."

In December 2016 we did a slightly more serious test with the teams of Beach Volleybal Team Netherlands (BTN) in Lindobeach, Scheveningen. We got a lot of information about what would and wouldn’t work. After that session I thought: 'now we're going to try it with the really big guys'."

"The opportunity came on a Wednesday evening in the week that we organized the Dutch Beach Tour in Utrecht again. On 14 June 2017, the day before the FIVB Beach World Tour started in The Hague. I invited some players with the help of BTN, I didn't know anyone personally in the beach volleyball world at the time. I sent Aleksandrs Samoilovs, Casey Patterson and Alvaro Filho a message. I think Patterson and Samoilovs responded to an email within five minutes. They said: ‘Something new? Okay, we're there’. That was fantastic. They’re the type of players who also like to test something like that and help develop it."

In his mind, Wilco is back at the Lukasbolwerk, that evening in 2017. "I was so stressed before the start. I think we wanted to begin at 8 pm and we couldn't go on too long because of noise standards. Before the start, the livestream did not work, the power suddenly failed. And we had over 1,500 people waiting. You start something new and then the scoreboard doesn't work! And the livestream! Fortunately everything came together right before the start and we had an amazing premiere.

Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen became the very first Kings of the Court in an international competition. They defeated their compatriots Christiaan Varenhorst/Maarten van Garderen, Aleksandrs Samoilovs/Janis Smedins from Latvia, Casey Patterson/Theo Brunner (USA) and Brazilians Alvaro Marois Filho/Saymon Barbosa Santos.

Watch the after movie of King of the Court 2017 below.

Wilco's stress turned out to be unfounded in the end. "After that first tournament, everyone seemed to be in a state of euphoria. We had said to the players: if 500 spectators come to watch, that will be about it. We’ll play nice and relaxed, we are going to test it and we’ll see. In the end, 1,500 people showed up and the players felt that 3,000 people were in attendance, that’s how much noise they made. It worked very well from the beginning, that dynamic. The players were immediately sold. And spectators climbed on top of bikes to be able to see the spectacle."

2018 to 2020
In 2018, the organization, which had since merged into Sportworx, traveled to four locations in Utrecht, Antwerp, Hawaii and Huntington Beach. At those four tournaments, a group of players traveled with the organisation, experiencing beautiful moments during a visit to a baseball game in The States and a surf clinic in the Pacific Ocean. The concept was rolled out around the world together with the players and the response was overwhelming.

“This journey was mine most special ever”, Wilco says. “When do you ever get the chance to travel the globe with the world’s best beach volleyball players? We developed King of the Court together; we created unforgettable memories. Players became good friends. We all felt connected to show King of the Court to the public, to show what we are all about. I’ll never forget the fun things we did, like surfing in Hawaii and going to the ball game in LA. I’m thankful for the journey, it’s the basis of the good connection we have with the players on tour.”

Unfortunately, it was too late at the end of 2018 to set up a strong tour for the following year, which Sportworx planned to happen in 2020 with four events. But, the coronavirus threw a spanner in the works. The calendar was swept clean and organisers worldwide faced a huge challenge: how do you organize a top sports event that is safe for both athletes and the public? The creative brains of Wilco and his team were put to work and the results were spectacular.

Wilco's brains spawned a stadium that players later called a gladiator pit. A stadium built from scaffolding material in which skyboxes were created. Groups of people could safely enjoy top sport isolated from others. For example, about 500 people could still experience King of the Court per session. The tournament was a great success.

Wilco: "At that time only football competitions, the start of the Tour de France, the Formula 1 race in Toscane, and the US Open tennis were broadcasted live. We were the fifth live sporting event. I really thought that was our international breakthrough." Sportworx took a huge risk for the organization of that tournament. "I think I aged ten years," Wilco explains. "It was really very stressful, because nobody really knew how to deal with COVID If you had an infection, would the whole tournament have to be canceled? And how do you deal with an audience? That was very stressful. The relief was grand when it worked out. If there had been a corona outbreak, the company would have had serious problems. That's how you sometimes go along the edge. That's also nice, a bit of adrenaline," he says with a laugh.

The fourth and fifth years
In 2021, the world was still dealing with the coronavirus pandemic on a large scale. Sportworx managed to set up three events, in Hamburg, Utrecht and for the first time also the Finals in Doha at the end of the season.

In 2022 we have already played Hamburg for the second time and Utrecht was the eleventh international tournament, the very first CEV Queen and King of the Court European Finals. Wilco is surprised by his now 25 direct colleagues on court in the sold-out BetCity Arena. In a video message, the inventor of the game is thanked by friends, players and his wife Maaike and their children.

Check out the video below.

"It's actually a bit unreal," Wilco explains when we ask him about that moment. "You’re always busy organizing and arranging things step by step. I also had the feeling: suddenly it's been five years. Wow, how long actually. Time has flown by. It is super special and almost unprecedented that you come up with something yourself, starting in 2017. It’s picked up and many people like it. Also developing the stadium. It's something big and special, I think. That so many people enjoy it."

As an organizer, Wilco is often very busy during tournaments like in Utrecht and can not always enjoy what is happening around him. At that moment he was forced to do so. "Maaike said in the video: 'sweetheart, look around you'. That touched me most of all. She often says that to me, because I never do, I don’t allow myself to enjoy success. I'll move on quickly. But she really said: look around you. You have achieved this with your team. I thought: yes, she's right about that. That was really special. Fortunately, I let it soak in a few times during the tournament."

The game King of the Court is still developing; every year steps are taken. Next year there will probably be seven tournaments on the international calendar. Asked where King of the Court will be in five years, Wilco's answer is: "I think we have a global tour of around ten stops. We’ll have continental championships and national championships in several countries. And I hope that we will then be an established product in the beach volleyball landscape. That it's part of the calendar and that players also just choose to play a King of the Court tournament, because they like to go on a trip with those guys."

"Regular beach volleyball will always remain the number 1 sport. I hope that we can be a second international discipline with a good cooperation in the field of calendar management with Volleyball World and FIVB, so that it suits the players and the sport best. We want to develop the sport and ourselves as well as possible. And if I can dream freely, I think I would find it most beautiful that in ten years' time a 12-year-old child would say to me: ‘I play King of the Court. And last night I saw the world tour on television’. Because that's basically what it's all about. It says that you have further developed the Crown Series, that you have a beautiful tour around the world, but you’ve also further developed the sport. I think that's the dream."