HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. — Maddison McKibbin was doing it all wrong.
Sometime around 2017 — the details for such matters are hazy — Tri Bourne had to inform his good friend of how things worked in the world of business and beach volleyball, and the tenuous connection between the two.
“Dude,” he told him, “you’re not going to get sponsors until you win.”
That was the formula as Bourne, and everyone else on Tour, knew it then: Win on the AVP first, build a brand second, pitch sponsors third.
“I was like ‘Oh, OK,’ v” McKibbin recalled on SANDCAST: Beach Volleyball with Tri Bourne and Travis Mewhirter.
And then he went on doing what we was doing anyway: Making videos, building a brand, and, yes, eventually winning. The result spoke volumes: McKibbin and his older brother, Riley, inked a sponsorship deal with Wilson before Bourne, this in spite Bourne having already won three AVPs and an FIVB, while Maddison and Riley were still working through the qualifiers and had produced a grand total of one video for their upstart YouTube Channel.
“I was winning, and they didn’t come,” Bourne said of the sponsors. “I realized they aren’t caring what you’re doing on the court, they care about how many people watch you, what your personal brand is, and how you can help sell their product. You need to build your personal brand in order to do that.”
The McKibbins are arguably the biggest trailblazing beach volleyball players of this generation. Yes, brothers had played with moderate success before them — Andrew and Sinjin Smith, Greg and Jon Lee, Trevor and Taylor Crabb, to name a few. Yes, players and coaches had shot videos and put them on YouTube, ranging from blurry tutorials to players talking simply story. But never had a pair of players combined storytelling, video production, and a high level of play and bundled them into a package deal anywhere close to the quality of the McKibbins — a package to which fans continue flocking in the hundreds of thousands.
“Someone asked me the other day, ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ I was like, if you asked me that five years ago, and you told me what we’re doing now, I’d be like ‘Whoa, what happened?’ ” Maddison recalled, laughing.
Five years ago, the McKibbins were the owners of a single video: Hop Step Defense for Beach Volleyball. It’s 42 seconds long, has slightly north of 7,000 views, and doesn’t have a thumbnail. Six videos later, they breached the six-figure threshold for the first time, instructing viewers on the Batter’s Box. Two videos after that? One million — and counting — were reached, with Taylor Crabb’s advice on arm swing mechanics.
But here’s where the McKibbins zigged, where so many others would have zagged: They continued innovating. They didn’t see the viewership gold mine that is beach volleyball tutorials, a space in which they were pioneers, and tap it for all it’s worth. Sure, they continued doing them — How to Bump Set with Kelly Reeves, Jump Serving with Geena Urango, Passing (m’kay?) with Chase Frishman, the list goes on — but where the McKibbins are different, in the best of ways, is that they don’t necessarily chase the metrics. They chase fulfillment.
A hero of theirs in the video-making is Casey Neistat, one of the most successful vloggers in the world, with a perfectly imperfect style that isn’t polished, allows room for intentionally blurry shots, shaky cameras, and human error. It’s a style that produced the most successful Nike ad campaign in history, and exactly what the McKibbins loved and sought to emulate.
“I asked Riley if he’d ever heard of vlogging, and he goes ‘No, what’s that?’ ” Maddison recalled.
And so they started vlogging, treating viewers to never before seen, behind the scenes access to the life of a qualifier beach volleyball player. They tracked April Ross for a full day, played Casey Patterson and Stafford Slick in a hilarious — and, ahem, perhaps fixed — match in which the loser would shave their hirsute faces. They put on fours tournaments and a King of the Beach. Wherever the fun was, wherever the sport needed a little extra innovation, a pulling of the curtain, the McKibbins were there.
“I think most people think what they need in order to get sponsors is a bunch of followers but what we’re seeing in the marketplace is you don’t need the biggest following,” Maddison said. “You don’t need to be a caricature of yourself or larger than life. It’s not sustainable. It’s one route that works for some people. The biggest thing is differentiation about what you’re passionate about.”
That differentiation is the reason that, despite their career-high being a fifth on the AVP, the McKibbins are two of the most popular players in the United States. Some fans still wear fake beards to the beach, even though the last event the McKibbins played came in the 2020 Champions Cup, in which there were no fans at all. It’s the reason that Jameson, the youngest of the bunch, with all of one AVP tournament to his name (he lost in the first round of the Manhattan Beach qualifier in 2019) was asked for an autograph earlier this year, a moment Riley, perfectly, caught on video.
They built the brand, won later — or, in Riley and Jameson’s cases, not at all — and have reaped the benefits.
“At the end of the day, it’s an entertainment product,” Maddison said of sports, and beach volleyball. “It’s a competitive product, but there’s too much emphasis on that, and I’m not talking about every player being a Casey Patterson, it’s just not possible, but it has to be looked at as an entertainment product and how it can be more entertaining and more engaging.”
The McKibbins are largely responsible for the sport, and its players, being as engaging and entertaining as they are. Without them, viewers wouldn’t have gotten a glimpse into Alix Klineman gushing about cooking, or April Ross’ obsession with coffee. It wouldn’t have known that Tri Bourne legitimately never knows the score, even when he wins, or that Riley was the forgotten benchwarmer until he decided he didn’t want to be that anymore and promptly became the No. 1 recruit in the country. They’ve humanized the players in a way nobody had ever done before, telling the stories that make professional athletes, often put on the highest of pedestals, as human and relatable as the person you’re standing in line with at Starbucks.
For them to continue doing so, however, will take no small amount of innovation, even for them. Riley has moved to Italy with his family, as Carli Lloyd took a contract with the Italian club, Pomi Casalmaggiore. He’s now a full-time dad with their daughter, Storm. Maddison is expecting a baby boy in December. Jameson has been promoted to full-time video editor, learning as he goes, the same trial by fire enjoyed by both of his older brothers.
“It’s been Jameson and I, and we’ve been adjusting and making things work and cranking out Wilson content and doing some other stuff with Waiakea and other brands,” Maddison said. “Trying to keep the YouTube Channel going, and I’m expecting a baby boy in a month so we’ve got a lot of things going on in the background and a lot of ideas.”
Most of these ideas won’t ever leave the blackboard upon which they’re brainstormed. But the ones that do? Rest assured, the McKibbins will have found another hidden gem in beach volleyball.
Another trail to blaze.