(Photos: Mathew Silver)

The McKibbin brothers are changing the game of beach volleyball, though not necessarily for their play in the sand. Instead, the Hawaiian brothers, who compete together on the pro circuit, are slowly emerging as social media stars. Riley, 29, and Maddison, 27, also known as the “Beard Bros” for the grizzly facial hair that has become a part of their brand identity, create beach volleyball content that seeks to educate and entertain. They upload how-to videos, which explain techniques such as passing, hitting, and defense; or use vlogs (video blogs) to showcase life on the professional volleyball tour. Most recently, a video on their YouTube channel, which features former NBA player Richard Jefferson and current Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton, has registered more than 93,000 views.

The McKibbins are in New York for the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) NYC Open, June 7-10. It’s one of the most lucrative stops on the beach volleyball pro tour, with a $20,000 prize for the first-place team. Despite their growing celebrity, the McKibbins still needed to qualify for the tournament. Just 12 teams automatically advance to the main draw of the NYC Open, based on strong finishes at tournaments earlier in the year. A total of 45 teams attended the qualifier on Thursday at Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 6, with hopes of grabbing one of the four remaining spots in the main draw. That math is daunting, especially when you consider that teams in the qualifier travel from all across the country and are responsible for their own flights and accommodations. One loss and they’re out.

The McKibbins came from their training hub in Hermosa Beach, California. They decided not to vlog during the qualifier, since lugging around the camera and creating content is a distraction. If they can win on the court, it will help their online presence grow, anyhow. According to Riley, just having a YouTube channel adds a bit of pressure.

“If we don’t win any games on the beach, then we’re just two guys who practice volleyball and make YouTube videos,” said Riley. “But at the same time, it takes a bit of pressure off of us, since if volleyball doesn’t work out, then we can spend more time on the YouTube channel. So, it kind of balances out.”

Their first match of the qualifier was against Cronshaw/Kohler. The McKibbins, after a shaky start, found their rhythm and won the match 2-0. On the beach volleyball court, the brothers are difficult to tell apart, with matching black outfits, and their faces hidden behind hats, sunglasses, and those bushy beards. But Maddison is slightly taller at 6’4” with a sinewy frame, while Riley is 6’2” with a more muscular build; Maddison is smiley and jovial, while Riley is shrewd and a bit more serious; Maddison is a lefty and Riley is a righty, which gives them a balanced attack.

Maddison, left, and Riley, right, prepare to receive serve.

Riley and Maddison have played together their entire lives. First, on the “baby court” at Outrigger Canoe Club in Hawaii, where they would compete for milkshakes and charge them to their parents’ member account; then at Punahou School, where they won a combined six state championships; next was the University of Southern California, where their youngest brother Jameson will start his college volleyball career in the Fall; after that it was a short stint in Greece as pros; and finally, fittingly, they’ve ended up on the pro beach volleyball circuit.

The USA produces some of the best volleyball talent in the world – both in the men’s and women’s game, indoor and on the beach – just without widespread domestic recognition. Though beach volleyball might seem niche in America, especially when compared to other major league sports, the fan-base is remarkably passionate. According to Martin Suan, a spokesperson for the AVP, the McKibbins are tapping into that demographic, particularly with younger players.

“They’ve done a really good job of helping to inspire kids and keep them interested in beach volleyball,” said Suan. “Their profile is growing the game and it’s getting people interested.”

The “Beard Bros” played their second match of the qualifier against Smith/Yoder, and relied on their physical ability to earn a 2-1 win. Both of the brothers jump well and swing hard, athletic traits they inherited from their parents. Their mother, Diana, who recently retired from her job as a PE teacher, won a national championship with the Hawaii women’s volleyball team back in 1979. Their father, Angus, who runs a popular shop in Hawaii called The Cookie Corner, played water polo and soccer at Cornell. Angus set up a basketball hoop in the cul-de-sac and a volleyball court in the backyard, giving his boys an early introduction to sports.

An old article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Maddison and Riley have evolved into the furry faces of the AVP, but they weren’t always allowed to have facial hair. Back at USC, the McKibbins were forced to shave.

“Our coach always made us shave and a lot of us hated it, even five o’clock shadow. But now looking back on it, I can kind of see his point,” said Maddison. “He was always big on his players looking presentable.”

Once they graduated and went pro, the boys let the beards grow. It started with Riley, who would style his facial hair with eclectic flair. He tried a French look, then a Spanish one, before trying to emulate the spooky-looking character from V for Vendetta. All the while, Maddison, who’d yet to graduate college, watched on from the preppy, clean-shaven corridors of USC.

“I had to sit back and see his facial hair,” said Maddison. “I was envious.”

Maddison puts up a monster block.

The brothers haven’t been fully shaved since 2014, and as they continue to gain followers on social media, the beards have become an important part of their brand. They even got a one-off sponsorship from Dollar Shave Club, a company that delivers razors and grooming products, and is on the cutting edge of marketing to millennials. It seems like a match shaved in heaven (OK. I’ll stop.) Instead of saving the sponsorship money or spending it on rent, the McKibbins used it to make the YouTube video with NBAers Walton and Jefferson. Before long, they received calls from TMZ, USA Today, and ESPN asking for permission to use their footage. The “Beard Bros” had officially gone viral.

Eric Brelia and Andrew Royal, both 22, saw the AVP vs. NBA video. They’re just starting their own beach volleyball careers and watch the McKibbins’ YouTube channel to improve their game. They paid roughly $300 each to travel from Florida to compete in the qualifier, only to lose in their first match of the day. Even still, they said it was money well spent.

“It’s been great because we got to watch to watch volleyball all day and there are so many good players here,” said Royal. He watched the McKibbins’ final match of the qualifier against Boag/Del Sol.

The McKibbins lost the first set 21-10, after being supremely outclassed. Morale was low. Riley was having trouble with his knee and hip, and Maddison was starting to show his frustration. Then Riley turned to his brother and said, “We’re winning this game.” Maddison looked back as if to say, “This game? You must be kidding.” But from there, adrenaline took over and the boys rallied back to win 2-1. They qualified.

According to Riley, the brothers need to carry some momentum into the main draw.

“Just stay aggressive, that’s kind of been our thing. There’s a fine line between playing not to lose and really playing to win, and you have to find that mindset,” said Riley. “There’s no stopping us once we’re both in that mode.”

Now, the competition really begins.

The AVP, beach volleyball’s top pro tour, rolls through New York June 8-10 at Hudson River Park’s Pier 25/26. General admission is free all weekend.