The morning sunlight caressed her bronzed face, the warm wind tossed her blonde hair, and the lesson she was getting opened her green eyes. Gabrielle Reece, an 18-year-old sophomore volleyball player at Florida State, sat in the passenger seat of a black Chrysler LeBaron convertible while an older, shorter and soon-to-be richer schoolmate gave her a lecture she will never forget. The place was Tallahassee, the year was 1988, and the driver was senior Deion Sanders, an All-America football player in the process of remaking himself.
Reece remembers the scene vividly: "We were on our way to speak at a Say No to Drugs function, and he looked very ordinary—no jewelry, no flash. He said, 'Gabby, there are a lot of brothers out there more talented than me, but I'm going to go higher in the draft, and you know why? Because I'm giving people what they want. They may make fun of me and call me a dumb n——, but they won't realize it's all a show, and I'll be laughing all the way to the bank.' He kept talking about how sports are entertainment, and as he was doing this, he was putting on gold chains and rings and touching up his hair. He transformed himself into Prime Time before my very eyes."
As she recounts that conversation eight years later, Reece is once again battling the wind while riding in a convertible, this time one driven by her boyfriend, big-wave surfing icon Laird Hamilton, along the Kamehameha Highway on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. Reece, 27, is heading to a photo shoot at Polihali Beach on a paradisiacal September morning. The world's most recognizable women's volleyball player because of her work as a top fashion model, Reece protects her hair by using a T-shirt as a babushka. Like Sanders, she has created a persona that transcends her athletic achievements while still retaining the respect of most of her fellow players.
"Deion taught me the importance of selling yourself and your sport, and he also taught me that, while it's O.K. to have fun along the way, it's definitely a business," Reece says. "That's sort of where we're at with beach volleyball. Though no one can deny the athleticism, beach volleyball has nothing to do with sports; it has to do with entertainment. Our challenge now is to market it, to get it to the next level."
Whatever level it eventually attains, few sports in modern times have ascended as improbably as beach volleyball, which 15 years ago was mostly a California phenomenon whose top players battled for beer money, surf-shop T-shirts and mythical king-of-the-beach status. Now, it's an Olympic sport that drew sold-out crowds in Atlanta last summer and whose competitions appear more often on American TV than soccer's, gymnastics' or even indoor volleyball's. And while the men's Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) tour is by far the richest on domestic sands, the women are gaining ground. A 1995 study showed that the Women's Professional Volleyball Association (WPVA), which is to start its 11th season in April, ranked behind only the pro tours of tennis, golf and bowling in purses for female athletes in the U.S. And the less lucrative Women's Beach Volleyball League (WBVL), which has teams of four players, rather than the WPVA's two, has also increased exposure for women in the sport, largely on the strength of Reece's participation.
What, exactly, is the appeal of women's beach volleyball? For starters its games are fast paced and exciting, played by graceful, well-conditioned athletes. Because the women use a net that is eight inches lower than the one used on the men's tour, there's no apparent drop-off in athleticism from the men's game, the way there is in, say, women's basketball. Like NASCAR, the beach volleyball circuit has proven adept at courting corporate sponsors without alienating the rank and file. Fans get a casual atmosphere and free admission.
Oh, and one other thing: Tanned, well-toned, scantily-clad women are on display. And though Reece is the only one who has been named "one of the five most beautiful women in the world" by Elle, there are plenty of prominent players who look terrific in a bikini.
Sex appeal is women's beach volleyball's greatest selling point; it is also its biggest headache inducer and its greatest source of debate. Some players believe the sport should succeed strictly on its athletic merits, while others view its sexiness as a welcome means of attracting viewers. "If people want to come check us out because they're scoping our bodies, I don't have a problem with that, because I guarantee they'll go home talking about our athleticism," says Holly McPeak, an Olympian who was the WPVA's top-ranked player in each of the past two seasons. "It's not such a bizarre notion. Does Michael Jordan look good in his basketball uniform? Definitely. The sex appeal is unavoidable, but it's not the basis of the sport."
"Why does it have to be about sex appeal at all?" counters Angela Rock, another of the WPVA's top players. "To me it's more of a lifestyle appeal. I think people model themselves after the fitness, the youth, the energy, the playing outdoors and the freedom of beach life. Other sports have attractive women in skimpy uniforms, but ours is the one that gets stereotyped as a skinfest, and that's not the image we're trying to project."
If some players object to their sport's being portrayed as Bay-watch with Balls, they can partly trace that reputation to the early years of the men's tour. There's nothing inherently sexist about beach culture—generally, people are comfortable in their bathing suits, and men and women tend to admire one another without gawking. But until five or six years ago, the AVP tour seemed to be saddled with a beer-commercial mentality. "They were still doing the bikini contests between matches," says Olympian Linda Hanley, a 36-year-old mother of two. "We've been fighting the image that the only reason our sport is selling is because we're wearing the skimpiest possible uniforms. But think about it—if you're at the beach, you wear a bathing suit. This is my office, and it's a little tough for me to play in pumps and panty hose."