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Richard Hoffer
August 19, 2002
Beach volleyball celebrated its most prestigious event with a rare live TV appearance, spurring hopes that better days—and crowds—are ahead
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August 19, 2002

Dig This!

Beach volleyball celebrated its most prestigious event with a rare live TV appearance, spurring hopes that better days—and crowds—are ahead

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The Sunshine's free, there's no telling how many grains of sand, and the ocean seems tireless enough, relentlessly plopping foam against the California coast. So why do we need this giant beach blanket of enterprise spread out before us—a carnival of capitalism (Cuervo Nation Interactive Zone! Nissan Road Rally!) competing mightily for our attention?

That strip of sand beneath the Manhattan Beach strand, that buffer between California's two principal theologies (real estate and surf), has been ringed in yellow police tape for good reason, the organizational idea being that nothing's fun until it's sponsored, nothing's legit until it's got a league commissioner. In other words, the retail rodeo is necessary to validate the beach volleyball being played in the middle of it all as the type of game that people want to see and corporations want to support.

This unholy alliance is in service of that great American idea that anything we can do on a weekend can be organized beyond lifestyle and right into a network TV contract. NASCAR has guys turning left in an exaggerated commute, and somehow that's the nation's biggest spectator sport. So why can't beach volleyball, which is as pretty a version of play as has been invented, become our national pastime?

Until NBC broadcast last weekend's Manhattan Beach Open, highlighted by Eric Fonoimoana's and Dax Holdren's thrilling finals victory over Canyon Ceman and Mike Whitmarsh, beach volleyball had pretty much been off the TV schedule since a brief heyday before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Purses on the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour—which amounted to a few stops in recent years and is only up to seven this year—had been busted down to virtual per diems, with players picking up side jobs to make ends meet. And sponsorship? "Look at me," complains Holly McPeak, who was winning out the tour with Elaine Youngs until they were upset by Annett Davis and Jenny Johnson-Jordan in Saturday's final, "there's not a single stitch of endorsement anywhere on my body." The horror!

The players and the tour's owner, Leonard Armato, who was Shaquille O'Neal's longtime agent, and whose company now handles Oscar De La Hoya and Lisa Leslie, hope times are changing. They're optimistic that network interest coupled with a more modest business model can develop the sport into must-see TV, and that McPeak can eventually take the court logoed like a NASCAR winner. Sunday's telecast earned a 1.7 share in the overnight ratings, well shy of the 4-7 for the NASCAR race that preceded it on NBC. Still, NBC is sold on the sport. "We saw that it was one of the hottest venues at the last two summer Olympics," says John Miller, head of NBC sports programming. "We also saw that the sport had started to figure out its internal leadership. We're very optimistic about beach volleyball."

Just the fact that beach volleyball was back on network TV was positive development enough for Armato and the players. They also had to be cheered by the thrum of commerce surrounding last week's event.

Beach culture may not be the economic force it used to be, but there was, nevertheless, a reassuring turnout of sponsors ringing the courts. You would get sand between your toes, but you could visit a lot of virtual storefronts, pitched tents actually, where the likes of Paul Mitchell and Skechers seemed almost as important to the tour as the athletes themselves.

To see the AVP's real problem, walk out on the nearby Manhattan Beach Pier, the whole volleyball enterprise, inflatable SUV and all, gradually receding into irrelevance, as any kind of pay-for-play must. The wide-angle view from pier's end might center on AVP hubbub, but the peripheral view would show volleyball courts far and wide (for civilians) and a two-to three-foot surf lapping onto the sand. This is what you're up against when you try to sell something that, deep down, is mostly attractive because it can't be sold. What is beach volleyball, anyway, if not attitude?

The sport is conflicted, obviously.

The players, at least, are nostalgic for the sport's early days, when they slept in cars (the vehicles had to be parked pointing downhill so they could be reliably jump-started), drank more beer than was good for their competitive spirit and earned...nothing. Armato, who grew up playing the game, was happy a few months back to see an event winner carried into a Hermosa Beach tavern atop six pals, monkeyshines to ensue. That's beach volleyball! That's what he is trying to sell.

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