It was not supposed to turn out this way. They were supposed to grow up, get jobs, get on with it. They would go to work, work at a job, work in a factory, work at raising a family. But they had never worked on anything more challenging than a tan, and so they stayed. The relatives in Oxnard all said they knew they would never amount to anything, that they would sit there on that damn beach for the rest of their lives, like kids afraid to come out of the sandbox. No one ever told them that they would come to embody a "life-style association" that major corporations would pay millions of dollars to be a part of. All they had ever intended to be were beach bums. It was not supposed to turn out this way.
"We used to get this beach-bum rap all the time," says Tim Hovland, warming himself in the sand. "But, hey, I'm just a product of my environment." A young man in painter's pants wanders down the dune at the bottom of Marine Avenue in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where the 29-year-old Hovland is sitting, and flops down next to a young woman in a pink bikini and a straw sun hat. Hovland tears open a bag of peanut M & M's and starts to chew them ruminatively. "There are a lot of beach volleyball players in the painters' union," he says finally. A hundred feet from the shore, a school of dolphins breaches the surface of the shimmering water, then disappears again.
Hovland and his partner Mike Dodd, 30, are waiting for their turn to practice on a volleyball court at one of the two places along an eight-mile stretch of sand southwest of Los Angeles where the top professionals come to play two-man beach volleyball. Hovland played all the major sports in high school, and in 1977 was even named Southern California Prep Athlete of the Year over All-Pro defensive back Ronnie Lott, now with the San Francisco 49ers. But the beach never lost its hold on Hovland, and now he and Dodd are the second-ranked team on the pro beach tour, which means that in places like Manhattan Beach they are considered volleyball gods, Kings of the Beach.
Last season Hovland made $54,000 in his sport, sometimes playing on beaches that weren't beaches at all but merely lots filled with sand shipped in to landlocked cities so that people there could get a taste of life at the beach. This season he has already won $75,000, and there are still two months left in the schedule. With companies suddenly falling all over themselves to sponsor tournaments and have their brand names associated with what one marketing director calls the California life-style, prize money on the 28-event pro tour this year has risen to $1.8 million, a more than 200% increase over 1987. "The sport embodies a life-style association that can't be beaten," says Leonard Armato, executive director of the Association of Volleyball Professionals, an organization formed by the players in 1983. "Young, athletic guys without shirts. Good looks and sex appeal." The sport has, in effect, become a marketing tool for products, such as Miller Lite and Jose Cuervo tequila, that are trying to target an audience of young hedonists. "Generally, people who come to the beach have good demographics," points out Armato.
Oddly enough, one of the biggest changes that all this money from companies that sell alcoholic beverages has brought about is a drastic reduction in the consumption of alcohol by the players. "In the old days," says Steve Obradovich, 33, a veteran player, "after a tournament you'd go to a party and drink till you dropped." Now the players stick to an ascetic training regimen during tournaments. Or, as another player puts it, "If you're a party person, it's going to take you down."
Happily, money has not yet completely corrupted the game, and beach volleyball remains a sport that lives on its hormones. The men are still men and the women are still girls; bikini contests still exist as if the women's movement had never happened; and the word party is still considered a verb rather than a noun. The only thing that really has changed is that at any given tournament there are probably more tattooed women than tattooed men.
These water-transfer tattoos are yet another form of the marketing that has taken over the sport. At the Hawaii Open on Waikiki Beach in June, the most prominently displayed tattoos belonged to Le Coq Sportif, a French sportswear company that seems to have adopted the rather forward-thinking philosophy that in advertising, the medium is the message. "I give up my weekends to rub girls' rear ends and chests," said Scott Roberts, a California sales rep who identified himself as the "chief pervert" for Le Coq Sportif and who seemed to be living proof that there really is no rest for the wicked, at least not if you work it right. "The girls all want them in places where they have to move the bikini for me to put them on," Roberts reported breathlessly.
The volley dollies, as they are called, are as overreaching and underdressed a lot of camp followers as you will find anywhere. "There are as many as you want, any time you want," says Obradovich, "and the better you do, the better-looking the girls."
Before money came into the sport, some players used to feel the best place to finish in a tournament was third. "That way the girls would know you were a hot player." says Obradovich, "but while the top two teams were out there killing themselves in the final, you were scoping out the best girls. Some guys didn't want to win tournaments for that reason."
These intrigues reached such a fevered pitch a few years ago that one prominent player and his partner were actually out on a boat in the middle of Lake Tahoe trying to make the acquaintance of a couple of new fans while their names were being called on shore to take the court for their next match.