Say what? The strike? Yes, indeed. There was a strike last September at the Jose Cuervo World Championship of Beach Volleyball on Redondo Beach. Seems impossible, but the players were serious. Just because they've got the looks, the tans and the women doesn't mean they don't want the money, too.
The strike is old news these days, something to wax nostalgic about while mellowing out between matches, a juice bar in one hand, a "volley dolly" in the other. There's still some resentment toward Andy Fishburn and Jay Hanseth, the only well-known pair to cross the Redondo picket line and, not coincidentally, the winners of that tournament. But the bitterness has subsided since the work stoppage at Redondo, where Tim Hovland, a top tour player, spat on Fishburn's car as Fishburn and Hanseth drove away and Hovland strode out in the middle of a game to serve Fish and Hanseth a summons prepared by Leonard Armato, lawyer for the Association of Volleyball Professionals (yes, they have a union). "It doesn't bother me anymore," says Fishburn, who is a dead ringer for Robert Redford as well as the grandson of the late Hollywood director Fred Niblo (the original Ben Hur and Valentino's Blood and Sand). "There's a lot of peer pressure out here that I'm not subjected to." With a wife, an infant son and a full-time job as a real-estate developer in L.A., the 30-year-old Fishburn doesn't fit the stereotype beach volley-bailer unencumbered by responsibility.
The strike brought an end to the eight-year stewardship of pro beach volleyball by Event Concepts, a Huntington Beach-based sales and promotion firm co-founded by David Wilk and Craig Masuoka. In 1976 Wilk and Masuoka decided to package what had been a competitive, yet casual, way of passing time on the California beaches. They formed Event Concepts, attracted sponsorship and lined up the tournaments. Everything went smoothly for the first few years, but gradually many of the players came to feel that Event Concepts was keeping too much of the sponsors' money for itself and not giving enough back to the players in purses. The dissident players also said Event Concepts was not consulting the athletes on other player-related matters, like the scoring system and the brand of volleyball that was used in tournaments. "It wasn't what Event Concepts did as much as how they did it," says Stevenson. "There was a generally noncommunicative air."
Wilk and Masuoka call this nonsense. They say the players were swayed by only a few activists and by Armato, who is a player agent for, among others, 49er defensive back Ronnie Lott. "I could take the top 10 beach volleyball guys, walk them through the L.A. airport, and no one would ask for an autograph," says Masuoka. "They have an unrealistic idea of what they're worth."
Most of the time the beachers realize that they are big fish in a small pond. And for this year, at least, they've adopted a wait-and-see attitude and have publicly gotten behind Butefish and supported the fence-mending he has done with the sponsors. Rest assured that if you're heading for the World Championships at Redondo Sept. 13-15 you won't see any picket signs. But bubbling under the surface, like a fever blister ready to erupt, is the players' belief that they've got to get more money.
On one level it's difficult to sympathize with them. Many observers see them as bronzed prima donnas living in a Peter Pan world of sun, suds and sand. "Volleyball Gods" is how Playboy headlined a mostly unflattering piece about the beachers. "We are glad to be out of it," says Masuoka. "It was not worth the aggravation and the spoiled, greedy attitude of some—I won't say most—but some of the players."
And it might be difficult to convince, say, a coal miner that a beacher's working conditions warrant improvement. A day at work is, after all, literally a day at the beach. The players relax between games, take a dip, read the sports pages. They never have to listen to the exhortations of a coach; there are no coaches. There are, however, admiring women in abundance.
The beachers themselves are not adverse to selling a certain bum-in-the-sun image, either. "The unofficial spokesman of beach volleyball" is, after all, one David Lee Roth, whose megahit Just a Gigolo is something of a beach volleyball anthem.
But beach volleyball is an exciting, legitimate sport played by world-class athletes, most of whom work out three days a week for three to four hours. They don't tank on points. During two humid June weekends in Florida the players were plagued by cramps and dehydration, but nobody quit. "They were in the sun for five hours, diving for balls, jumping, running, playing hard," says Butefish. "I don't know of any group of professional athletes that would do that for total prize money of $14,000."
The sport is eminently marketable, too. It has glamour, sex appeal and great venues. And some slick producer could build a soap opera around the routinely ruthless manner in which partners are chosen and discarded. When Karch Kiraly, a star on the U.S. gold medal volleyball team at the '84 Games, shows up to play in a tournament, he steals Mike Dodd away from his normal partner, Hovland. Hovland in turn swipes Ricki Luyties from Obradovich.