At the height of its national popularity in the 1990s, beach or sand volleyball was a moneymaking endeavor with a thriving professional men’s league, the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP). The better-known players became icons for the sport, raking in six-figure incomes, endorsements and tournament sponsorships.
Unfortunately the sport lost much of its mojo somewhere along the way, and these days it's only just once again gaining in its footing– and it's the women who are leading the charge.
The AVP is once again beginning to thrive, even while battling with the National Volleyball League (NVL) for dominant position in the sport. The biggest change has come at the collegiate and amateur level.
Both of those levels can be seen at the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball being held in Long Beach, California, from Aug. 18 to 23. The WSOBV is not only an Olympic qualifier attracting elite male and female competitors from around the world, it also gives the athletes the chance to compete for world ranking points.
The main attraction for fans may be the top-level athletes, but the event also will include tournaments for all levels of amateurs, performances by musicians like Adam Lambert and the band American Authors as well as other events, making the World Series a celebration of “all things beach,” as the ASICS website declares.
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With the original founder of the AVP, Leonard Armato, at its helm, the World Series is a unique forum to grow the game.
Originally the AVP was strictly for men, but women were added for the 1993-94 season, and with the closure of the Women’s Professional Volleyball Players Association, the AVP took over as the primary tour for all U.S. beach volleyball players in 1999.
Beach volleyball players in the U.S. start on a different platform than those in other countries.
In Brazil the sport is treated as top-tier endeavor, with elite players being appointed trainers and coaches, and their basic needs getting covered through government support. In return, they lose some autonomy, getting appointed partners and coaches by the country’s beach volleyball governing body.
Brazilian teams have been a force to be reckoned in the sport, having influenced how the game is played at a high level in the U.S. and throughout the world.
The Brazilian coach, Marcio Sicoli, was involved with that country’s Olympic team before moving to the U.S., where he now has a hand in coaching some of the top players – most notably the Olympic gold-winning team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor. He also coaches for Pepperdine University and is an integral part of training players at the junior level.
Walsh Jennings, holds his Brazilian coaching pedigree in high regard.
“When you are a coach in Brazil, you get a master’s degree in coaching,” she told FNL. “They know how to break down weaknesses and strengths, getting the best out of players. They understand the evolution of the athlete and blending the abilities of teammates.”
Walsh Jennings didn’t have sand volleyball on her radar when she played indoor volleyball at Stanford. The NCAA only began sponsoring beach volleyball in 2010-11, and it won’t become a fully-sanctioned championship sport until this coming season.
Instead her goal was to make the indoor volleyball Olympic team, which she achieved at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where the U.S. finished in fourth place.
Shortly after that, she made the switch to sand. “I never in a million years thought it would be a career. The beach world presented itself to me, and it was the most beautiful fit.”
Unlike Brazil, budding American athletic talent is funneled through universities, and the results on the sand have been uneven.
Even now that beach volleyball is a full NCAA sport, opportunities for scholarships are only for women.
Title IX requires that schools provide equal opportunity to male and female athletes, and with American Football sucking up the lion’s share of the scholarships on the men’s side, not many slots are left open for male beach volleyball players.
“There is a change for women in the NCAA going on right now,” beach volleyball legend Christopher “Sinjin” Smith told Fox News Latino. “The non-revenue sports are hanging on by a thread for men, and some are already gone … For indoor [volleyball] it’s surprising we are as good as we are. What helps the female athletes is that there are scholarships.”
Smith found one way to offset this problem. The athletes competing in his National Collegiate Sand Volleyball Association (NCSVA), which isn’t affiliated with the NCAA, don’t have to be on an official university team roster – anyone from the student body is allowed to compete.
Dain Blanton, who won the first Olympic gold medal in beach volleyball with partner Eric Fonoimoana in Sydney, recognized the same trend back in 2000.
“The women’s game was growing more,” he told FNL. “The women and men got together under AVP – Misty and Kerri won and now there’s a movement to get it into colleges. Now that it’s in the universities, it will enhance women’s beach volleyball.”
Blanton believes The ASICS World Series is not only attracting world-wide attention, it is creating a forum to encourage the up-and-coming generations of players to embrace the sport.
“It’s very inclusive,” he said. “There’s a six-man component and other non pro events go on around the focus on the professionals.”
The future of sand volleyball is also being nurtured through independent coaches and clubs catering to junior players. Daron Forbes, who created the Team Wave indoor club in Manhattan Beach, California, saw the need to develop a forum for training and showcasing players to colleges.
“Our goal is to grow the game and introduce sand volleyball to young athletes [who] may not have it on their radar,” Forbes said. “Our tournaments give these kids the opportunity to get coaching from world-class coaches, many of whom are ex pros or Olympians. It’s a great sport and a stellar way for a kid to learn focus, hard work and have fun at the same time. We’d like to see this level of training for junior athletes nationwide, not just in the beach cities of California.”
Forbes recently teamed up with Andrew Bennett, who has coached at the Division I collegiate level, to create Get Noticed Beach Volleyball (GNVB) with the goal to increase awareness of young players. Bennett sees great opportunity for young female players. “Every girl in my club can have a dream of playing in high school and college, and aim at getting a scholarship,” he told FNL.
“Unfortunately, on the collegiate level, the men’s is more of a fringe sport,” he added. “That said, the sport for men and women overall needs more structure. If it doesn’t go there, it’s just an activity on the beach.”
With universities building sand courts for NCAA competition as widespread as Georgia State University, University of Nebraska, University of South Carolina, Arizona State University, and University of Alabama in areas that aren’t coastal, it seems you don’t need a beach to enjoy the lifestyle that is associated with sand volleyball.
Many beach volleyball players and fans would agree with the sentiments of Sinjin Smith, “It all should be about lifestyle, anyway.”