In the 1970s and '80s, beach volleyball fans impressed each other with stories of planting their beach chairs and camping out courtside overnight to secure the best seats for center court at the next day's championship tournament. They paid nothing but lost sleep just to be near the hard throb of players like Karch Kiraly, Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos, and to watch them leap high, hit hard and, basically, run around with their shirts off, embodying the Southern California dream.
"I remember camping out in our sleeping bags in our beach chairs," said Sharon Segurson, "all so we could squeal, "I touched the same volleyball as Karch Kiraly!'" Serguson, a resident of Ocean Beach who grew up in Los Angeles, was just one of an estimated 45,000 who came to Mariner's Point in Mission Beach last weekend to see the return of the AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals) to San Diego after a five-year hiatus.
These days, corporate sponsors like Bud Light and Xbox erect and stock VIP tents and park Nissan 4X4s on courtside real estate days before the events. And while there's no admission charged to sit in the aluminum bleachers built for fans around center court, the corporations have reserved those once-coveted, campground seats for clients, players' families and friends.
After a popular high point in the early 1990s, professional beach volleyball suffered an economic slump in the latter part of the decade. But the AVP has undergone a makeover, both financial and aesthetic. It has secured Shaquille O'Neal's former agent as commissioner, restructured its labor-management agreements (yes, the AVP has a players' union) and now offers equal prize money and tournament television coverage to the men's and women's divisions.
Instead of sunburned volleyball cultists and beach bums screaming for their volleyball gods from crowded courtside beach chairs, nowadays parents, corporate partners and maybe the players' agents juggle kids and cell phones-along with the free beer, t-shirts and mini-volleyballs with which they are bombarded-as they cheer these very modern athletes to victory.
The sport still has its stars. A win at this year's San Diego Open by legend Karch Kiraly would have made it two decades between wins here for the gold medal Olympiad-a feat, said DIG magazine (a new publication launched this summer and given away free at the tournament), that "not even Jack Nicklaus" could claim at the Masters.
But longtime fans like Segurson and some of the sport's older fans noted with varying degrees of awe and resigned tolerance, the new, obviously family-oriented and marketing-driven face of the sport. A huge, blow-up Royal Caribbean balloon version of a cruise ship greeted those walking through the Mariner's Point park to the sand. There, the old days of big, blow-up Jose Cuervo and Miller Lite bottles had given way to blow up bottles of Aquafina water, big green Gatorade balloons and a gigantic blow-up volleyball with the name NISSAN tattooed on it in 10-foot letters instead of the standard Wilson or Spalding (though Wilson, the official AVP tour volleyball, did run a clever ad using the "character" from the Tom Hanks film Cast Away in the tour media guide).
Even the Royal Caribbean marketing rep, who declined to give his name, had an opinion on the ad-addled landscape.
"It's become passé, I suppose, to use the big liquor bottles on the beach like they use to," he said. "It's funny, Generation X kind of ushered in this era of all things alcoholic being crass and dangerous, then they're the ones who go out and sign thousands of dollars in endorsements with Bud Light or test positive for dope in the Olympic snowboarding events."
But just because some of the top players have agents and endorsements these days doesn't necessarily mean pro beach volleyball has made the jump to the multi-million dollar status of, say, tennis or golf. Despite all the corporate logos and endorsements, beach volleyball is, technically, a semi-pro sports career.
If anyone is the new, marketable face of the AVP, it's one of its stars, Eric Fonoimoana. Tall, tanned and built like a football player, Fonoimoana-the tour's top-ranked player last year-admits that "very few, if any" of the players on the tour make a living solely from volleyball. He said the AVP, however, is very active in trying to change that. Part of the marketing strategy hinges, strangely enough, on matching shorts. In the past, individual players wore the shorts their sponsors provided. In a bid to build new fans' team loyalty, à la uniformed pro sports teams like the Lakers or Mighty Ducks, individually sponsored players merely sport their sponsors names on otherwise matching team shorts.
"We are obviously back in big way, and we're on the right track... trying to market and develop stars," Fonoimoana told CityBeat after an uncharacteristic loss put him out of the tournament without making the finals. "But, with the shorts being the same color, we're trying to market and sell teams, a team concept. It just looks a lot better, like the NBA or anybody else in team sport."
Fonoimoana also said new rule changes, such as "rally scoring" (a point for every winning play, not just when a team serves the ball) and smaller court size, have contributed to a more exciting, television-friendly game, while making the legacy of one player or team dominating tournament after tournament a thing of the past.
And while in the finals on Sunday, the women's team of Encinitas resident Elaine Youngs and tour legend Holly McPeak won the women's division, in a strange twist of fate, the men's division was taken by Dain Blanton and Jeff Nygaard-one of the few teams who did not sport matching shorts.