The Pro Beach Volleyball Series—did you know there was one?—is the perfect microcosm of life in California. The athletes are uniformly tan, lean and beautiful—burners, peelers and anyone less than six feet tall need not apply. Their athleticism as they perform in two-man teams that cover the 29½ X 59-foot playing space (same as the indoor game) like a giant beach blanket is obvious yet elegant, a flashy, macho ballet staged on sand. The players don't perspire—they ooze cocoa butter and baby oil from every pore.
Spectators are also quintessential Southern California types—interested, yet only half-involved. They watch a few points, disappear for a dip in the soothing blue-green ocean, return to watch a few more, then drift away to catch the bikini contests that accompany most of the tournaments. These are, after all, the only fans in the world who do a wave without getting out of their beach chairs. Honest, they just throw up their hands. Is that California or what?
Coming soon to a theater near you: Beach Blanket Volleyball Bingo, starring Jan-Michael Vincent, John Schneider and Phoebe Cates, with Barbi Benton as The Spike Queen, music by Katrina and the Waves.
No way. Lift those Walkman earphones and listen up. Beneath the placid, sun-drenched, play-and-party crust of professional beach volleyball is an underlayer of money squabbles, commercial contracts, unions, lawyers and work stoppages. Beach volleyball is a business.
Once you're settled on your spectator blanket, ready to mellow out, you'll need a pair of earplugs to shut out the relentless commercial barrage:
"Stop by and check out the new Chevy S-10 pickup truck to the right of the stage. They're tough and dependable."
"Don't forget there's still time to sign up for the Miss Miller High Life Pageant. Five-hundred-dollar first-place prize."
"Remember the Spike beach chair, the exclusive beach chair of the Pro Beach Volleyball Tour. Don't plant your buns in anything else."
Pro beach volleyball is funded entirely through corporate sponsorship. For instance, for the $13,000 Miller Long Beach Open at Belmont Shore in June, the Miller Brewing Company put up every penny of the tournament's money. Jose Cuervo Tequila is the tour's other major sponsor.
There are also several co-sponsors, e.g., Bolle' America (sunglasses), Tropical Blend (tanning products) and Chevrolet (you know what). In exchange for a sanctioning fee, co-sponsors get to push their products at tournaments, and push they do.
To augment prize money, the players depend on endorsement contracts with sponsors, many of them beachwear companies like Quiksilver, Catchit and Side-Out (taken from a volleyball term). Through them, the top players are paid a travel allowance plus per diem and equipment expenses.
If a player is savvy, he can make a year-round living playing volleyball. But it's not easy, and only the top six or seven players manage it. Last year, for example, the team of Jon Stevenson and John Hanley split about $35,200 in tournament purses, having won four tournaments and finished second in four others. Stevenson also won a car for leading the the Grand Prix point list and picked up an additional $8,000 for playing six-man volleyball in Italy for five months. With most of his tour expenses paid for by Liquor Barn and Catchit, Stevenson was able to make a decent full-time living from volleyball.
Other top pros have jobs that accommodate their volleyball schedules. Christopher St. John Smith, called Sinjin, earned $24,700 in tour prize money last year (he and his partner Randy Stoklos are considered by many the best team on the beach) and another $6,000 in satellite tournaments. But that was only tipping money. Sinjin also pursued an acting and modeling career that earned him close to six figures. (He has appeared in GQ and Playboy and was featured in one episode of Magnum P.I., playing Tom Selleck's volleyball partner.) In addition, he has a year-round endorsement contract with Side-Out.
Andrew Smith isn't as successful as his brother—he won only $3,375 last year—but off the sand he's one of the highest paid male models in the country, working primarily to promote Ralph Lauren clothing and Salem cigarettes (even though he doesn't smoke). Beach volleyball helps him stay in shape, maintain his tan and remain in the public eye.
Only the best players can make a full-time living on the beach, and even they feel they deserve larger purses. First-place money ranges from $10,000 at the World Championships to $4,800 at Cuervo-sponsored tournaments in Santa Cruz, Calif., Scottsdale, Ariz. and Boulder, Colo., but the figures are deceptive because promoters take 15% off the top for "administrative costs."
"If you don't finish in the top three at a tournament, it's not worth your while financially," says beach veteran Steve Obradovich.
"The players ought to have more money," says Jack Butefish, president of Group Dynamics, the marketing and public relations firm that's in its first year of promoting the tour. "But where do we get it?"
Good question. There's no admission charge—beach volleyball has been promoted as a giant beach party, and that's the way the sponsors want to keep it—so there's no percentage of the gate. There are no television contracts, no product residuals, no bubble-gum cards. The only way to get more money would be to pry it out of the primary sponsors, who are very cautious.
"I've heard the figure $50,000 per tournament bandied about by the players," says Mark Ziskind, Miller's coordinator for young-adult marketing. "There is simply no way that they're going to see it. There is no way a sponsor is going to put up that kind of money for one event."
"We have turned from being bullish to being wait-and-see on beach volleyball," says Peter Seremet, director of public relations for Heublein, Inc., which distributes Jose Cuervo. "That's what the strike did."
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.
"Hovland's my best friend and he steals my partner," says Obradovich, the tour's designated "personality," who has been known to hail a waitress in the middle of a game and order a tropical drink. "It's cutthroat, but everybody understands it."
What no one can really explain is where additional money is going to come from. Butefish, a tall, lean man who grew up playing beach volleyball in El Porto Beach, near Manhattan Beach, ponders the question as he gazes out toward the Pacific. Behind him on the sand, that weekend's Miss Miller, a portrait of pulchritude in a shocking-pink bikini, cavorts for photographers.
"We've got to persuade the primary sponsors to increase the prize money," he says. "There is no other way."
Fishburn isn't worrying about it. "It's a tremendous sport," he says, "but it has never been realistic for me to think of it as a way to make my full-time living."
Others are worrying about it. "We've got to push for more money," says Obradovich, a former USC football player. "It's the American way, right? Not to sit back and just let things come to you."
He wraps a towel around his shoulders and heads for a dip between games. "I don't know how it will come out," he goes on. "The only certain thing is that we'll all die of skin cancer."
Sinjin has become one of volleyball's hot stars.