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Original Issue

Dig This! Beach volleyball celebrated its most prestigious event with a rare live TV appearance, spurring hopes that better days--and crowds--are ahead

The sunshine's free, there's no telling how many grains of sand,
and the ocean seems tireless enough, relentlessly plopping foam
against the California coast. So why do we need this giant beach
blanket of enterprise spread out before us--a carnival of
capitalism (Cuervo Nation Interactive Zone! Nissan Road Rally!)
competing mightily for our attention?

That strip of sand beneath the Manhattan Beach strand, that
buffer between California's two principal theologies (real
estate and surf), has been ringed in yellow police tape for good
reason, the organizational idea being that nothing's fun until
it's sponsored, nothing's legit until it's got a league
commissioner. In other words, the retail rodeo is necessary to
validate the beach volleyball being played in the middle of it
all as the type of game that people want to see and corporations
want to support.

This unholy alliance is in service of that great American idea
that anything we can do on a weekend can be organized beyond
lifestyle and right into a network TV contract. NASCAR has guys
turning left in an exaggerated commute, and somehow that's the
nation's biggest spectator sport. So why can't beach volleyball,
which is as pretty a version of play as has been invented, become
our national pastime?

Until NBC broadcast last weekend's Manhattan Beach Open,
highlighted by Eric Fonoimoana's and Dax Holdren's thrilling
finals victory over Canyon Ceman and Mike Whitmarsh, beach
volleyball had pretty much been off the TV schedule since a
brief heyday before the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Purses on the
Association of Volleyball Professionals tour--which amounted to
a few stops in recent years and is only up to seven this
year--had been busted down to virtual per diems, with players
picking up side jobs to make ends meet. And sponsorship? "Look
at me," complains Holly McPeak, who was winning out the tour
with Elaine Youngs until they were upset by Annett Davis and
Jenny Johnson-Jordan in Saturday's final, "there's not a single
stitch of endorsement anywhere on my body." The horror!

The players and the tour's owner, Leonard Armato, who was
Shaquille O'Neal's long-time agent, and whose company now handles
Oscar De La Hoya and Lisa Leslie, hope times are changing.
They're optimistic that network interest coupled with a more
modest business model can develop the sport into must-see TV, and
that McPeak can eventually take the court logoed like a NASCAR
winner. Sunday's telecast earned a 1.7 share in the overnight
ratings, well shy of the 4.7 for the NASCAR race that preceded it
on NBC. Still, NBC is sold on the sport. "We saw that it was one
of the hottest venues at the last two summer Olympics," says John
Miller, head of NBC sports programming. "We also saw that the
sport had started to figure out its internal leadership. We're
very optimistic about beach volleyball."

Just the fact that beach volleyball was back on network TV was
positive development enough for Armato and the players. They also
had to be cheered by the thrum of commerce surrounding last
week's event.

Beach culture may not be the economic force it used to be, but
there was, nevertheless, a reassuring turnout of sponsors
ringing the courts. You would get sand between your toes, but
you could visit a lot of virtual storefronts, pitched tents
actually, where the likes of Paul Mitchell and Skechers seemed
almost as important to the tour as the athletes themselves.

To see the AVP's real problem, walk out on the nearby Manhattan
Beach Pier, the whole volleyball enterprise, inflatable SUV and
all, gradually receding into irrelevance, as any kind of
pay-for-play must. The wide-angle view from pier's end might
center on AVP hubbub, but the peripheral view would show
volleyball courts far and wide (for civilians) and a two- to
three-foot surf lapping onto the sand. This is what you're up
against when you try to sell something that, deep down, is mostly
attractive because it can't be sold. What is beach volleyball,
anyway, if not attitude?

The sport is conflicted, obviously.

The players, at least, are nostalgic for the sport's early days,
when they slept in cars (the vehicles had to be parked pointing
downhill so they could be reliably jump-started), drank more
beer than was good for their competitive spirit and earned...
nothing. Armato, who grew up playing the game, was happy a few
months back to see an event winner carried into a Hermosa Beach
tavern atop six pals, monkeyshines to ensue. That's beach
volleyball! That's what he is trying to sell.

And, indeed, the sport still attracts a certain maverick spirit.
Lee LeGrande, a four-time winner on the tour, was disgusted when
greed and ego tore the circuit asunder in the early '90s, even
though his paydays were considerably more then than they are now.
They had a nice thing going. "I mean, if eating sushi for lunch,
then reading a book and taking a nap sounds good," he says, "then
beach volleyball might be for you."

LeGrande was the type of guy who, along with tour member Stein
Metzger, once went to Australia, furnished a VW bus with a
barbecue grill and surfboards, had fun until the money ran out,
entered some volleyball tournaments there and won enough money to
take their show on to Bali. "Bali," he sighs. "Tuna sandwich--50

That's the ambience Armato and his sponsors must project, even
though just by projecting it they corrupt it. LeGrande, who won
all of $20,000 on the tour last year and a little more than
$7,000 through five of the seven AVP stops this season, says,
"You could make a living on the tour, but you'd have to
downscale." To make ends meet he finds he must work in the
off-season selling real estate on the Southern California
coastline. "That's if you want that 430."

A 430?

"A Mercedes-Benz SUV," says LeGrande.

Nobody past 22 wants to sacrifice life's comforts for some old
vibe for very long, which is to say that sooner or later we all
start dreaming about transportation that offers options more
standard than a BBQ. And (conundrum alert!) if you're successful
in a sport that idealizes a VW lifestyle, then soon you can
afford a 430.

But beach volleyball just doesn't feel right without that VW
ambience. When the tour was enjoying $3.5 million-payout years
from 1989 to '94, its organizers got greedy and began pitching
sandy courts on Cleveland parking lots. Nobody believes that
worked very well, and the tour has modestly retreated to mostly
real beaches, where, with its corporate ambitions closeted, it
can sell its authenticity with more of a straight face.

Of course, athletically, the sport is the real thing. Up close,
where you can smell the AVP-approved sunblock, beach volleyball
is an exciting game, and these people, men and women, play it
brilliantly. "We're doing stuff in the sand, where most people
can't walk in it," says Karch Kiraly, who lost in the men's
semifinal with partner Brent Doble. "I mean, jumping 30 inches?"

Says Armato, "There's core authenticity. It's not a made-up
sport." And as everyone tells you, anybody who sees it up close
just once is hooked forever.

The question is, does all of that amount to big-time stuff or
just another craft fair with well-honed bodies? Armato, who
purchased the tour last year, is determined and shrewd, and the
players seem patient enough to stand by him through this start-up
phase. He insists his tour, with "player-connected costs under
control" (not necessarily because he married McPeak, the tour's
big money-maker) and "integrated product control" and "men and
women together" is "the model for the 21st-century sports
movement." Maybe. But Armato and the players are still up against
it. The very vibe that might entertain us, ocean breezes and
smoky barbecues and the soft slap of a volleyball, is the same
vibe (in conjunction with a half-empty cooler, of course) that
lulls us to sleep.

We'd like to care, we really would--everybody being so attractive
and trying so hard. But we're at the beach.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK [Leading Off] I'll Take Manhattan Beach All the world's a sandbox in this shot of a men's semifinal match at the Manhattan Beach (Calif.) Open last Saturday (page 46).

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SANDMAN Fonoimoana won gold in Sydney but says his career wouldn't have been complete without a victory in his hometown Manhattan Beach.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK SPIKES PEAK McPeak (left) had won five straight tournaments until being thwarted by Johnson-Jordan in the final.

Why can't beach volleyball, which is as pretty a version of play
as has been invented, become our national pastime?