Men’s and Women’s Sunday competition of the 2013 AVP Manhattan Beach Open volleyball tournament. Kerri Walsh Jennings shares her joy with husband Casey Jennings after winning finals. (Staff file photo)
Golf fans have Augusta, race fans have Daytona and Indianapolis and beach volleyball fans can have Long Beach.
The popularity curve of beach volleyball in the United States never has been a straight line, and right now the sport is at a tipping point. If the scales are going to be tilted to the positive side, Long Beach and the ASICS World Series of Beach Volleyball may be that weight.
?(Outside the Olympics) this is the biggest event in the world,? three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings said of the series. She made her international return to the sand in Long Beach last year.
After a 10-year hiatus, Leonard Armato brought professional beach volleyball back to Long Beach in 2013 for a ?festival? celebrating the sport?s culture with open tournaments, music and more. Only in its second year, the tournament purse is a record $1 million.
With the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) treading water, the WSOBV is the premier event in America and on the calendar for FIVB, which is the largest international sports federation in the world with 220 member countries. As the only FIVB tour stop in the United States, it was the most watched FIVB event in 2013 and was the highest-rated beach volleyball telecast in America outside of the Olympics.
?This is our U.S. Open,? Armato said earlier this week.
The crowds off Shoreline Drive have proved his point. Fans have been flying their native flags and chanting for their countrymen. This year?s crowds are bigger than 2013 while the four- and six-person tournaments grow and the social media buzz gets louder. Next year figure to be even more meaningful as the professionals try to qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil.
Long Beach has provided an ideal location. Vibrant beach volleyball communities exist as far north as Santa Barbara and as far south as San Diego, and Long Beach splits the Southern California difference. It?s also easy to get to with two freeways feeding into the downtown area where parking and admission is free.
?Not just location, but demographics as well,? said Brittany Hochevar, who was an All-American at Cal State Long Beach. ?(Beach volleyball) shouldn?t just be for rich kids who live at the beach.
?Long Beach has more diversity and that?s important for the future of this sport.?
Athletes like Walsh Jennings are reaching the ends of their careers. That?s the old-school generation that fought for this sport and helped make it one of the most popular Olympic events. The new school is coming in and reaping the benefits of that hard work because they?ve never played in a world where beach volleyball wasn?t an Olympic sport.
?We?re spoiled,? said Tri Bourne, 25, who is teamed up with 41-year old John Hyden. ?I?ve just been trying to soak everything up before (the older generation) is gone.?
?There?s just a huge gap,? said Hochevar, 33, who is teamed up with 24-year old Lane Carico. ?There?s a gap generationally, socially and personally.
?It?s just different. The game is changing. These young kids have so much more than we did.?
It?s easy to notice the difference in style on the sand. New players are bigger, faster and stronger. They play higher above the net and create scoring angles the sport hasn?t seen. But many veterans said the difference will not be limited to between the lines.
?As an amateur I played for no money and loved it,? said Sinjin Smith, 57, who won two world championships during his playing days. ?These new players need to appreciate that something happened before them and don?t take it for granted. The television and the sponsors need to stay happy and that takes some work from the athletes. You don?t just play. There?s more to it than that.?
Smith helps organize youth tournaments that are part of the series. This week, more than 300 young players are participating in USA junior beach tournaments and an open Collegiate Cup. That?s not surprising, considering sand volleyball officially became the fastest-growing sport in NCAA history this year.
?These (youth) players don?t have an AVP like (Walsh Jennings) and those players did,? USA Volleyball Communications Manager B.J. Hoeptner Evans said. ?I was just talking to a player who only plays when he?s not studying bio chemistry at UCLA.?
For that to change and for young players to have a professional future in America with a domestic tour, an event like the world series needs to be successful. If that happens, Long Beach could be the epicenter for a new generation of beach volleyball.
World Series of Beach Volleyball in Long Beach is critical to the sport’s … – Long Beach Press-Telegram