Jay Hanseth got dinner and a trophy for winning the prestigious Laguna Beach Open volleyball tournament in 1973.
"That was pretty good for then," says Jim Menges, who dominated the beach game from the mid-1970s through the early 1980s. Menges' payday for winning the Hermosa Beach Open with partner Matt Gage in 1980 was frozen yogurt and a pitcher of beer.
How things have changed.
Today's "King of the Beach," Sinjin Smith, is well on his way to becoming the first millionaire in beach volleyball--a sport in which prize money for top players has increased more than 400% since 1985. Six players won over $100,000 on the tour last season.
That's a lot of frozen yogurt.
Smith and partner Randy Stoklos won $134,185 apiece last summer to top the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals money standings. But Smith's growing wealth has as much to do with diversity as it does athletic prowess. The winningest player in beach volleyball history has a lucrative deal with a clothing manufacturer, a coming book and instructional video, and an anticipated part in a feature film.
Coming soon is a video game featuring the likenesses of Smith and Stoklos called, naturally, "Kings of the Beach."
So how is this portfolio received by the local media when the AVP tour rolls into Chicago, Cleveland and Rochester, N.Y.--cities where the stars of a quirky California sport might be expected to have amassed some fame, but certainly not a fortune?
Smith laughs. "They just can't believe guys who grew up on the beach, play in the sand, get tan and run around with no shirts on can get paid $150,000 or $200,000 to do it."
But some do. And things aren't bad on the lower rungs of the money ladder, either. After 16 years of playing for trophies and (sometimes) dinner, the game has finally begun to pay off for Hanseth, at 36 the elder statesman of professional beach volleyball.
Hanseth won $35,002 on the tour last season, good for 12th place in the money standings. To earn what many deem a good living, he managed just one third-place finish and twice came in fourth, but more often took fifth, seventh, ninth, even 13th. And the Santa Barbara resident was aware of the talk among some of the sport's young lions that the time had come for him to step aside.
"I'm not going to quit. They're going to have to boot me out of the way," Hanseth said. "The way I look at it, I still enjoy what I'm doing, I'm still competitive. So why not make $35,000 or $40,000 for playing volleyball on weekends when I'd be at the beach or on a tennis court anyway?"
For Menges, who is just two years older than Hanseth but quit the beach game in 1982, the timing of volleyball's new professionalism was not so fortuitous. Menges was there when the money arrived, winning beach volleyball's first two World Championship events--in 1976 with Greg Lee and in 1977 with Chris Marlowe--for a total of $2,500 in prize money. In one five-year stretch, he failed to finish third or better in just one tournament, and that was a fourth.
"I would never have had to work again," said Menges, who recently entered the real estate field in Orange County after years of going from one job to the next. "But that's just how things progressed. Now, you get seventh place every weekend and make $35,000."
Menges could have added to that sponsorship and endorsement packages from beachwear manufacturers that cover a player's travel expenses and may pay him a base salary--contracts that can double or even triple a top player's income from winnings.
"All I ever got was free trunks," Menges said.
In contrast, Smith got part ownership of a beachwear company.
It's more than a little symbolic that the guru of beach volleyball can no longer be found on the sand courts south of Manhattan Beach pier or north of Santa Monica, but instead occupies a law office on the 12th floor of a Century City high rise. Leonard Armato, attorney for the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Phoenix Suns guard Kevin Johnson, is credited with taking the game uptown.
And, he says, there's no reason to stop at the city limits.
"Beach volleyball can go as far as just about any sport out there," says Armato, the organizer and executive director of the AVP, whose latest coup was obtaining nationwide cable television coverage of all 29 tournaments on this year's schedule.
"When you keep in mind that volleyball is the second most popular sport in the world, you know the beach game will continue to grow by leaps and bounds. It's a good spectator sport and, with the exposure it's getting this year on television, I think you're going to see it explode."