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Trying to Grab a Piece of the Pie : Beach volleyball: Mike Boehle is one of 100 or so players struggling to make ends meet--and maybe hit it big--on the pro tour.

March 19, 1992|MIKE GOODMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mike Boehle stared at the worn, nicked volleyball turning slowly in his fingers. He shrugged. Sand sprinkled from his eyebrows and hair. His voice was flat, toneless.

"I'm not going to kid myself," he said. "I'm starting my fourth year in pro volleyball. Either I finish ranked in the top 25 or . . . This is the make-it-or-break-it year for me. I know when to quit."

Boehle, 25, tall, broad-shouldered, tanned and handsome--and a 100 or so players just like him--try again this month to make a living playing beach volleyball--two against two, barefoot on sand.

At stake is $2.8 million spread among the top 64 ranked players on a 24-week tour through 15 states and 24 cities.

The dream, Boehle explained, is: "Making tons of money working only six months a year on the sand in the sun doing something you like."

The reality, by last year's figures, showed those ranked in the bottom 20 were lucky to finish the six-month tour with a $1,000 in prize money. Those ranked in the middle made expenses--about $10,000--and perhaps a few thousand profit. Only the top 20 earned $30,000 or more.

The first nine players earned $100,000 or more. Three players broke $200,000. And that doesn't include money earned by many of the top players from endorsement fees.

That's the up side. The bad news is the same guys win every year. The top 10 players have changed little since the tour was conceived some 10 years ago.

One reason, explained Jon Stevenson, president of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, is "experience counts so much in beach volleyball."

Stevenson said in basketball, football and baseball, for example, a star in college often becomes an immediate star in the pros. Not in beach volleyball.

"It's very rare for some new guy to start beating everybody," Stevenson said. "Nuances are so important at the top he'll eventually lose."

At 34 and barely 6 foot, Stevenson is the classic example. He's one of the oldest and shortest players on the tour, yet he ranks sixth in overall career earnings with $311,217.

"I'm the last of the little guys," Stevenson said. "I'm a dinosaur. I know my days are numbered."

He predicted that "within five years you'll see a whole new group at the top. As the prize money gets better, more and more talented young athletes are turning to volleyball."

Prize money in 1980 was $45,000, Stevenson said. In 1990, the Miller Brewing Co. signed a $6.8-million, three-year sponsorship agreement with the AVP.

"A young player sees all this money," Stevenson said. "He starts playing locally and says: 'This is easy. I can do this.' "

Stevenson smiled. "But first he's got to come out and pay his dues. If he goes on the tour he's guaranteed nothing more than a shot at the top. He pays his own way, his own expenses. It can be tough. The plane fare alone . . . I had to cash in my frequent-flier mileage for a ticket to Pensacola."

Stevenson said young players such as Mike Boehle, who is ranked 41st on the tour, need a sponsor--a beach wear company--to survive.

Boehle said he didn't have a sponsor when he turned professional in 1989.

"I was mostly crashing on the floor in somebody else's hotel room," Boehle said.

"I'd book a flight through three or four cities to get a cheaper fare. Some guys come to a tournament with only $20 and a return ticket. It's common for four, five, even six guys to share a room. They sleep on the mattress, box springs, couch, chairs . . ."

Boehle laughed. "If you oversleep you might get stuck with the bill.

"For meals, you might have to live on rolls and what you can stuff in your pocket. Buffets--smorgasbords--are big. One guy buys a plate and feeds the others.

"I got lucky. I got a sponsor my first year."

B Boehle, who lives in Santa Monica, rose fast his first two years. He earned $11,000 in 1989, about $20,000 in 1990, and was ranked 32nd. Four weeks into the 1991 tour, he injured a shoulder.

"I was out for the rest of the year," he said. "I'm just coming back now."

Boehle flies to Pensacola, Fla., Friday to join the tour for the second stop on the 1992 circuit. The cash purse is $75,000--$15,000 to the winning team.

"What's discouraging is not coming home with any money," Boehle said. "You wonder, 'Am I good enough to play this sport?' Well, I've set my goals. I know what I have to do.

"I have a girlfriend I'd like to marry and support--not have her work, have kids. If volleyball's not for me, I'll go back to school--coach, teach."

Boehle grinned. His eyes glittered. "It would be great if I could make enough playing volleyball."

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