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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

Keep Selling the Sand and the Sport Will Sink

August 25, 1996|Bill Plaschke

Splendid news today from the world of pro beach volleyball, where they have finally managed to rid themselves of that pesky beach.

About time too. The sound of crashing waves was making it hard for a dude to concentrate. Those ocean breezes were messing with too many dudes' serves.

And those fans who would surf to a match with only a towel . . . what's their story, anyway?

Don't they know this is a professional sport now? Don't they realize these athletes have become way too cool to simply borrow a beach for a few days?

This is 1996. These athletes are on TV. They are on billboards. They have done for visors what Madonna did for underwear.

Doesn't anyone understand? This beach they once borrowed with our blessing, they now deserve to own.

And so this weekend they are in Hermosa Beach where, for the first time in the long history of a sport that was founded around here, you can't step on their sand without buying a ticket.

The event is the Miller Lite U.S. Championships, which makes one think of two things.

Tastes lousy. Less thrilling.

This is not about reserved courtside chair seating, which has long been sold, and with good reason.

This is about the several thousand bleacher seats around the main court.

This is about the sand around the eight outer courts.

You cannot enter any of those areas without paying at least $6, increasing today to $12 for the finals.

That's a slight change from the previous 20 years of the tournament . . . when all those areas have been free.

But more than anything, this is about a fence.

With the admission charge has come a couple of hundred yards worth of tarped fence, erected around the Hermosa site so fans cannot throw down their towel without reaching for their wallet.

It is this fence that has essentially separated the beach from the volleyball.

"We're not on a beach anymore," said tour veteran Wes Welch of San Clemente. "We're in Iraq."

Other fans there Friday compared it to a "cage." Or a "livestock yard."

Take Brad Farnsworth, a Redondo Beach financial manager, walking down the Strand with a friend and a sack lunch Friday morning for his fifth annual volleyball outing.

It is a ritual followed by many Southern Californians, who for decades have helped elevate the sport to national prominence simply by pausing between waves to watch their buddies.

The tours and prize money, which should exceed $500,000 for Karch Kiraly this year, did not happen because of these fans.

It happened because of sponsors who saw these good-looking athletes and their vibrant sport as a way to reach these fans.

Those sponsors were everywhere Friday, a giant inflatable bottle of ice tea hanging out near a giant inflatable tub of suntan lotion.

But that is not what Brad Farnsworth saw.

"I saw this big green fence," Farnsworth said. "Then somebody is asking me for money. We had no idea."

Four hours later, he was walking amid a sparse crowd on the outer courts, still shaking his head.

"This is my last one," he said. "From now on, I'll just watch it on TV."

The Assn. of Volleyball Professionals' celebrated Miller Lite tour has enforced an admission fee for every stop this year.

There's just not a lot of complaints when you block off a beach in Cleveland.

One laughable spin was that by suddenly charging the average fan, they wanted to be more like a real sport. You wonder whether sports executives considered us morons.

"People not taking something seriously if they get can get it for free, there is an element of truth to that," said Jerry Solomon, AVP chief executive officer when he is not masterminding wife Nancy Kerrigan's lucrative career.

A more understandable reason--even if not acceptable--is that they need the money to cover earlier mismanagement of a sport that has grown too big, too fast. The AVP is so stretched out, players won't see a penny of this new ticket revenue.

"We cannot afford to keep losing money putting on tournaments," Kiraly said. "As this grows, we keep making it more fan friendly, and that costs."

The AVP first stubbed its toe earlier this month at the first of two L.A.-area stops.

The site was Manhattan Beach, where city fathers said forget it. Nobody was going to buy their beach. But it cost city money to subsidize the tour and keep it from going to nearby Redondo Beach.

For a variety of reasons, Hermosa Beach officials agreed to the tickets. They have been rewarded with huge, but angry crowds. Not to mention a divided group of players.

Scott Friederichsen, a tour veteran, ran across the street and loudly argued with protesters late Friday. Then there was Welch.

"Any time you get away from the beach elements . . . the wind, the shadows . . . you lose a lot," Welch said. "The players and fans both like to run into the surf after matches. That can't happen anymore.

"Because we're no longer on a beach."

Yes sir, a neat trick for these volleyball people, but nothing compared to the one in a couple of years when they simply disappear.

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