How do you explain the rapid growth and global appeal of beach volleyball?
Put aside the charts, the graphics and the theory of the game. The answer is on television.
Mike O'Hara, who has been around the indoor and beach games almost his whole life, either playing or promoting, explains in one word:
O'Hara ran the volleyball venue at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and one of his volunteers showed him a script for a series. O'Hara read it and told the writer to stick with it. Years later, the show debuted domestically, drew lackluster ratings and was canceled by NBC.
Only when the show went overseas did the ratings soar . . . and, for better or worse, Pamela Anderson Lee and David Hasselhoff became household names.
"The beach volleyball is the lifestyle--'Baywatch,' pretty ladies, hunky men," said O'Hara, who was a member of the U.S. national indoor team for 14 years.
Just as Europeans thought "Dallas" was typical of American life, "Baywatch" is now the standard. No matter that the only beaches in Minnesota and Wisconsin are on lakes and rivers and covered with snow and ice for months at a time.
"[Foreign viewers] think the United States is all 'Baywatch,' " O'Hara said.
It just goes to show that nearly every factor responsible for the growth of beach volleyball runs through Southern California.
The first two-man game was played in Santa Monica in the 1930s.
The founding fathers were all from Southern California--Bernie Holtzman and Gene Selznick in the '50s and Ron Von Hagen, who won 62 of the 100 tournaments he entered.
Then there are the telegenic stars of the modern era--the game's first millionaires, Sinjin Smith and Karch Kiraly, who are the beach versions of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe--except these guys might dislike each other even more. But that's a story for another day.
The promoters, gurus and guardians of the game are all here too. O'Hara, whose company is in Pacific Palisades, was a major part of the push from the United States to get beach volleyball included in the Summer Olympics in 1996, after it had appeared as a demonstration sport at Barcelona in 1992.
And NBA fans may know Leonard Armato primarily as Shaq's agent, but the local attorney was a pivotal figure in beach volleyball back in the days when Shaq was still a kid.
Armato, a co-promoter of the World Championships of Beach Volleyball, running Wednesday through Saturday at the L.A. Tennis Center at UCLA, gave the players a voice in the game when they formed the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) in 1983. He got cable television coverage of all the tour's events by 1989.
Prize money went from a few thousand dollars to more than a million, seemingly with the swiftness of a serve by Adam Johnson.
"It represents the epitome of the Southern California lifestyle, a wonderful opportunity to have our office at the beach," Kiraly said. "That became attractive to a lot of sponsors who wanted to latch on to that Southern California identity, combined with a great spectator sport."
It's a far cry from the days of the first money event, a $5,000 tournament in 1976, Smith recalled.
"No money, no television, no exposure whatsoever," he said. "But you would get anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people out to watch those events. Somebody got the brilliant idea, 'Hey, there's a captive audience--let's put our name on these events.' "
There were stumbles in the sand along the way. But history has shown that the transition from socialism to capitalism isn't always smooth.
The top players, following their brethren in major league sports, went on strike in 1984, boycotting the World Championships, not only because of financial issues but also because they had so little influence in rule changes.
But things definitely have changed. Players once sweated through a 1984 event in Florida, playing 12-plus hours of matches in 100% humidity in a temperature of 105 degrees . . . for a total purse of $14,000.
At UCLA this week, the prize money is $600,000, which is more than some tennis tournaments pay.
And the rough-edged atmosphere has smoothed a bit. Only a few years ago, the scene was like a wild-west shootout on the beach.
"The game today, more or less, is pretty professional," Smith said. "You have referees, you have lines people, the players are relatively contained. [But] imagine the referee on the court is one of the players who just played the last game. There's no barrier between you and the crowd. Anything goes.
"Yelling, screaming, fighting--and all of it happened. In any given match, it was pretty crazy. And very, very entertaining to the public.
"Players would end up going into the crowd and actually mixing it up with the crowd and each other. You just don't see that today."
The reasons for the boom, said Kiraly, are his predecessors, TV and the inclusion of beach volleyball in the Olympics.