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Sand Storm

Forget About the Glory of Beach Volleyball at the '96 Olympics. It's Barely Hanging on as a Pro Sport--and the Players Get Most of the Blame.

November 15, 1998|JANET WISCOMBE

Kent Steffes, bronzed beach god, Olympic medalist, towering millionaire, is furious. From his aluminum chair, he roars about the stupidity and improbity of his fellow athletes, top players whom he blames for the rotten state of professional beach volleyball. "I want to find the truth," he declares. "One way is to depose people."

It's the second day of a three-day volleyball tournament in Seal Beach in July featuring the most famous male players in the country. An army of roustabouts has worked all week to pitch tents, erect bleachers, install revolving sponsor banners and inflate gigantic plastic soda and beer cans. Video cameras whir. Hip-hop explodes from mega speakers.

But passions have shifted from the court to the sidelines, where talk is more about legal hardballs than sand-crashing digs, and the verb "to serve" has taken on new meaning. Rumor has it that some athletes might get slapped with legal summonses today. In June, Steffes sued both the Marina del Rey-based Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, which runs tournaments and acts as the sport's governing board, and six athletes on the tour--all members of the 1997 AVP board of directors. He accuses the AVP of breach of contract--for not paying him prize money--and fraud, and board members of gross mismanagement, self-dealing and "knowingly or recklessly" acting "in disregard of their fiduciary duties." Steffes, a 30-year-old hunk and the youngest player in AVP history to win 100 titles, admits the suits have strained already fragile relationships. "Whenever you stand up for something, people aren't going to like you," he says.

One of the lawsuits is aimed at AVP board member and volleyball king Karch Kiraly, his partner when the game reached its apogee in Atlanta in 1996, his brother when the two stood together to accept the sport's first gold medals. In those sizzling, celebrity-sotted days, the margaritas and the money flowed, and everybody got along--or so it seemed. Other than the unfortunate attention surrounding Holly McPeak's breast implants--in which the media exposed U.S. women's team members hissing about the relative merits of athletic skill and sex appeal--the XXVI Olympiad was very good for beach volleyball. Global TV coverage thrust the game into new galaxies where players, promoters and sponsors could cash in on the exploding "Baywatch"-stoked demand for beach glam: beer and bikinis, pectorals and ponytails, fitness and fun.

That's why today is such a bummer. The athletes are grim-faced and edgy. Steffes and Kiraly aren't speaking. Referring to the lawsuit, Kiraly says only, "I'm speechless." In a tone bleached of humor, player Dain Blanton grumbles, "If I'm not playing, I'm not here." Even the fans, once known as raucous party animals, look more like the sedate denizens of Wimbledon.

Oh, fun.

Though the crisis in pro beach volleyball predates Steffes' suits, his legal actions symbolize the sport's wrenching dysfunction. At a time when volleyball is bigger than ever as a recreational and collegiate sport, enjoyed by millions, the professional endeavor is in financial and spiritual ruin. Tours showcasing two- and four-player teams have either evaporated or degenerated into dens of vicious squabbling and finger-pointing, unfettered greed and runaway egos. Just a year ago, three major organizations staged pro events. Today, the AVP stands alone, and it clings to life like a beached whale in desperate need of a forgiving tide. Many of the same beautiful, buff players who once defined the California dream are looking for work.

The AVP is scrambling to recover from corporate desertions--particularly the loss of its title sponsor of 16 years, Miller Brewing Co. In August, the beer maker yanked its support indefinitely. Prize money and TV coverage have plummeted. Debts have mounted to $2.8 million. Players are owed tens of thousands of dollars in back winnings. Harry Usher, a respected sports manager who valiantly tried to rescue the AVP this year by slashing prize money in half and suturing relationships, said in September, "We are either perched on the precipice of greatness--or extinction." A month later, he moved on. The ball is now in the court of Bill Berger, a former volleyball player, agent and promoter who, despite energetic plans for rebuilding the sport, concedes the AVP is on the brink of bankruptcy.

The Women's Professional Volleyball Assn., and the men's and women's "pro-fours" leagues--home to the stretch-limbed cover girl Gabrielle Reece--already have vanished. Poof. Gone. Nancy Lengel, who headed the WPVA until board members ousted her in 1997 in what she describes as a palace coup, views the sport as morally diseased. "The mudslinging in professional volleyball is malicious," she says. The men offer similar comments on their state of affairs. "I'm saddened," says former AVP board member and player Dan Vrebalovich. "I'm sickened."

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