HERMOSA BEACH — In professional beach volleyball, cold statistics understandably tend to get lost in the sun, sand and tan bodies.
Also more interesting than numbers is the return of the women's tour after the Women's Professional Volleyball Assn. disintegrated in a sea of red ink two years ago.
But this weekend at the California Beach Bash north of the Hermosa Pier, men's beach veteran Karch Kiraly will chase a number and a legend. Kiraly's next victory will be his 140th and break a tie with Sinjin Smith, one of the few household names to emerge from the sport.
Kiraly and most other top money winners are competing in the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals' second event this year that has featured men's and women's tournaments.
Matt Unger, from Cal State Northridge, is seeded 11th with Stein Metzger and Aaron Boss of Agoura Hills is seeded 14th with Dan Castillo in the men's tournament; Marla O'Hara of Agoura Hills and Linda Chisholm of Van Nuys are seeded 17th among the women.
The first combined event, in Clearwater, Fla., in May, drew large crowds and infused momentum into the recently restructured AVP, which serves as the governing body of the women's tour as well.
The AVP was $3 million in debt and on the verge of collapsing when Dan Vrebalovich, 36, and Billy Berger, 38, took it over a year ago. Vrebalovich was a pro player for 13 years and Berger owned a marketing company that represented several top players.
Both the men's and women's tours might be on wobbly legs this year, but they believe the future is as bright as high noon surfside in June.
"We understand what made [beach volleyball] so compelling and what the weaknesses were," Vrebalovich said. "It is very much a lifestyle sport that the world has responded to positively. What makes beach volleyball unique in a crowded field of sports is its unique setting, where people are wearing bathing suits and listening to music.
"The beach party atmosphere--without taking away from the athleticism--is what makes it unique and marketable."
Vrebalovich and Berger made subtle changes, such as creating reserve seats in beach chairs on the sand in front of the bleachers.
"Now there are umbrellas and coolers and people with their toes in the sand the way it used to be," Vrebalovich said.
Vrebalovich and Berger signed top players to five-year contracts, wooed back sponsors and combined women's tournaments with four of the men's events this year.
Four tournaments isn't much of a season for the women, who played a schedule of 16 tournaments at the height of beach volleyball's popularity in the mid-1990s.
"We are walking before we run," Vrebalovich said. "We need a year to reestablish credibility and revamp the product."
Many top women players spent the last two years playing in Federation of International Volleyball events. O'Hara has played in Brazil, Australia and Mexico in recent months.
"I've been able to play in 12 events a season without anything going on [in the U.S.]," O'Hara said. "But I am so looking forward to this weekend and the AVP events. I love it."
USA Volleyball plans to stage five to eight events a year through 2006 so the women can prepare for the Olympic Games.
The last two combined AVP events will take place in July in Chicago and Muskegon, Mich., lakeside sites that have long supported beach volleyball.
"It's the Midwest where you don't think volleyball would be big, but it's unbelievable," said Unger, a pro player since 1993.
Although the women's tour has been dormant for two years, most of the top players are back.
"There are about 40 women really into it," Vrebalovich said. "It's about half veterans and half fresh faces. Beach volleyball is making a comeback."