Manhattan Beach's website says the city "is probably most famous for its beach volleyball." Its public library mentions the Manhattan Beach Open volleyball tournament prominently on its website, and winners' names are placed on a plaque on the city pier.
But the American professional volleyball league is threatening to downgrade its Manhattan Beach event and take its marquee tournament elsewhere if it is not allowed to add entertainment and more corporate suites and increase the number of paying customers.
"We'll do it in Chicago or another community necessary to maintain its status," said Leonard Armato, chief executive of the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals.
Armato said that for the three-day Manhattan Beach Open to remain as what is often referred to as the Wimbledon of beach volleyball, "the community will have to embrace everything necessary and required to keep that status. The way to do that is to provide a more full and complete entertainment experience."
In addition to being able to charge for more spectators during the three-day tournament, usually held in August, and increase the number of corporate tents, Armato said he wanted to add other events, like concerts or fashion shows "that make a major sporting event."
He said he discussed his idea with the City Council six years ago.
"We've been struggling ever since to come to a mutually agreeable resolution of what the event should look like," said Armato, who lives in Manhattan Beach.
The association has threatened to withdraw from Manhattan Beach before, and some wonder whether the latest comments were a bluff to gain concessions from the city, Los Angeles County and the California Coastal Commission.
Association officials insist that they need to make more money.
"Your opportunities to generate revenues should come from the most important events," said Dave Klewan, vice president of partnerships and operations for the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals. "Manhattan Beach, which we all love and is so historic, should be a slam-dunk for generating revenue. Unfortunately, we can't monetize it in the correct way."
The association executives' comments come as the tour is trying to leverage the popularity of beach volleyball at the Beijing Olympics into a profitable business in a bad economic climate. The organization has not turned a profit since 1998, when it filed for bankruptcy. Armato became its chief executive three years later. It lost $3 million in the first nine months of 2008 and recently delisted its stock.
Beach volleyball is more than a sport in the South Bay. It is much of what gives Manhattan Beach and neighboring Hermosa Beach their character, as the courts at both are filled each weekend from sunrise to sunset, with locals sometimes playing against professionals.
"It's part of the fabric of Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach," said Hermosa Beach Mayor Kit Bobko. "Everybody who grew up there plays volleyball."
The Manhattan Beach Open began in 1960 as a city recreational tournament, becoming part of the association tour in 1984. Even today, as in the old days, spectators can pull up towels and beach chairs and watch top athletes like Olympic gold medalists Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh play preliminary rounds for free.
The association sets up a temporary stadium with about 3,300 seats, where featured matches are played. According to its agreement with the state Coastal Commission, the association can charge for 24% of the seats. Tickets last year cost $40 to $75. In addition, there were six corporate tents, which cost $10,000 to $15,000, and other exhibitors.
Manhattan Beach City Councilman Richard Montgomery said that many locals would not mind if the tournament went back to its "old-school ways."
"Some people don't think the grandstand is in the tradition of the sport," he said.
In fact, in 1997 and 1998, the Manhattan Beach tournament moved to Hermosa Beach after a lawsuit complained of noise and traffic.
Dave Williams, the association's director of operations, said the Manhattan Beach Open has the most expensive fees of any stop on the 18-city tour, with the association paying about $100,000 to the city and the county. "We've been spending more money than we're making because we wanted to build it as our premier event, and we can't continue to do that," he said.
There are differences of opinion as to how the tournament benefits the city economically.
The association says that the tournament brings about 20,000 people into town for the three days. But Bruce Moe, Manhattan Beach's finance director, said city tax records show no spike in revenue.
Armato said Hermosa Beach, where the association already holds a tournament, could take over as its top location.
"Maybe Hermosa Beach is a place to blow things out," he said.
The association's agreement with the Coastal Commission and Hermosa Beach allows it to sell 4,500 tickets a day. Those extra sales generate at least $100,000 more than the Manhattan Beach tournament, Klewan said.
This year, the county and the association have been fighting over how much money the group owes for using Manhattan Beach. The volleyball organization paid the county $23,000 in 2006 and $32,000 in 2007.
Hermosa Beach owns its own sand, and Los Angeles County owns the sand at Manhattan Beach.
At the same time, prize money last year skyrocketed to $1 million. When The Times began making inquiries, the county insisted that gross receipts included the prize money. Since the county charges the association 15% of gross receipts, that alone would amount to $150,000.
The county backed down, and the two sides agreed in late February that the association owed $41,000.