It was not supposed to turn out this way. They were supposed to grow up, get jobs, get on with it. They would go to work, work at a job, work in a factory, work at raising a family. But they had never worked on anything more challenging than a tan, and so they stayed. The relatives in Oxnard all said they knew they would never amount to anything, that they would sit there on that damn beach for the rest of their lives, like kids afraid to come out of the sandbox. No one ever told them that they would come to embody a "life-style association" that major corporations would pay millions of dollars to be a part of. All they had ever intended to be were beach bums. It was not supposed to turn out this way.
"We used to get this beach-bum rap all the time," says Tim Hovland, warming himself in the sand. "But, hey, I'm just a product of my environment." A young man in painter's pants wanders down the dune at the bottom of Marine Avenue in Manhattan Beach, Calif., where the 29-year-old Hovland is sitting, and flops down next to a young woman in a pink bikini and a straw sun hat. Hovland tears open a bag of peanut M & M's and starts to chew them ruminatively. "There are a lot of beach volleyball players in the painters' union," he says finally. A hundred feet from the shore, a school of dolphins breaches the surface of the shimmering water, then disappears again.
Hovland and his partner Mike Dodd, 30, are waiting for their turn to practice on a volleyball court at one of the two places along an eight-mile stretch of sand southwest of Los Angeles where the top professionals come to play two-man beach volleyball. Hovland played all the major sports in high school, and in 1977 was even named Southern California Prep Athlete of the Year over All-Pro defensive back Ronnie Lott, now with the San Francisco 49ers. But the beach never lost its hold on Hovland, and now he and Dodd are the second-ranked team on the pro beach tour, which means that in places like Manhattan Beach they are considered volleyball gods, Kings of the Beach.
Last season Hovland made $54,000 in his sport, sometimes playing on beaches that weren't beaches at all but merely lots filled with sand shipped in to landlocked cities so that people there could get a taste of life at the beach. This season he has already won $75,000, and there are still two months left in the schedule. With companies suddenly falling all over themselves to sponsor tournaments and have their brand names associated with what one marketing director calls the California life-style, prize money on the 28-event pro tour this year has risen to $1.8 million, a more than 200% increase over 1987. "The sport embodies a life-style association that can't be beaten," says Leonard Armato, executive director of the Association of Volleyball Professionals, an organization formed by the players in 1983. "Young, athletic guys without shirts. Good looks and sex appeal." The sport has, in effect, become a marketing tool for products, such as Miller Lite and Jose Cuervo tequila, that are trying to target an audience of young hedonists. "Generally, people who come to the beach have good demographics," points out Armato.
Oddly enough, one of the biggest changes that all this money from companies that sell alcoholic beverages has brought about is a drastic reduction in the consumption of alcohol by the players. "In the old days," says Steve Obradovich, 33, a veteran player, "after a tournament you'd go to a party and drink till you dropped." Now the players stick to an ascetic training regimen during tournaments. Or, as another player puts it, "If you're a party person, it's going to take you down."
Happily, money has not yet completely corrupted the game, and beach volleyball remains a sport that lives on its hormones. The men are still men and the women are still girls; bikini contests still exist as if the women's movement had never happened; and the word party is still considered a verb rather than a noun. The only thing that really has changed is that at any given tournament there are probably more tattooed women than tattooed men.
These water-transfer tattoos are yet another form of the marketing that has taken over the sport. At the Hawaii Open on Waikiki Beach in June, the most prominently displayed tattoos belonged to Le Coq Sportif, a French sportswear company that seems to have adopted the rather forward-thinking philosophy that in advertising, the medium is the message. "I give up my weekends to rub girls' rear ends and chests," said Scott Roberts, a California sales rep who identified himself as the "chief pervert" for Le Coq Sportif and who seemed to be living proof that there really is no rest for the wicked, at least not if you work it right. "The girls all want them in places where they have to move the bikini for me to put them on," Roberts reported breathlessly.
The volley dollies, as they are called, are as overreaching and underdressed a lot of camp followers as you will find anywhere. "There are as many as you want, any time you want," says Obradovich, "and the better you do, the better-looking the girls."
Before money came into the sport, some players used to feel the best place to finish in a tournament was third. "That way the girls would know you were a hot player." says Obradovich, "but while the top two teams were out there killing themselves in the final, you were scoping out the best girls. Some guys didn't want to win tournaments for that reason."
These intrigues reached such a fevered pitch a few years ago that one prominent player and his partner were actually out on a boat in the middle of Lake Tahoe trying to make the acquaintance of a couple of new fans while their names were being called on shore to take the court for their next match.
Many players have grown so accustomed to the random coupling that goes on at the beach that a certain capaciousness often carries over into their selection of volleyball partners. Sometimes playing partnerships are formed and then dissolved in the space of a week.
"Everybody's looking for that perfect combination," says 31-year-old Christopher (Sinjin) Smith. "But you can't go switching partners every week and expect to win." Even among the very best players the pace of these mating dances can be dizzying. "A lot of these guys are worse than married couples," says one volleyballologist. "Leaving one man for another, divorcing each other, then making up."
"It is a marriage," says Randy Stoklos, 27, who with Smith makes up the top-ranked team on the circuit. "I see Sinjin every week. I sleep with him, I eat with him. There are only two of us out there, and if something goes wrong, it's either his fault or mine." Or as Hovland, the ultimate beach boy, puts it, "There's no hiding, man. You can't get out of the sandbox once you're stuck in there."
One of the best teams in the sandbox for a period of six years was Jon Stevenson, 29, and John Hanley, 28, but they finished second in far more tournaments than they won and soon began to blame each other. "I think the pressure of finishing second and wanting to do better hurt us," Stevenson says. "Winning begets winning, and losing makes you go out and look for somebody else."
When the pair finally split up earlier last season—with all the hard feelings that typically attend the breakup of a marriage—Stevenson teamed with ex-Olympian Pat Powers and in May the pair won a $100,000 tournament in Clearwater, Fla. Three weeks later, however, after losing badly at Seal Beach, Calif., the 30-year-old Powers became disenchanted with his new partner and dropped him for—of all people—Hanley. That left Stevenson, who had been weakened by a virus at Seal Beach, no choice but to join forces with Hanley's partner, Dan Vrebalovich, 26. "It's the crudest cut for me," said Stevenson, after he and Vrebalovich were eliminated at the Hawaii Open. "I'm in my prime, but there are really only a few guys I can win with. Now I've had this one happy experience with him, so I'm wanting to grovel to work things out. But Pat didn't want it. I've been through the same thing with girls. You can always say there are other girls you can go out with, but I don't want to go out with them, and I don't want to play with anybody else. I want to win. Unfortunately, this guy, who is by no means the greatest player in the world, makes a decision over which I have absolutely no control."
Powers, meanwhile, felt like the prettiest girl at the dance, courted by all the boys in the stag line. "It's a lottery for me," he said in Hawaii. He has had three partners this season, and had eight last season. "I'm just a volleyball whore, let's face it. Have gun, will travel. You can switch around with no problem. I've done it to guys, and it's happened to me. I like playing with new guys, and with Jon I was getting frustrated."
But after returning to California, Powers once again had a change of heart and called Stevenson to ask if he would take him back. The following weekend, Powers and Stevenson reunited to win a tournament in Laguna Beach on June 19, then on successive weekends they won the $100,000 Cuervo Gold Crown tournament in Boulder, and a $40,000 event in Providence, defeating Smith and Stoklos 15-11 in the final.
It is hardly a coincidence that Smith and Stoklos, who have played together longer than any other pair, have also been the most successful team in the sport's history. They joined forces eight years ago, when Smith was already an established player and Stoklos just a promising newcomer, and together they have won 67 championships. This year they had won six of the first nine tournaments before Smith began having problems with his right shoulder, probably due to the accumulated wear of almost 25 years of spiking. "Sinjin and I are expected to win," Stoklos says, "and when we don't the people who follow us want to know what happened."
"Sinjin" is actually the British pronunciation of St. John, which is Smith's middle name. For a long time he spelled it "Singin," leading a lot of people to the misapprehension that he had been so named because of a tendency to burst into song in the middle of a match. Stoklos has become so firmly convinced that Sinjin gets more publicity than he does because of his name rather than his game that he has thought—although perhaps not as hard as he should—about going by Piermont, which is his middle name.
Smith is far and away the best-known beach volleyball player outside Southern California, a fact that grates on many players. Obradovich calls Smith "a self-promoter who never seems to win the big tournaments," and others are equally unkind. "He gets a lot of that attention because he's got a publicist," says Hovland. "A lot of what he gets he deserves, but not all of it."
Stoklos has stewed over this inequity as his game has blossomed, at times trying so hard to be as glib as Smith that you can almost see the beads of perspiration standing out on his enormous brow. "Randy's the most dominating player on the tour," says Obradovich, "but Sinjin gets all the publicity because he can talk. That's why we need Sinjin on the tour. If we have to rely on Randy Stoklos to talk, we're screwed."
Smith plays in one of the few sports in which the combination of his hunky good looks and his obvious intelligence probably work against him with the players, and he knows he is far from being the most beloved pro on the tour. "It's basically their ignorance," he says of the players who whine about him hogging the limelight. "The more I do, the more publicity I get. the bigger the prize money, the better it is for them. But that doesn't stop them from hammering me every time they talk about me. They'd rather bitch than do something to help themselves."
A gigantic picture of Smith—bare-chested, with a beautiful woman wrapped around his shoulders—once appeared on billboards all over California, below the message MILK—IT DOES A BODY GOOD. Sinjin's younger brother. Andrew, is such a successful fashion model that a modeling assignment once forced him to abandon a tournament they were doing well in, thus leaving his partner to play one-on-two for fifth place. So many of the top players are also pursuing modeling careers, in fact, that the players who are merely normal-looking have begun to feel the beach Adonises have an unfair competitive advantage. "When our sport became popular, people saw the glamourous aspect of it and really tapped into that." Stevenson says. "Now you've got guys getting better, contracts [from sponsors] because they are models. That's the reality of the sport these days. I resent it when I get overlooked for things because I haven't taken that tack. I don't like to have to be tan. I hope there's room in the sport for the thinking man's volleyball player."
Well, there may be room for him. but probably not on the team of Scott Ayakatubby, 24, and Brent Frohoff, 25. "Those guys should win every match they play." says Obradovich, "but they haven't got a brain between them." On the very day that Obradovich made this observation at the Hawaii Open, the two played their way into the finals by winning several long, grueling games in heat that exceeded 90°. They might have won the whole tournament were it not for the fact that Ayakatubby suddenly passed out from heat exhaustion after upsetting favorites Smith and Stoklos in the semifinals. As a result. Hovland and Dodd won the tournament by default.
To their credit, the players have not all let the money change them. Hovland still brays throughout every match, sometimes at himself, but more often at Dodd. Hovland is also the game's foremost practitioner of the withering glare, which players characteristically direct at their teammates when they have missed digging a ball out of the sand on an crucial point. "Tim's got a great stinkeye," Stevenson says.
Stoklos figures he will make $100,000 on endorsement deals this year, and if he and Smith can regain their touch on the tour, his total income could go as high as $250,000. "Before we were playing for all this prize money," he says, "we were stars in our own little cults. People looked up to us. We were heroes in our own right. Even now, we're not thinking about prize money. It's still, Who's King of the Beach?"