Beach marketers surely don't have heads in sand

June 05, 1996|By John Eisenberg

The sand is there. The dudes and dudettes are there.

Organizers of the U.S. Olympic beach volleyball trials really did come close to re-creating the traditional beach experience in a parking lot on Key Highway.

They left out only a few key elements.

Middle-aged guys with catastrophically huge beer guts billowing over Speedo bikini trunks, for instance.

None of them was around yesterday as the trials opened.

Nor were there any shrieking toddlers accidentally kicking sand in your face just as you were dozing off.

A beach isn't a beach without them, is it?

Oh, and there also weren't any grumbling old guys with No. 50 sun block on their noses searching for coins with a metal detector.

The organizers apparently forgot to truck some of them in from the Eastern Shore along with the sand.

Otherwise, they did a pretty good job of building a beach in downtown Baltimore.

Surf's up, hon.

And never mind those police sirens.

Actually, there was never a doubt that the beach would turn out, well, perfectly beachy.

Beach volleyball is a haven for professionals these days.

Marketing professionals.

People who know how to get your attention and make you reach for your wallet, and not in that order.

Beach volleyball has exploded in popularity, joined the Olympic parade and rendered traditional volleyball all but obsolete, and it's really just a marketing concept.

But brother, they know what they're doing.

Volleyballers dressed in boring uniforms played for years in dank college gyms; few people cared. Then some sharpie in a three-piece suit figured out that the same basic game played by men and women in bathing suits, on a beach or even a pseudo-beach, was just the kind of apple that the public wanted to eat.

They even came up with a definition for the concept: a "lifestyle" sport.

Meaning that it was intended to evoke the beach lifestyle, which, at last check, entailed beer, sun, ogling and beer.

Not exactly fan-unfriendly.

The athletes here for the trials are world-class and their game is demanding and legitimate, but, let's face it, their sport has attracted high network TV ratings and high-profile corporate sponsorship primarily because it allows fans to pretend they're on a beach vacation even when they're standing in a parking lot on Key Highway, or sitting on a couch at home.

It's called hedonism. The original sales technique.

Or, as USA Volleyball executive director John Carroll told The Sun's Don Markus in explaining beach volleyball's popularity, "After all, 'Baywatch' is the No. 1-rated show in the world."

No, it's hardly subtle, and certainly not politically correct. But no one seems to be complaining. Of all the sports in the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, only gymnastics and track and field sold out faster than beach volleyball.

"Skeptics wonder whether it belongs," said Tom Simmons, information director of the women's beach volleyball tour, "but I don't see a lot of people going around fencing. Not to trash that sport, but the Olympics, like anything else, need to stay fresh."

Beach volleyball certainly is more legit than curling, a Winter Olympic sport in 1988, at which athletes called timeout to smoke cigarettes and eat peanut M&Ms.

Compared to that, beach volleyball is the essence of what the ancient Greeks had in mind for the Olympics. Never mind the beer ads posted every three feet.

Bringing the trials to Baltimore sounded like a new low in '90s ridiculousness, but it's just part of a clever plan to grow the sport.

After basing in Southern California for years, the people running the sport realized that they didn't need a real beach to put on a hot show. They just needed a beach that felt like a real beach.

In fact, they figured, they probably were even better off in landlocked places where people longed for a beach.

In the past few years there have been sold-out tournaments on man-made beaches in New York in the dead of winter; in the desert heat of Las Vegas; in between high-rise hotels in Reno, Nev.; in Austin, Texas; Phoenix; and Indianapolis.

"New York was great," said Karch Kiraly, the most famous American volleyballer. "We bundled up, took a taxi in the snow to Madison Square Garden, got down to our shorts and got down to business."

The least beachy setting was in Tokyo. "We played downtown, in between skyscrapers," said Janice Harrer, a longtime women's player.

How did it go over?

"Huge, great," Harrer said. "They love American women over there, especially the tall blondes. I think [the tournament organizers] said, 'Just send over all of the American women, especially the tall blondes.' "

After downtown Tokyo, Baltimore is Surf City USA.

"At least there's water here," Harrer said, looking out at the Inner Harbor.

Never mind that that water probably would kill an entire school of fish in two minutes.

Pass the suntan lotion, hon.

Pub Date: 6/05/96

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