By Mary Buckheit
Page 2

Hey guys, here's a tip for you. Quit hoarding $1 bills and slinking off to shady, neon-signed strip clubs. Instead, why don't you check out an attraction you can feel good about?

Bud girls
Mary Buckheit for ESPN.com
The Bud Light Girls whip the AVP fans into a frenzy.

The AVP Crocs Pro Beach Volleyball Tour is coming to a beach city (or a Bring Your Own Beach at a middle-America expo center) near you this summer. There's no clear plastic stiletto heels; just bikinis, Bud Lights, boardshorts and hot sets, making it the sexiest sport of the season. Give 'em one weekend, and the babes of summer will have you sold on this sandstorm of sporty seduction.

I'm writing to you a week removed from a wild weekend at the Hermosa Beach Open. And I'm still hungover from what was served up by the sea -- all day, every day, pregame to after party, bump to barstool. I'm talking about a beach throng that exudes salty sass from each perfectly toned pore. This could be the Fresh Prince's new definition of summer madness.


Before I recount all the steamy details, I'll break down the beach volleyball basics, since I'm assuming that the average ESPN.com-reading Joe could probably use a few pointers. If volleyball to you is just a 10-letter word for knee socks and polyester, it's time to pull the spandex from your eyes, throw on some polarized shades and step away from the hardwood.

Just watch the video of the Hermosa Beach Open. You'll like it. Trust us.

The AVP (Association of Volleyball Professionals) includes about 300 of the hottest and hardest-working athletes ever to put on a uniform … err, swimsuit. Their season spans seven months -- from March until September -- and includes 16 stops in 11 different states, from coast to coast.

There are two players on each side of the net in AVP competition. Not three, not six -- two. There is no swarm of different-colored jerseys running amok on each side, like in an indoor soccer game. Two people, no jerseys; just as God intended.

Take two of three games and you've won the match. First two games are to 21; the third, if necessary, is a scramble to 15 and you've got to win by two.

That's really all there is to it. Pretty plain and simple, since the AVP uses a rally scoring system -- meaning you can score a point anytime, not just when your team is serving. (Rally scoring renders moot the old volleyball buzzword "sideout" … but fans still yell it anyway.) Rally style not only keeps the fans' attention, it also insures fast-moving brackets which yield lucrative social benefits that'll be mentioned later.

For now, just know that the sport is pretty permissive, with only one major faux pas to navigate -- the messy set, also known as "chowder." Mind your lifts and doubles, because a spinning set will yield a whistle. And rightfully so. Nobody wants chowder in this heat.


So that's it. You've been debriefed. Which is good, since the attire at these tourneys is not for the faint of heart. Most fans sport styles similar to the pros since: (A) it gets really freakin' hot at these tournaments (here's looking at you Birmingham, Ala., July 13-16), and (B) a lot of the fans record a few digs themselves before being bounced from the qualifiers' pool to the cheering section. How's that? Well, anybody can register to play in an AVP tournament, provided you and your partner have 50 bucks and matching swimmies.

I'm serious! Show up on time, hand over the dough, sign the release and make sure your trunks don't clash, and you're in.

Aaron Wachtfogel, Sean Rosenthal, Casey Jennings
Mary Buckheit for ESPN.com
If you're any good, you just might get the chance to go up against pros like Aaron Wachtfogel, Sean Rosenthal and Casey Jennings -- shown here at a tourney afterparty.

If you're any good, you'll get to play a few hours of volleyball. Then, when you get eliminated, you can just head to the bar/bleachers, replenish those electrolytes and enjoy the weekend's action with the rest of the castoffs.

If you're no good, you lose two games and promptly belly back up to the scene.

But for legit teams (and by legit I mean talented and most likely tall), a further reward is possible. Lucky dogs who survive the bracket get to cross over and play against the pros in the main draw. How cool is that?

A couple weekends ago, in the volleyball haven of Hermosa Beach, Calif., which boasts the longest-running beach volleyball event ever, 215 teams entered the AVP competition -- a new record.

So you figure with about 100 teams on the men's side, and 100 teams on the women's side, if all else were equal, you'd have about a 1-in-100 shot of taking home a big cardboard check, right?

But that's bad math, because Olympic gold medalists Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor have some super-secret hex on the entire system, making them 99 times more likely to bank the cash. But don't get discouraged. The odds are in your favor to come home with a hot tan, some sweet swag and a healthy summer buzz.

(Of course, AVP Tour sponsor Jose Cuervo reminds you to drink responsibly, no matter how early you get knocked out.)


This brings me to just how hard AVP folks play and party to create one of sports/entertainment's most unique environments.

First, look at the ages of AVP fans. Here in California, the typical beach volleyball crowd looks like a surf-competition-meets-U2-concert combo. By which I mean there is a pretty wide age range, and pretty equal gender split, but it leans toward young, blonde, and left coast.

Peanut butter jelly girls
Mary Buckheit for ESPN.com
Peanut Butter Jelly Time hotties.

It seems that when beach volleyball struggled financially in the mid-90s, it lost its faithful fanbase. Almost simultaneously, surfing and skateboarding recovered the fumble and cultivated that community over the last 10 years. As a younger, X-ier generation of beach volleyball players came through the ranks, they naturally folded into that culture and seem stoked about the complementary arrangement.

With hip players at the helm and a strong management in place, beach volleyball has successfully shed its once-faded fluorescent image and is again on the rise, this time with boardshorts and sunglass sponsors and bikini bottoms capturing fans faster than you can say "Quiksilver."

Want proof? Check out "Rosie's Raiders" -- a gnarly SoCal cult full of Sean Rosenthal disciples resembling an amalgamation of Raider Nation and Metal Mulisha.

The Raiders are balanced by a softer group of new-school supporters known as the Peanut Butter Jelly squad, who cheer emphatically for sophomore tandem Hans Stolfus and Aaron Wachtfogel. The posse is led by one of Aaron's roommates on a megaphone talking well-intentioned nonsense behind a handful of dancing female hotties.

The enigmatic crew got its name from the "Family Guy" dance download "Peanut Butter Jelly Time" ("Peanut butter jelly, peanut butter jelly, peanut butter jelly with a baseball bat!").

It makes no sense, but as the PBJ playlist blared Peter Griffin, the "Karate Kid" theme and Journey from an iPod rigged to a stereo system on a wooden dolly powered by a car battery, the PBJ hotties inspired an entire stadium in Hermosa to sing along:

"Just a small town girl, livin' in a lonely world. She took the midnight train goin' anywhere … "

It's classic fandom fun like this that makes the AVP such a blast. There aren't huge dollars at stake. The winning teams in Hermosa each split $19,000 -- an amount that most professional athletes would pimp their H3 with.

But grounded AVP vet Mike Lambert said modestly, "I really like where this sport is going. I have seen it go through several stages, ups and downs, but it is definitely in the right direction. It feels very organic to me and grassrooted. … No, we're not making millions of dollars, but if you work hard enough you're able to make a decent living playing a sport that you love. Nothing is better than that. It will continue to catch on. One fan at a time."

Rachel Wacholder
Mary Buckheit for ESPN.com
Rachel Wacholder -- she and E.Y. won the women's side of Hermosa.

That's about the sexiest thing I've ever heard a professional athlete say.

Spend a weekend around this sport, and you'll leave scratching your head, wondering why this hasn't quite caught on. I asked that very question to Rachel Wacholder after she and partner Elaine Youngs defeated Misty and Kerri for the Hermosa title.

"I don't know!" she said, frustrated. "It's such a great sport, it's challenging and sexy, I just don't get it!"

"What's the catch?" I asked E.Y.

"Maybe that's it," Youngs said. "Maybe it's too sexy for people to legitimize. Maybe all people see are bikinis and bare backs and think it's a big barbecue out here. Who knows?"

I lobbed this idea at men's Hermosa champs Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser. Rogers smirked and said, "Geez, I don't know. Maybe we should put some shirts on."

Dalhausser added with a grin, "You think shirts would get ESPN out here more often? Would that make people respect us as athletes?"

Maybe pro beach volleyball is too sexy for mainstream success. Maybe that's why folks shrug it off. Maybe in the inflated world we live in, we can't take a 15-bean admission ticket seriously. But with athletes as stunning as any in all of sport, who are satisfied by the living they make and proud of their grassroots fanbase, I hope the AVP keeps serving up the sexy festivities undiscouraged.

After all, it's not their fault that everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.

Mary Buckheit is a regular contributor to ESPN.com and can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.



        Paginated view

Mary_Buckheit
Mary
Buckheit
BEACH BALL