Sand, sun, and serve
At a professional beach volleyball tournament in New Jersey, competitors draw a line in the sand.
Seaside Heights, N.J.
The hot sand is tickling my bare feet, the yellow sun is bathing my body in rays, and the cold drink in my hand is sending tiny glaciers into my circulation. And I can't help but notice how little everyone is wearing.
I'm at the AVP Professional Beach Volleyball tournament in Seaside Heights, N.J., two hours from New York City, where dozens of two-person teams are competing on eight adjacent courts.
It's in your face stuff. Feel free to walk up to any court, sit or stand anywhere on the sand and get within a few feet of the action – just watch out for flying volleyballs.
One player dives to punch the ball and sends a wave of sand flying. As she slowly pushes herself up, her legs and stomach are covered in sand. The ball is still in the air. "Come on, get up!" yells her teammate.
Sweat and energy are flowing, and combinations of serves, saves, and spikes appear to be endless. This is ballet, chess, and basketball all wrapped up into one.
"Anyone who knows anything about volleyball is standing here with baby eyes in admiration," says Luca Tormina, a teen who hopes to play pro volleyball some day.
The AVP 18-city tour kicked off in April in Miami and will finish in San Francisco in September. The tournament starts anew in every city, where teams play for three or four days straight in close matches from morning to evening. And at $20 per ticket ($10 for those under 18), you can bring the whole family.
"We're trying to create the ultimate summertime sports experience," says AVP CEO Leonard Armato. In the last two years, says Mr. Armato, the beach volleyball fan base – measured by game attendance, TV ratings, and website hits – has grown by 53 percent. But it's not just about the competition, he says; it's about the "lifestyle – the essence of why everybody was attracted to 'Baywatch.' There are a lot of beautiful people and they're very athletic, and you get to feel included in that culture."
So go ahead, include yourself. There is no shortage of activities. "There is something for every member of the family to enjoy," says Armato. Play volleyball against other fans, measure the speed of your serve or the height of your jump, get lessons from a pro, try to win prizes from the multitude of corporate sponsors, or enter the "Ultimate Beach Girl and Guy" competition.
And feel free to talk to the players after they finish a match. "You can walk up to anyone here," says Krystyn Bartlome, wearing a pink visor with several autographs. "The players are very receptive," she adds, flashing a white smile.
"There's a lot of interaction with fans," says AVP pro Suzanne Stonebarger.
"That's what makes our sport so unique," adds Michelle More, Ms. Stonebarger's teammate of four years.
On this hot Saturday afternoon, the sky is clear blue with a few white, cotton-candy clouds overhead. Stonebarger and Ms. More, done for the day, walk freely among the crowd.
"Fans love the relaxed atmosphere," says More. "And we enjoy the sport as much as the fans do."