Pondering the sexcess… err… success of beach volleyball

A buddy and I went to the AVP Huntington Beach Open this past weekend. I wanted to catch one of Kerri Walsh and Misty May’s matches, but we arrived about an hour too late. We walked around the tournament grounds watching the action on the various side courts. We settled in to watch a match that featured Angela Knopf and Saralyn Smith against Jenelle Koester and Sarah Straton. Why did we decide that particular match? I’m not certain, but I think it might have been Jenelle Koester…

That’s her on the right. I could say that it was her terrifc serves, clutch digs or powerful spikes, but I’d be lying. As I watched the match, I started to wonder – how much of beach volleyball’s success is based on sex? The sport really came to the forefront during the 2004 Olympics in Sydney, when May and Walsh (and all of the other competitors) showed off their toned, athletic bodies in tiny bikinis. If you remember, it was pretty amazing how popular the sport became as it was introduced to an international audience. Everyone was talking about it. Moreover, everyone was watching it, and the unbeatable Misty May and Kerri Walsh became household names. Still at the Koester match, I looked around the court, trying to figure out what percentage of attendees were there for the volleyball and what percentage were there for the view. I noticed a couple of male “photographers” taking pictures of Koester. No press passes, just big cameras with long lenses. It’s clear that a large percentage of beach volleyball fans are there for the eye candy. And I’m not just talking about women. There were a lot of female fans clustered around the men’s matches as well.

From a pure sports standpoint, indoor volleyball is more entertaining to watch. Due to the hard surface, the athletes are able to move more quickly and jump higher, which results in longer rallies and harder spikes. My wife is a former volleyball player and she doesn’t like to play on the beach because it’s hard on the ankles and it’s difficult to run and jump. For those reasons, she believes that beach volleyball players are in better shape when compared to their indoor counterparts. And given what I saw at the tourney, it’s hard to disagree.

So how aware are the players of the role that sex plays in their sport? They don’t seem to have a problem playing in bikinis, so they probably understand that it’s part of the game. Is Koester aware that 70% of the fans in attendance are staring at her amazing body? Does she like it? Does she even care?

It would be interesting to hear the answers to these questions, but I get the sense that sex is the dirty little secret around the AVP. Few will address it directly, but everyone knows it’s there and that it’s necessary for the sport to survive. After all, if all the girls started to wear loose-fitting jogging shorts and all the guys wore t-shirts, how much would attendance suffer?

Oh, by the way, the match went three sets, but Koester and Straton ultimately lost, 17-15 in the final set. But I still think she’s a winner.

Here’s a gratuitous video of these beach volleyball players in action. Enjoy.

UPDATE – New videos added:

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

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