History of Beach Volleyball

The origins of beach volleyball are somewhat debated. Some claim that it was played on the beaches of Hawaii as early as 1915; some cite Santa Monica, California as the birth place of the sport. These seemingly paradoxical claims hinge on the distinction between volleyball played on the beach and a sport known more officially as beach volleyball.

In the end, most can agree that while the Waikiki Outrigger Beach & Canoe Club did host the first recorded volleyball match played on the beach, the sport as it is known today evolved on the southern California coast.

Waikiki: Playing on the Beach

Volleyball was brought to the beaches of Hawaii by a group called the Outrigger Beach and Canoe Club, founded in 1908 by a small group of Honolulu business men who wanted to foster and promote the growth of traditional Hawaiian sports—especially surfing. But when the wave conditions were less than ideal, club members found themselves stranded on the beach with nothing to do. That problem would soon be solved by a man named George David “Dad” Center.

During one particularly bad wave pattern in the early 1915’s, Center left the club and soon returned with a couple of volleyballs and a net. He quickly set up the net on the strip of beach in front of the club, thereby constructing the very first beach volleyball court in Waikiki.

A new pastime was born. Volleyball fever soon spread quickly among surfers and beach goers alike.

The early games played on the beaches of Waikiki bear little resemblance to the modern version of the sport: There were few rules, no limit on the number of players allowed on the court, and players did not jump or attack the ball. The game did not transition from this more leisurely activity into a structured, competitive sport until it hit the shores of California.

Santa Monica: The Origins

Indoor volleyball was moderately popular throughout California during the early 20th century. As the sport continued to spread, outdoor parks and playgrounds became increasingly popular venues because of the game’s simple equipment requirement and easy adaptability. The beach was simply the next logical progression.

The most significant event in the history of beach volleyball actually had little to do with the sport and more with a simple construction project along the California coast. In 1920, the city of Santa Monica built new jetties that transformed the rugged shore into a flat smooth surface. Their construction created an ideal space for a permanent beach volleyball court, thus planting the seed for beach volleyball development in the region.

Public courts first appeared in Santa Monica in 1922. The advent of public sand courts took the game out of the private beach clubs—where it had previously been played almost exclusively—and brought beach volleyball to the masses.

College students and families were the most frequent patrons of these volleyball hotspots.

Evolution of Beach Volleyball

The most significant refinements to the game were implemented on the shores of Santa Monica, CA, but the man responsible for some of the earliest modifications to beach volleyball was actually from Hawaii. Duke Kahanamoku, a native of Waikiki, was a brilliant athlete who traveled to the mainland in 1930 to take a position as the Athletic Director at Santa Monica’s Beach Club. He had exceptional athletic abilities and used his strength to showcase a common indoor volleyball maneuver on the beach for the first time: The Spike. The game instantly transitioned from leisurely activity to rugged sport.

The next important change occurred in later in 1930 with the advent of the two-man game. Most beach matches up to that point were played between two teams of six, but tired of waiting for more players, four friends—Paul “Pablo” Johnson, Billy Brothers, Johhny Allen, and Charles Conn—decided to play two-on-two. They originally agreed to only use a quarter of the court but quickly expanded to half the court, and eventually decided to use the entire volleyball court. The two-player game soon became popular on the beaches of Southern California.

Growth of the Game

Beach volleyball spread to Europe in conjunction with World War II, as soldiers used the sport as a way to relieve stress and keep fit. Europeans took a liking to the game, and soon the sport was a staple on beaches across Europe.

Stateside, the sport of beach volleyball continued to prosper, but was still played predominantly in southern California where two-person format was the preferred style of play. The Santa Monica Recreation Department held the first of four annual tournaments for two-player teams in the summer of 1944. The tournaments were a smash hit and soon cities across the southern California coast, including Santa Barbara and Long Beach, organized similar events.

The 1950s and 1960s was somewhat of a golden era for the sport. The game enjoyed unprecedented growth, spreading to Northern California, Florida, and even as far as Brazil. Women also began to get involved in the sport. Initially their participation was limited to coed-doubles teams, but by the end of the 1950’s, women were fielding their own two-woman teams and competing in tournaments.

In 1965, beach volleyball was finally recognized as a legitimate sport with a set of standardized rules and sanctioned tournaments. The California Beach Volleyball Association (CBVA) was created to establish and enforce the new rules, and in the process, became the sport’s first official governing body.

Show Me the Money: The Professional Game

It was uncommon for tournaments to offer prize money prior to the 1980’s, which made it difficult to develop and sustain beach volleyball at the professional level. However, there were a few exceptions. In 1975, a cigarette company made history when they agreed to sponsor a tournament in Long Beach, CA with $1,500 dollars in prize money. The following year, a local Santa Monica beer company signed on to sponsor the inaugural Professional Championships of Beach Volleyball, which offered $5,000 prize for the champions. The championship match drew 30,000 spectators. The success of both events helped to pave the way for the emergence of the professional game.

The first corporate sponsored tour was held in 1980; it was comprised of seven tournaments and offered a total of $52,000 in prize money. In 1983, the tour expanded to 12 tournaments with stops in Florida, Chicago, and New York and a jackpot of $137,000.

In the same year (1983), a group of players decided to form the Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) because they were unhappy with the way prize money was being allocated. The AVP would grow to become the preeminent organization in professional beach volleyball.

Beach in the Olympics

The Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) –the international governing body for indoor volleyball—first became involved in the beach game in 1990. The FIVB pushed for the inclusion of beach volleyball as a demonstration sport at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. It was received very well, and shortly after the 1992 Olympics, the International Olympic Committee announced that the sport would be a part of the program for the 1996 games in Atlanta.

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