In the Olympics, it’s called beach volleyball. In college athletics, it’s sand volleyball. No matter its name, the sport has seen unprecedented growth in the last decade. So much so, it's now spread to places not known for their beaches. Places like Boise.
Sand volleyball's popularity has spiked ever since August 2004. The Olympics were in Athens and a young, athletic duo from California dominated their beach-volleyball competition.
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh ended up winning gold. They repeated in 2008 in Beijing. Four years later, they won gold again in London. Their profile grew with every win.
“What they did to put the sport of beach volleyball on the map is legendary and I think will never be repeated,” says Kathy DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
“You have a whole generation of little girls growing up watching beach volleyball as an Olympic sport – a very, very popular sport played a very, very high level,” she adds.
Data from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association show huge growth in the number of young people playing sand volleyball during those gold-medal runs. Between 2007 and 2013, sand volleyball added 1.4 million participants. Among girls aged 6-to-24, participation jumped by 45 percent.
Today, that popularity has spread to places like Boise. Last month, teams from Boise State, Oregon and Arizona played round-robin matches in cloudy, cool weather on the Boise State campus. For BSU junior Taylor Murphey and her teammates, it was their first ever home match.
“My freshman year I would have never thought that I’d be playing sand the last two years I was in college,” Murphey says. “I hadn’t even really watched a whole lot of sand besides Olympics, so when Shawn told us ‘yeah we’re getting a sand program’, it was completely different because I had no idea what other teams had sand programs. And from last year to this year, there are so many teams that have been added."
Shawn is Murphey’s head coach, Shawn Garus. And he’s the person most responsible for convincing Boise State administrators that sand volleyball made sense. Garus is the school’s indoor volleyball coach and sold the idea as a way to improve that program.
“Sand volleyball offered us an opportunity to add a sport but use the same athletes, use the same coaching staff,” he says. “For a very minimal budget, we could get five more weeks of training that’s going to make us a better program overall.”
In 2013, Boise State became the first school in the region to announce it was adding a sand volleyball program. Garus says last fall’s indoor volleyball campaign was the school’s best in two decades, and he thinks the sand volleyball schedule last spring was one reason why.
The University of Arizona last year made sand volleyball its first new sport in 16 years. Now, head coach Steve Walker takes calls from other schools – some in cold weather states – who are also interested in adding sand volleyball.
“I think the Midwest programs want to add,” he says. “I really do. I’ve fielded inquiries from a number of Big Ten schools on a facility and how to add. Nebraska has an underground facility.”
Walker predicts five to 10 schools will add the sport each year.
By this time next year, more than 50 schools will offer sand volleyball. It’s the fastest sport to go from the NCAA’s “emerging sport” list to obtaining championship status.
One big reason is affordability. The College of Charleston spent just $40,000 to add a program. Boise State officials say they did so for half that. Factor in Title IX gender equity benefits, and more and more schools find the sport too attractive to pass up.
The growth is exciting for Kathy DeBoer, the head of the sport’s coaches association. She thinks sand volleyball will someday compete with higher profile spring sports like college softball.
“I think it’s gonna happen,” she says. “I think it’s not only possible, I think it’s destiny.”
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