Gulf Shores a huge part of beach volleyball’s emergence as an NCAA sport
AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship in 2012 was impetus for all that followed
By Fran Thompson
In April 2012, Pepperdine won the inaugural AVCA Collegiate Sand Volleyball National Championship.
Four years later, with the sport now fully sanctioned by the NCAA and its name changed from sand to beach, USC found a home on the volleyball trivia circuit by winning the first ever NCAA Beach Volleyball title.
Both teams celebrated by cutting down nets at Gulf Shores Public Beach. This was not a coincidence.
Led by USA Volleyball Gulf Coast, local volunteers, businesses, Orange Beach-Gulf Shores Tourism and the City of Gulf Shores created the momentum that allowed beach volleyball to become the fastest sport to ever go from emerging status to a full NCAA sanction.
The NCAA had already declined to make beach volleyball an emerging sport at the 2011 NCAA Congress in Atlanta by the time the AVCA held the first of four consecutive championship tourneys in Gulf Shores. The vote was not even close.
The designation would have kept beach volleyball solvent. As an emerging sport, it would have eight years to prove that it would not lose momentum and vanish like women’s water polo and equestrian before it.
AVCA powers had gathered for a pseudo-championship tourney in San Diego in August of 2011. But the following spring, during that first championship weekend in Gulf Shores, the sport’s guiding forces saw how the venue, the weather, the sand, the sponsors and multiple hosts could work in sync to create an event that fit perfectly what Gulf Shores was looking for as its springtime answer to October’s National Shrimp Fest. The weekend was almost the antithesis of the controversial Hangout Fest, which came a week later at the same location.
As the story goes, that first national tourney may not have even come to Gulf Shores if Southern Cal president Max Nikias did not nix it on his campus because he did not want trucks dropping loads of sand on Trojan greenspace.
USA Volleyball Gulf Coast directors Phillip Bryant and Shawn Weaver were then and still are Mount Rushmore busts among volleyball hierarchy in this region. They already knew most of the AVCA coaches. Bryant coached at UAB, one of the first schools in the nation to sponsor a beach program.
Kathy DeBoer, a world class athlete herself (see page 14 story), and coach Nina Matthies of Pepperdine first broached the idea of bringing the tourney to Gulf Shores with the two local coaches.
Presented with the opportunity to host the best college beach volleyball players in the nation, Volleyball Gulf Coast’s board stepped into the void that Southern Cal left and started building the symbiotic relationships between volleyball associations, volunteers, The City of Gulf Shores, coaches, fans and players that remain strong 10 years later.
DeBoer, a former volleyball coach at Kentucky and the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, already knew Billy Payne, the head poobah at CBS Sports, whom she cajoled into covering her 2011 tourney on tape delay.
Shaul Zislin, owner of The Hangout, also sat in on the conference calls with Payne, DeBoer and Bryant.
Zislin agreed to sponsor team banquets and the hospitality tent and, with the promise of national TV coverage as a carrot to dangle, help find other sponsorships. But despite his connections, Zislin was unable to solict additional sponsors that first year, according to Bryant.
Orange Beach/Gulf Shores Tourism kicked in a $15K media buy, and the City of Gulf Shores kicked in $30K and helped with everything from security to labor to clean-up, according to Bryant.
But it was left for USA Volleyball Gulf Coast, already committed to coordinating volunteers, officials and most of the tourney’s logistics, to committ the money to make the tourney happen.
“It was well over $95K (to put the tourney together). But we had been good stewarts with our money. We had reserve funds and we were not going to let it go down,’’ Bryant said.
“It took a long time to amortize that money, but if it had not been for the infusion of funds from the Gulf Coast Region, that tourney would have been one and done.’’
Bryant said the tourney committee went all out with swag bags for players, and spent $20K just on apparel for its volunteers and officials.
Pepperdine was crowned champion in 2012, and coach Matthies, a Bear Bryant in the sport, said the beaches in Gulf Shores were the nicest she had ever seen when she accepted the championship trophy on behalf of her team.
“We threw the biggest party they had ever been to,’’ Bryant said.
The AVCA Championship was under no obligation to return to Gulf Shores in 2013, but the AVCA committee, with Gulf Coast Region representatives Weaver and (South Alabama coach) Nicole Keshock in attendance, voted 8-0 to come back to Gulf Shores the following year.
“We swagged the whole thing out. We knew as a region we were dedicated to the growth of volleyball,’’ Bryant said. “We wanted to dramatically grow the sport. We ended up getting a three year contract and you know what happened in the fourth year. The NCAA made it a championship sport.’’
During the next year’s indoor volleyball championship weekend, which always includes, symposiums, clinics, workshops, and speakers like Karch Kiraly, the Pepperdine coach again raved about the hospitality she found in Gulf Shores. This time in front of hundreds of her peers.
“In that hall full of people, Nina had everybody’s attention, and she praised Gulf Shores as a perfect place to hold the tourney,’’ Bryant recalled.
“She said we had the first AVCA tourney there and you will not find city services anywhere like you will find in Gulf Shores. You could have heard a pin drop. She said it was a marvelous, grand tourney with the greatest volunteers. She said we really knocked it out of the park.’’
Bryant said a big increase in sponsorship money from the City of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach-Gulf Shores Tourism was directly responsible for the tourney remaining here. Each kicked in $60K during the tourney’s second year and $85K in the third.
“It went up a little more after that and then it became a bid process when it went to the NCAA,’’ he said. “The leadership in Gulf Shores understood where we were going with this. In a lot of cases, we taught volleyball to their kids. They understood that this was an opportunity that was not going to happen again and they stepped up.”
Turner Sports was the first TV Network to broadcast the tourney live, and when the NCAA put its name behind it, national TV coverage jumped to 28 hours of live programming.
Olympic Beach champions Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings were already media sensations after winning consecutive Olympic titles and that certainly helped with the sport’s profile.
But it is also certain that the road to NCAA sanctioning included a stop light in Gulf Shores. Momentum built here led DeBoer to take another shot at petitioning the NCAA legislative council for emerging sport status.
“At the ninth hour, she was putting flyers under doors to get them to at least recognize it as an emerging sport,’’ said Bryant. “She ended up knocking on a door because she couldn’t get a flyer under it early one morning, only to wake the athletic director inside.’’
DeBoer convinced that athletic director to call his colleagues from the Atlantic 10 Conference and recruit the votes needed for the resolution to pass.
Bryant marvels at how fast the sport has grown on the junior and college level since then.
“It took us only four years to get to 40 fully funded schools. This was unprecedented,’’ he said. “We were at wharp speed, and that is what needed to happen.’’
A volleyball lifer as a coach and administrator, Bryant said he had to first assure people that Alabama had beaches when he started organizing tourneys on the sand here.
He said Gulf Shores City Services helped assemble eight beach volleyball courts for a tourney back in 2004. There are now eight permanent courts at the beach.
There will be 50 courts at the public beach for this weekend’s national qualifier, and 480 teams from all over the country will play matches on those courts.
The first USAV Gulf Coast Region Beach National Qualifier drew a couple dozen teams.
“Right now it is the largest national qualifier in the nation for beach volleyball,’’ said Weaver.
Bryant said that even though the championship is moving to Huntington Beach for two years after the 2024 championships here, he expects a more permanent return to Pleasure Island.
“The NCAA wants to advertise the sport in the California market, but (USC coach) Donna Collier said that she can’t get her girls fired up to go to Huntington Beach, but she can get them fired up by saying, ‘let’s go win a championship in Gulf Shores.’’’
“Just think of it,’’ he added. “The NCAA Championship is here just by the virtue of Kathy DeBoer looking for a place that would be passionate about the event.’’
Beach volleyball easily made the quickest transition from emerging sport to championship sport in NCAA history. It’s the fastest growing NCAA sport over the last five years in Division I.
DeBoer saw it coming back in 2017 when told Lee Feinswog of VolleyballMag.com that beach volleyball’s growth would skyrocket.
“Beach went from zero programs to 53 in Division I in six years. There’s not an NCAA sport on record that’s picked up 50 Division I programs in six years. The next closest sport was like 17 years to pick up 50 new programs,’’ she said.
Bryant said he can still picture coach Matthies speaking at the NCAA volleyball convention about standing on her Phoenix Suites condo balcony looking at row after row of volleyball courts just a few hundred yards west of the college championship courts on the crystal white Gulf Shores beach at sunrise.
“There were a lot of factors involved, and it’s a good story about a sport that is going to keep growing,’’ Bryant said. “This is something that was born on this island with 11 teams. There are now 360 colleges playing beach volleyball, including jucos. And we are looking to do for the men what we did for the women.”
Don’t bet against that happening. More than half of the participants at the May 2 High Performance Beach Tryouts at Gulf Shores Public Beach were boys.
“That is the first time that has happened,’’ Bryant said.
Pictured: (Page 6) The AVCA Championship Tourney circa 2013. (Below) Pleasure Island Volleyball Club coaches helped coordinate last month’s FSU hosted collegiate tourney at Gulf Shores Public Beach. Volunteers included (front) Weaver, (back) Michelle Douty, Madison Wichterman, Billy Eubanks, Maddie Rictich-Watts, Alex Hamrick, Carely Kleinschmidt, Kristin Weaver, Bobby Kleinschmidt and Stephen Tirador. Founded by Weaver in 2004, PIVC includes 120 advanced junior players.