MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – Judging from the crowds packing the stadium built beside this city’s pier, there’s no question about the popularity of pro beach volleyball – when there’s a beach.
But what about indoor matches in a desert far from the ocean?
The Association of Volleyball Professionals is about to find out. The AVP is returning to Phoenix in September after almost a 13-year absence.
The two days of competition at the Footprint Center in downtown Phoenix will feature the top four men’s and women’s teams from the tour’s Gold Series events, as well as two wild cards that will be added to the field.
“The AVP Phoenix Championships will be totally unique with all eyes focused on one court and the top six men’s teams and top six women’s teams battling it out to call themselves AVP champions,” Al Lau, CEO of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour, said in a statement.
The AVP almost certainly will try to channel some of the mojo that it sees at its biggest event, the Manhattan Beach Gold Series Open, which began in 1960 and offers the tour’s largest prize purses, totaling $300,000.
Scott Buffington, an Arizonan now living in Southern California, hopes the AVP will catch on in the Grand Canyon State.
“I grew up in Arizona, and volleyball, especially mens, was never that big,” said Buffington, sporting a Sun Devils cap and T-shirt as he watched the Open one pleasant day in mid-August.
“You could find some pickup indoor and beach games, but it was never really organized. I think it’s amazing that beach volleyball is making its way to Phoenix. The more exposure the better.”
The Sept. 23-24 tournament in Phoenix also could be a homecoming for some players. Sarah Sponcil, who placed ninth with partner Kelly Claes in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, is hoping to qualify with her latest partner, Terese Cannon. Sponcil remembers going to an AVP event in Phoenix as a kid.
“I got my first volleyball signed at a Phoenix AVP tournament around 2008,” said Sponcil, who attended Veritas Prep in east Phoenix, “so it’s kind of wild to think that that was the last time it came out to Arizona.”
Now 26, Sponsil said she would love to battle for the championship before “friends and family that have followed my journey and to be able to play in front of them in the Footprint Center is the goal.”
Sponcil spoke of the challenges of growing up in Arizona, a sandy place where playing competitive volleyball in the sand isn’t common.
Sponcil was 6 when her parents started taking her and her sister to church leagues and pickup games around metro Phoenix. Two years later, she started to enter beach tournaments in Arizona on what passed for sand.
“Beach wasn’t huge, so if anything it was more like dirt,” she said of the court surface. “There was no real or formal training, so we just played and tried to get better.”
Sponcil and a partner at the time played in as many tournaments as possible, even those for teenagers as old as 18.
“It wasn’t until I came out to California when I was like 12 (or) 13 and I was like, ‘We need to know what real volleyball looks like.’”
Sponcil is one of the bigger names in the sport to hail from Arizona, but with the addition of the AVP Phoenix Championships, it’s possible that others will be inspired by the sport.
Phoenix is the 13th stop on AVP’s tour of 16 cities, which includes such inland cities as Denver, Atlanta, Chicago and Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Fans are confident beach volleyball is growing and gaining the traction it deserves.
“This is actually the first tournament we all came back to since we graduated college,” said Griffin Geller, 22, of Malibu, California, who had come to Manhattan Beach with some friends. “I honestly had no idea the AVP tournaments went anywhere else other than like beach cities, so the fact that they are spreading out to places like Arizona and Chicago is great.”