Last spring, it appeared beach volleyball was on its way to becoming the next big sport at the college level.
But now, after approving it as an “emerging” sport for Division I and Division II schools, the NCAA is facing a pushback from dozens of universities that oppose the move.
The NCAA will examine beach volleyball at its annual convention in Atlanta next month, and though it is unclear whether there is enough opposition to change the sport’s status, the issue has ignited a debate between supporters and many college athletic departments.
On the surface, arguments in favor of adding beach volleyball - or sand volleyball, as it is now called by the NCAA - to the collegiate level appear sound. The sport is popular, as evidenced by a pro tour and strong interest during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. And proponents argue that it’s a relatively inexpensive way for schools to add a sport to help satisfy requirements for gender equity.
But more than 60 universities, including most schools from the Big Ten and Big 12, have written letters calling for an override of the NCAA’s decision, citing concerns over cost and the impact on existing indoor volleyball programs.
“I think the popularity of beach volleyball is being used to suggest that sand volleyball will be successful, and I just think sand volleyball doesn’t exist,” said Calli Sanders, senior associate athletic director at Iowa State. “We have no way of knowing whether it will be successful or not in an indoor arena in Ames, Iowa, without beer and bikinis.”
In other words, beach volleyball could be big on campuses in places like California and Florida but not so much in Northern or Midwestern states, leading to possible competitive imbalance.
Supporters, however, said there is no requirement that schools add the sport to their athletic rosters. And they have been dismissive of weather concerns, pointing out that cold-weather schools do manage to offer traditional outdoor sports.
“Are they telling their baseball and softball and golf and tennis and lacrosse teams, ‘We don’t think you can be competitive because we have cold weather’? I don’t think so,” said Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. “They are sponsoring those sports.”
Officials from the Association of Volleyball Professionals, which operates a pro tour for beach volleyball players, said college programs would expand the pipeline of athletes that might go pro or play at the Olympic level. And they said some schools might actually find beach volleyball to be a revenue-producing sport.
“The growth of beach volleyball has shown it’s a major sport and people buy tickets,” AVP chief executive Jason Hodell said. “It’s definitely a vibrant atmosphere, and when they run it on a college campus it could be huge.”
Supporters also said beach volleyball could offer additional opportunities for female athletes, thus helping universities comply with Title IX requirements designed to ensure equal opportunities for women. But opponents said the true impact of beach volleyball on gender fairness would be minimal because most beach volleyball players already would play for the school’s indoor teams.
“We advocate for those opportunities, but we want them to be meaningful ones,” Sanders said. “I think you’re going to be counting the same athletes twice, and that for me is not really adding an opportunity for someone who doesn’t have one.”
There is also a debate about what effect a beach volleyball program would have on existing indoor volleyball programs. To some, the addition of beach volleyball would be a plus for traditional team volleyball programs because it might increase the pool of talented players. But some opponents warned that schools with both volleyball programs would get an unfair edge.
“The addition of sand or beach volleyball is going to set us back,” Sanders said. “We’re going to go back to where it used to be where coastal schools will have the advantage because kids are going to want to play both. We’ve spent too much time and money building our indoor game that we don’t want it to suffer. We may be forced to add [sand volleyball], and those aren’t the circumstances under which we want to spend our resources.”