Since its introduction into the Summer Olympic Games in 1992, beach volleyball has undergone an astounding transformation, moving from what was once a niche, rarely touched upon sport, greeted with disinterest from even the most passionate of sports fans, into what has become one of the most talked about competitions of London 2012.
With mainstream crowd-pleasers, fronted by post girls and sweethearts of the nation, dominating the headlines and enjoying prime time viewing slots, the fact that beach volleyball (a sport completely out of place in a country lucky to enjoy a week’s sunshine out of 52) is able to claim any form of focused media attention, is both surprising and refreshing.
Refreshing that is, perhaps, until we look to the imagery that sits alongside coverage of the sport and the accompanying headlines bursting with innuendo and journalistic testosterone. Shots of Greece’s Maria Tsiartsiani’s backside and Zara Dampney’s washboard abs carpeted that UK’s daily newspapers during week one of the Games and leapt off the pages to provoke reactions of envy from female readers and jaw-dropping lust from male fans.
If there is one thing that the British sports media excels at, it is in understanding the unique selling point of a sport and using whatever it is that we, as readers, find all so compelling to captivate us further. In the case of beach volleyball, this appeal comes in the form of “semi-naked women….glistening like wet otters”, as Boris Johnson already so famously put it.
As The Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew reminded us, it was Dr Ruben Acosta, the man responsible for catapulting beach volleyball into the limelight when he took the reins at the FIVB in 1984, who had the political nous to identify the link between marketing potential and sex appeal.
“Beach volleyball has got a glamorous image, but that’s not something really to fight about. If it means that more people will come and watch the sport and go home with a different attitude to beach volleyball, then I think we’re kind of happy with it.” Dampney has hit the nail on the head. This is a sport which openly and unashamedly feeds off the British public’s interest in anything pleasing to the eye, but there is a method to this madness.
We would be naïve in thinking that the story of beach volleyball begins and ends with attractive bikini-clad females. The crowds of 15,000 that continued to flock to Horse Guards Parade last week demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, that today there exists an appetite for this sport, which extends far beyond the perception that was built some 20 years ago.
Today beach volleyball is a sport which enjoys a unique position as a female-focused, female-dominated discipline, a sport which has earned the respect of fans and the buy-in of media. We may have started out with a vested interest in the glamour that the sport promised but somewhere along the way we acknowledged the physicality and athleticism of the players, we got genuinely swept up in the drama of play and found ourselves absorbed in a theatre environment where big screens flicker, music blares and match time entertainment has us up on our feet doing the conga.
Every sport has a unique selling point, something which makes us as consumers buy into it and feel affected on a personal level at the outcome of a team’s performance or an athlete’s success. This compelling quality could be the presence of an iconic figurehead, as Sir Steve Redgrave continues to be for British rowing, or it could come in the form of memories of a standout moment in time, like Dame Kelly Holmes’ unforgettable success in 2004 in Athens, which bolstered interest in middle distance track events.
The greatest sports are those which locate that ‘special something’, use it to build the support of the public and, in doing so, create a more promising future for their discipline. For beach volleyball, audience buy-in may well derive from the promise of glamour but its appeal is solidified by the sheer physicality of its athletes and by each and every additional entertaining element that organisers have worked hard to introduce.
“Use sex to get the crowds in, use skill to keep them.” (Jonathan Liew, Daily Telegraph)……and what a smart move that was.