New York City brings to mind a lot of things: the lights of Broadway, Times Square, Donald Trump. But the beach? For one day, Feb. 20, 1993, midtown Manhattan was transformed into a warm stretch of beach as 16 of the top men’s pro beach players gathered in the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden, for an afternoon of fun under the, uh, scoreboard. The event was the $50,000 Evian Indoor Beach Volleyball Challenge, the first of its kind in the United States.
The idea of a man-made beach is not a new one. Men’s beach volleyball has been played on parking lots covered with sand in Fort Worth and Philadelphia. There was even an indoor tournament held in Calgary, Canada, a few years ago, but that one turned out to be a bust because of poor timing. It was during a Calgary Flames playoff series, and you know how Canadians are about hockey. All eyes were puckward, and very few spectators showed up.
This little beach party, however, was a different story. The frigid temperature outside made it an opportune time for over 8,000 fans to chase away the winter doldrums with a little California dreaming. The crowds might also have been drawn in by the chance to see two-time Olympic gold medalists Steve Timmons and Karch Kiraly. Whatever the reason, everyone seemed to enjoy the festivities. Vendors sold soda in Day-Glo plastic cups. Bright blue beach chairs were lined up four deep courtside, occupied by fans who paid $150 per seat. They and the rest of the audience were getting their money’s worth. The day’s matches began at 1 p.m. and were scheduled to finish at 9:30 p.m. A lot of bang for the buck.
It was no picnic turning the Garden into a beach. James Arnemann, Madison Square Garden operations manager, now knows all about that. He was responsible for the transition of the Garden floor from an ice show to a beach party, including trucking the 244 tons of brown sand from Kings Park, Long Island. It took eight hours for the transformation to be complete. The ice had to be melted and the sound system, lights, and seats taken down and the floor squeegeed dry. Eleven truckloads of salt-free sand arrived at 3:30 a.m. read to be spread and smoothed. Four hours later, “Manhattan Beach” was born. The sand had to be hauled out of the arena by 1 a.m. Sunday morning, just in time for the next event, a track meet. Just another day at the beach.
It was a bit odd to see players warming up in turtlenecks and heavy sweats. Randy Stoklos was without his trademark tinted Killer Loops, opting instead for a clear version. Things then began to look more familiar as the guys stripped down to the usual shorts, tank tops, and bare chests to play. The first match pitted top-seeded Kent Steffes and Kiraly against Timmons and Adam Johnson. The sand was a little damp in the early going, but hot overhead lights warmed it and the indoor temperature in the arena up to a balmy 80 degrees. “This is a great set up,” said Johnson, who had just returned from Brazil where he and Kent Steffes won the FIVB World Championships.
Fans were getting into the matches, booing some questionable calls and cheering for favorite pairs. One fan from Columbia, N.J., was rooting for Sinjin Smith and Stoklos and hoping to see more beach volleyball in the future. “This is my first beach volleyball tournament,” she said, “but I would definitely follow through and see them if there were more events.”
After each match there were 40-minute breaks. During the down time, the crowd was entertained by hula hoop contests, aerobic exercise demonstrations, and ear-shattering music by The Nerds and Valentine Smith, two local beach bands. Not the usual elements of sun and wind.
“These are ideal conditions,” said Kiraly, who, with Steffes, eventually won the day’s tournament with a 10-4 victory over Smith and Stoklos as the rally clock wound down. “The sun is not draining your energy. You don’t need sunscreen, but you do need earplugs.” Suffice it to say that beach bands will not be an added attraction when the tour returns outdoors.
Throughout the afternoon, fans were invited to stroll in the rotunda of the Garden where a “boardwalk” was set up. Half of the exhibition included booths hawking everything from beachwear merchandise and health club memberships to photos in an eight-foot inflated wave. They competed with the ubiquitous karaoke singing contest nearby and a volleyball skills arcade where ticketholders could test, among other things, their vertical leap and spiking ability for prizes.
Though the prize money for the tournament was relative chicken feed ($14,250 for first place) for these guys, the exposure was the main focus.
“We’ve been playing on the East Coast for ten years,” said Stoklos. “The New York market is an important one for us. This is a great avenue for beach volleyball.”
The hope is to add a winter circuit to extend the men’s beach season from its March through September schedule. The idea is welcomed by some. Marvin Hall, one of two referees who called the games, loves the idea. “Indoor [beach] volleyball is the wave of the future,” he said. “If we extend our season, it’s a chance for people around the country who don’t have beaches to see beach volleyball.”
Originally published in July 1993