When former national team head coach Doug Beal booted Sinjin Smith off the indoor roster in 1982 and effectively pushed him out into the sand full time, beach volleyball was forever changed. Not only did Smith turn out to be one of the best beach players of all time, but on the back of Smith’s passion and charisma, the first incarnation of the AVP—of which he was president—thrived throughout the ’80s and early ’90s; the FIVB World Tour expanded; and the IOC added beach volleyball to the Olympic lineup in 1996.
After a professional beach career spanning more than 20 years and resulting in more than 135 wins and over a million dollars in prize money, Smith retired at the 2001 Manhattan Beach Open, where he took ninth. But retirement from competition didn’t mean leaving the sport. In fact, Smith’s efforts to promote and grow the game have continued at full speed.
As an active member of the FIVB Beach Volleyball Commission, Smith oversees a couple international tournaments each season and attends federation meetings in Switzerland. Last year, he volunteered as an assistant for the men’s team at his alma mater UCLA during former head coach Al Scates’ final season with the program. He wrote a book, Kings of the Beach, and contributed to the creation of the first beach volleyball video game by the same name. He even created the National Collegiate Sand Volleyball Association, which began hosting competitions for college beach players before the NCAA sanctioned the sport.
Leonard Armato, the executive director of the original AVP, worked with Smith on the tour back in the ’80s and in early 2013 brought him on to help develop the World Series of Beach Volleyball, a massive volley-festival centered around the FIVB Grand Slam in Long Beach, Calif. Armato relied on Smith to correspond with the FIVB and develop and run the fours, sixes, juniors, and collegiate divisions of the amateur competition.
“He’s been a diplomat for the sport for a long time,” said Armato. “He’s just so willing to reach out to and engage with anyone who’s expressed an interest in the sport. While he might have been the best player in the sport at the time, he would talk to, or play with, anyone.”
Early on, Armato noticed Smith’s potential as a businessperson and an ambassador for the sport, so he utilized Smith’s unique talents to promote beach volleyball and the AVP tour.
“Some of us [players] helped Leonard develop relationships with the sponsors and television because he knew it was important to have the players play a role,” said Smith. “It helped that I was at the top of the game at that time and that I could actually communicate with people and speak.”
Years later when the FIVB was trying to get the sport into the Olympics, they too relied on Smith to develop relationships. This time, instead of sponsors and TV, Smith courted the IOC and the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). Once, during a huge international tournament in Brazil, the FIVB charged Smith with entertaining the president of the ACOG Billy Payne. Smith ushered Payne around Rio and took the opportunity to explain why beach volleyball was so exciting.
Anytime anyone needed a player representative, they called Smith.
“When Rubén [Acosta, president of the FIVB at the time] would go to IOC meetings, he would take me with him, and I would be his mouthpiece for the sport,” said Smith. “I had an opportunity to explain to them what it was all about. For the FIVB, I was the face of the sport.”
Companies from Nike to Reebok to Mikasa also noticed this magnetic, well-spoken athlete, and scrambled to sponsor him and feature him in their ads. But Smith had already dabbled in modeling (making his debut in the February 1981 issue of GQ) and knew he wanted to be more than just a clotheshorse.
“It wasn’t enough for me to get paid by a sponsor,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of the company.”
That opportunity came in the form of a small sportswear company called Sideout where Smith became a part owner and got involved in every aspect of the company from design and sales to marketing, including, of course, sporting the brand at every tournament, giving rise to Smith’s signature Sideout visor.
“That was something I thought would last forever, the Sideout thing,” said Smith. Unfortunately, beach volleyball apparel companies struggled to survive the turmoil the sport experienced in the ’90s, and Sideout eventually folded.
Luckily for Smith, there was always some new volleyball project waiting in the wings. When his college career ended, the national team beckoned. When that era was over, he moved out to the beach, and immediately after retiring from competition, he and former partner Randy Stoklos started up a series of beach volleyball camps, which Smith coordinates to this day.
“I was always totally, completely busy,” Smith said.
Even though he always thought he’d move on from the sport and get a job in business or go to law school, he just never had the time. Or maybe he just couldn’t bear to leave the sport behind.
These days, Smith’s embarking on yet another new volley-business venture, this time with Colleen Craig, former head of strategy at Soros Fund Management and a Cornell volleyball alum. The two met at last summer’s World Series event in Long Beach. Craig was looking for a way to create a business around what she loves and move out of New York City. Around the same time she met Smith, an opportunity came to her attention: LakePoint Sporting Community, a new 1,300-acre sports complex outside of Atlanta, needed someone to coordinate the events for their 20 indoor courts, 10 sand courts, and space for up to 90 grass courts. Craig rushed to seize the opportunity, calling up Smith and forming a partnership to create Rally Volleyball, the company the duo then used to embark on a joint venture with LakePoint.
Rally Volleyball has since scheduled sand and grass tournaments starting in early May and stretching through till Labor Day, including an EVP (Extreme Volleyball Professionals) tour stop, qualifiers for Smith’s NCSVA championships, and the area’s biggest grass tournament.
“We have contacted everybody who has even sniffed volleyball in the area and tried to either develop a relationship with them or bring them somehow, someway to LakePoint,” said Smith.
LakePoint projects the indoor facility will open sometime next summer, at which point club tournaments will become a huge attraction, as they already are all over the Southeast.
Smith also has a partnership with USAV in mind. He has even pitched the idea of moving the national team headquarters out to LakePoint.
“Sinjin’s heart and soul is really invested in the sport of beach volleyball, every aspect of it,” said Armato. “That project down in Atlanta, that’s just another opportunity to create more scale for the sport, and he loves being involved in those kinds of projects.”
Other such projects include BeTheBeast, a recruiting company Smith works with to match high school athletes with college programs, and continuing to promote and organize his college tour to provide opportunities for all college beach volleyball players to compete in tournaments — not just the women whose schools offer an NCAA-sanctioned program.
Armato sees the secret to Smith’s success as twofold. “I think Sinjin has that kind of quality where he makes people feel important and want to work with him in projects. He also has that business sense. He’s always been entrepreneurial. He’s always wanted to do things outside of the field of competition.”
“If I was going to describe Sinjin,” added Craig, “he is a genuine person who is genuinely passionate about our sport, and he’s very humble. You meet him and you have a great conversation. He has lots of ideas. He has a positive attitude. He has a lot of the attributes that anyone would want in a business partner.”
Over the years, using personality and knowledge and, of course, natural good looks, Smith created a brand out of himself which he put to work for the benefit of beach volleyball. Dare to imagine where the sport would be without his contributions — it’s a scary thought. Thank goodness that whole indoor thing didn’t work out.
It’s hard to keep track of everything Sinjin Smith has done over the years, so we put together this timeline to help you keep it all straight.
1977 Won first tournament with Mike Normand
1979 Won the national championship at UCLA, named MVP
1980 Won Manhattan Beach Open with Karch Kiraly
1981 Had first modeling gig in the February 1981 issue of GQ
1979-82 Played on U.S. Indoor National Team
1983 Helped form player-owned AVP and was named president
1983 Signed on with Sideout Sports
1983 Made an appearance in an episode of Magnum PI
1990 Featured in People magazine’s inaugural “50 Most Beautiful People” list
1990 Appeared in TriStar Pictures’ Side Out as Billy along with partner Randy Stoklos, as Rollo
1991 Had his most profitable season on the AVP, earning $266,744 in prize money
1992 UCLA retired Smith’s jersey, #22
1994 Left AVP to help grow international tour
1996 Played in inaugural Olympic beach volleyball competition, took fifth
2001 Retired from competition
2001 Started beach volleyball camp series with Stoklos
2003 Inducted into Volleyball Hall of Fame
2007 Organized first NCSVA Championship
2013 Helped organize inaugural World Series of Beach Volleyball
2013 Volunteered as assistant coach for UCLA’s men’s team
2013 Collaborated with Colleen Craig to create Rally Volleyball
Originally published in May 2014