I love a good pier. Put me on a beach, especially in Southern California. Point me toward one of those elegant wood and concrete quays. I promise Ill head west. Sand below, hot asphalt behind, ocean spray ahead. The smell of creosote and salt and bait. A seagull’s view of surfers.
And, if that pier happens to be in Manhattan Beach, a volleyball treat. Underfoot, every few yards, I walk across another bronze pair of volleyball-shaped plaques. Around me, dozens of tourists, joggers, and fishermen stride on and around the names of every Manhattan Beach Open champion since 1960 and since 1966 for women. Beach volleyball history embedded for the world to see. For a volleyball fan, that’s a pleasant surprise.
The length of a continent away, Dennis Wagner is also impressed. A 50-year-old IT guy, Wagner has never lived far from Norfolk, Virginia. He’s not a volleyball coach or player, but few people are as passionate about the sport. And his dual love of volleyball and numbers have left a mark on beach volleyball that may prove almost as permanent as those Manhattan Beach plaques.
Wagner’s first love was baseball.
His dad knew the game; hed even earned a tryout with the Brooklyn Dodgers. While Dad was on the diamond, coaching Dennis Little League team, Mom was in the stands, filling scorebooks with each game’s raw data. Early on Dennis learned to appreciate both sport and its statistics. At age 12 he created his own formula to evaluate and rank college football teams.
Dennis first exposure to volleyball was fleeting. Every year, for a few forgettable weeks, the high school PE coach set up nets. It was jungle ball, Wagner remembered. No one ever used three hits. It comes over the net, you hit it back. In the South, college football was king, neck and neck with NASCAR. Volleyball might as well have been cricket or curling.
And then came 1984. Wagner was halfway through earning his electrical engineering degree at Old Dominion University. Hed continued to rank college football teams, contributing numbers to a guy at Virginia Tech named Kenneth Massey, who would later become one of the computer wizards for the now-defunct BCS football ratings.
That summer, the Olympic Games arrived in Los Angeles, just three time zones away. Television coverage exploded. Among the biggest stars were the eventual men’s indoor volleyball gold medalists, led by players with personality and fire. Karch Kiraly. Steve Timmons. Craig Buck (who happens to be my brother-in-law).
Wagner was hooked. Just about every match was on television, he said. I was, like, wow: I never knew that they had positions. And that they set like that. It took what I knew and expanded it ten times greater.
A year or two after those Olympics, Wagner came across beach volleyball on late-night cable. Every Tuesday night, he said. Youre in college, you stay up past midnight anyway. Chris Marlowe and Paul Sunderland announcing. Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos the big stars. I fell in love with beach volleyball.
Wagner decided the sand game was more watchable than indoors. Not quite as fast. Not so many complicated plays. Greater focus on individual players. His friends were amazed that a Virginian was so interested in a sport so closely identified with the other coast.
After earning a master’s degree in engineering and computers, also at Old Dominion, Wagner began a career crunching numbers for corporations. One day, in 1997, he ran across a souvenir program from an AVP event. Inside was an explanation of how the AVP ranked its players to determine each tournament’s seedings. The formula was a mathematician’s delight: percentages and weightings and adjustments penalizing those who played in few or weaker events. It was the best formula I had ever seen, Wagner said. Problem was, the AVP never actually published its rankings for volleyball fans to see.
If he had ranked college football teams, why not beach volleyball teams? And why not take advantage of the relatively new-fangled Internet to expose those rankings to the wider world? Wagner set up a simple webpage, crunched data, published results and waited. When few seemed to notice, he contacted the AVP. I told them, if you want me to do this for you, I will. But I had included their logo on my website. The conversation ended when they told me, You have no permission to use our logo; take it off right now.
Wagner was undeterred. He viewed his webpage as a service to the players, a form of respect for their often-overlooked achievements. As months passed, he thought it sad that there was no central source for the history of how players had finished in beach tournaments. So, he launched a herculean effort to gather those results, dating back to 1948. Chris Marlowe and Joe Jares shared their personal lists of past champions. Stat guru Tim Simmons lent his complete Volleyball magazine and Volleyball Monthly collection. Sands of Time author Art Couvillon shared his compilation of the top-five finishers for many competitions. Id love, of course, to have more than just the top five for all tournaments ever, Wagner said. If I lived in California, Id probably already have it.
The AVP and Wagner have long since made up. It may be due, in no small part, to Wagner’s soft-spoken demeanor. He doesnt seek the limelight. Until recently, he made absolutely no money from his volleyball number crunching. But as years have passed, he’s become a go-to stat and history guy for beach volleyball, both in the United States and beyond. He now works with Statman Media’s Doug Strauss to automate AVP events stats, bringing them directly to his website each week. The NVL has invited him to work several tour events. He was part of the 2013 FIVB World Championships in Poland.
The highlight, however, was in 2012, when FIVB hired him to compile stats in London for the Olympic Games. His apartment was only blocks from the venue; he figures he was courtside for all but about four of the matches the entire two weeks. The crowd was electric, he said. The European crowds sing more. They are more vocal. I cant imagine anything better than that.
Wagner worries, however, that U.S. competitions arent keeping pace. Crowds have become smaller and quieter. Television coverage seems more distant from the fans. He rates the CBS Sports coverage of the 2014 Manhattan Beach Open as horrible.
The announcers were almost like they were in a booth. There was no crowd noise. There were no players yelling line and angle and all that. Youve taken a beautiful sport and youve just stripped everything that’s beautiful about it out of it, except for the players. You cant sell it like that. I dont want to watch something if I feel like the people there arent interested in it. Why am I gonna be interested in it?
Strong words from a man who mostly prefers a low profile. Many beach players pass Wagner at tournaments without knowing who he is or all that he does for their sport. A few, however, have noticed. Phil Dalhausser and Todd Rogers are unfailingly friendly to him, chatting about life beyond the sand courts. Kerri Walsh Jennings is his all-time favorite. From the start, she spent time looking after Wagner’s son and daughter, even as she was often the biggest attraction at an event. Kerri, he said, puts people first.
Wagner’s latest project is finding photos to attach to the 15,000-plus players now listed on the BVBInfo website. He’s barely one-third the way to his goal. To me, the photographs kind of make what I do valid. Players become living, breathing organisms. Yes, there’s a person behind all these stats. Wagner is happy to accept more photos, especially for players from volleyball’s earliest years.
As our conversation ends, Wagner wonders about sand volleyball’s future in the U.S. We live, he said, in a hustle-bustle world, where people dont take time to enjoy the money theyre working to earn. For him, watching beach volleyball is a delicious distraction, a reward for the less-exciting chores he does in his real job as a software developer for a hospitality company. As I turn back toward shore, the sun glints off more than 100 plaques on the Manhattan Beach Pier. I cant help but notice that almost no one else is paying attention to the names at their feet.