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Where Sponsors See Sun, Sand, He Sees Mostly Sweat

Mike Dodd grew up with childhood heroes. All of us do. Some choose entertainers, some choose sports figures and some even choose political leaders. It comes with being young.

Dodd’s were sports figures.

Flash back to Dodd having been born in 1957, and you figure his heroes were the likes of Kareem or Reggie or maybe the Golden Bear.

Wrong.

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How about Ron Von Hagen and Larry Rundle?

Who?

“When I was growing up,” he said, “I thought that the great beach volleyball players--Ron Von Hagen and Larry Rundle--were the greatest athletes in the world. I thought no one could match them for physical and mental toughness. I always thought it was kind of a waste that they never made any money.”

Times have changed. The best volleyball players can make money playing on the beach, though the word “playing” probably should be used with caution. What these guys do on the sand is probably more like working on the beach.

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The $75,000 San Diego Open--make that Miller Lite Open at San Diego--is being hotly contested this weekend at Mariner’s Point, a spit of sand jutting into Mission Bay just east of the roller coaster. It is being hotly contested in both a figurative and literal sense, the figurative having to do with the quality of the field and the literal having to do with what the temperature is like on the sand.

It only looks like a picnic. It only looks like a party.

In fact, for the spectators, it is a picnic or a party. You don’t even need a ticket. Fans show up with folding chairs and coolers and industrial strength tanning lotion. Preferred attire seems to be bikinis or boxers. They arrive by land and by sea.

To compare the atmosphere to something familiar, it’s a little like the July OTL tournament on Fiesta Island. Only this is G-rated. There are no ribald team names or raunchy uniforms. They don’t even need platoons of San Diego’s finest to ascertain that orderliness prevails.

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And what you get on the courts themselves are men at work.

Very hard at work.

It’s a matter of whether anyone understands that or appreciates that.

This sport has grown in the last decade because sponsors, such as Miller Lite, have become involved, but even sponsorship has done more for attention than appreciation.

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“It’s kind of a funny thing,” Dodd said. “The initial attraction to sponsors was that it was a sexy sport. It attracted young adults to a setting to create a beach party. It’s been sort of a double-edged sword. We’re striving to be the best athletes in our sport, but in the eyes of the public and the media we don’t get respect as athletes. We’re considered a sexy party.”

These are no pampered athletes who play a match and then go sit on a veranda and sip lemonade for a couple of days, such as tennis players. They don’t sit around between bursts of action like baseball players, who spend half their times in the cool of their dugouts. Even basketball players, for all their running, don’t have to do it on sand.

Try it. Try running on sand.

“The fans carry their beach chairs and coolers through the sand for 50 yards,” Dodd said, “and they’re tired from doing that. We’ll play five or six matches in a day. From the standpoint of exercise physiology, what we go through in a day is comparable to running a marathon in terms of energy expenditure.”

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Dodd knows a little about basketball and its demands. He played the sport well enough at San Diego State to be drafted by the Clippers. However, he found his future in his past and headed for the beach, where he has earned almost $700,000 as one of the best players on the pro beach circuit.

It has changed considerable since he watched the likes of Von Hagen and Rundle as a kid in Manhattan Beach.

“There was none of this,” he said, waving his hand at what amounted to a circus on the sand. “No scaffolding for television. No big stage. No P.A. system.”

There were fans, to be sure, but they sat in their beach chairs and sipped their drinks and watched as the losing teams called lines for the next matches. First prize was pride.

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“When you consider in golf that the U.S. Open and British Open have been played since the late 1800s, you realize that we have a long way to go,” he said. “Guys like Sinjin Smith and Tim Hovland and Karch Kiraly are the Sneads and Hogans of our sport. We’re infantile. We haven’t gotten that far yet.”

It’s coming. Beach volleyball has expanded beyond its Southern California roots. The tour stops at a lot of places without beaches. The last stop, for example, was Fort Worth, where 900 tons of sand are trucked into a downtown square. The next stop is Boulder, Colo., which may have had a beach when dinosaurs ruled the landscape. Money can be made in Australia, Brazil and Italy as well.

Mike Dodd had to excuse himself. He may have been surrounded by the makings of a very nice party, but he had work to do. The sand and the sun beckoned.

BEACH VOLLEYBALL: Sinjin Smith and Randy Stoklos averted an upset to advance to the semifinals of the San Diego Open. C3

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