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Tradition That Shifts on Sands

Beach volleyball used to be such a peaceful sport. There is only so much hostility one can feel, with sand between one’s toes.

But that was before the biggest block in this sport’s history, that being a sand-roots group’s movement to block the 38th annual Manhattan Beach Open--sometimes called the Wimbledon of the Beach--from being held June 13-15 at its usual site. Ants at a picnic.

The protest has succeeded, with the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals’ announcement on Wednesday that the $300,000 pro tournament is being moved to Hermosa Beach, a few miles down the strand. The antagonism, though, remains behind, embedded like footprints.

“If the people of London or the people of Augusta, Ga., are influenced this way by some little group with a similar mentality, I guess we’ll have to hold Wimbledon tennis or the Masters golf tournament someplace else next time,” said a livid Jerry Solomon, the AVP’s chief executive officer.

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Once again, as with pro football in Los Angeles, the whims of a few are dictating to the preferences of a great many. We can’t even hold a harmless volleyball competition any more without somebody being personally offended. Frisbee throwers, take heed. You could be next.

Manhattan Beach is the cradle of pro beach volleyball. Since 1960, the tournament’s first year, townspeople have seen this game grow from a South Bay novelty to an internationally contested Olympic sport. The AVP tour alone travels to 15 states, with prize money of $4 million.

Yet as soon as tour sponsors chose to charge admission--like any other sport that pays its performers--the sand hit the fan.

First, something called the state’s Coastal Commission--I gather it guards our beaches, like David Hasselhoff--forbade the AVP from selling tickets. These disgruntled coastal workers decided to enforce a rule about not charging money for any event held on a public beach during the peak period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, even if that event happens to be in its 38th year, and even if that event has been charging admission for 25% of its seats since 1993.

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The only exception is a charity event, which makes me think that the AVP should have offered to donate all proceeds to needy and homeless beachcombers everywhere, in lieu of driftwood.

After that, along came a meddlesome little bunch of sand crabs calling itself the South Bay Coastal Alliance and organized by one Donley Falkenstien, a 37-year-old Hermosa resident who apparently finds the Wimbledon of the Beach to be a big, noisy, messy, busy, annoying beach party that blocked everybody’s path to the water.

Falkenstien reminds me of Harvey Lembeck, butting in whenever Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon were just about to make out.

The volleyballers had a fight on their hands. Young Falkenstien filed a lawsuit, seeking a temporary restraining order to halt the tournament. A judge was agreeable, but stipulated that the alliance had to shell out a $50,000 bond to cover expenses the AVP might incur, while tickets remained unsold.

The alliance’s representative responded that he was considering it, which really meant, “Fifty thousand smackers???!!!”

Ultimately, the AVP couldn’t wait any longer. The tournament is nationally televised and has a major brewery for a sponsor. You can’t post a sign in the Manhattan Beach sand, saying: VISIT OUR NEW LOCATION. It’s a major sporting event, not a frozen yogurt shop.

So, the tournament has been moved to the south side of the Hermosa Beach pier. This means volleyball-friendly Hermosa will now be host to half of the pro tour’s Grand Slam events, the other two being in Orlando, Fla., and that city everyone understandably associates with beach volleyball, Chicago.

Players are disappointed.

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“It’s been going on for 38 years,” said tour veteran Kent Steffes. “Like they say, Manhattan Beach is the Wimbledon of our sport. But suddenly this guy’s got a problem, then that guy’s got a problem and we have to move our top tournament.

“It’s kind of a bummer that we don’t get to play where the tournament’s supposed to be played.”

Solomon is every bit as bummed as Steffes.

He said, “This special-interest group comes along, which is a small minority drowning out a silent majority, which is a dangerous thing in all walks of life. We play there for 38 years. Suddenly we charge full admission, and it becomes about the environment and pollution and public beach access.”

Solomon emphasized that pro volleyball isn’t telling Manhattan Beach to go jump in a lake. The tourney could return. But in the meantime, if the AVP can’t charge admission, then it might as well not charge admission someplace else.

Therefore, at the newly named Miller Lite/AVP Hermosa Beach Grand Slam, limited seating will be available, and admission will be free.

And, as a bonus, the new Hermosa site is mere blocks away from the home of Donley Falkenstien, the spoilsport who opposed the Manhattan site’s noise and congestion. Ah, the sands of justice.

If a ball accidentally goes into his yard, he probably won’t give it back.

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* SOME WIN: A man sues to kick a tournament off Manhattan Beach and it winds up near his house in Hermosa. B1


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