The once-prestigious Laguna Open volleyball tournament has fallen on hard times since its heyday in the early 1980s.
Enthusiasts would like to see it restored to its former glory — without the headaches brought on by the alcohol distributors that sponsored the tournament at its apex.
Olympic gold medalists, professional stars and $150,000 in prize money drew huge crowds, tournament director Kent Morgan, a city volleyball instructor, told the City Council April 23.
Last year, by comparison, prize money totaled $500 at what is now an amateur tournament. Spectators consisted primarily of other players or their supporters and little equipment was provided.
“We don’t want to return to the Bacchanalia with a 60-foot-tequilla bottle [balloon], but we do want to return to the heritage of great tournaments,” Morgan said.
The council approved the use of three canopies to provide shade for the players and tournament officials, tables for registration, first-aid and massage services and amplified sound for the 2013 men’s tournament on June 15 and for Saturday’s women’s tournament.
“If you want real athletes to come, you must provide facilities,” said Danielle Ward, city Recreation Committee member.
Morgan’s request to expand the 2014 men’s tournament was referred to city staff for further review as part of a broader analysis of off-season special events.
He proposed a more festival-like atmosphere for an expanded tournament format, including corporate sponsorships, food vendors, partnerships with the local hospitality industry and sufficient prize money to draw world-class players and a bigger audience.
“This would bring international acclaim to Laguna Beach,” Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Pearson said. “Any time we can present the best of Laguna — the sun, the sand and beautiful people — we should.”
Councilman Steve Dicterow, who sponsored the agenda bill on the tournaments, said he would even support the idea of a presenting sponsor.
Morgan mentioned Oakley as a possible sponsor at a previous Recreation Committee meeting.
Sponsorship banners for professional athletic events are not allowed on Main Beach.
“We can’t do signs on Main Beach, but I would like to do something on the cobblestones to raise funds,” Morgan said.
The Laguna Open is California’s second-oldest volleyball tournament, which began as an amateur competition for men in 1955 and for women in the mid-1970s. The open turned pro in 1979, fueled by alcohol sponsors, and Main Beach became party central for rowdy crowds.
Led by the late Lida Lenney, the council banned alcohol-related sponsors in the mid-1980s. The ban cost the tournament the participation of big-name male professionals — many of whom were individually sponsored by Miller Lite, and the sanction by the Assn. of Volleyball Professionals, according to a 1991 Los Angeles Times article.
Competitors rebelled when the city refused to allow alcohol sponsors to pour libations at the 1991 tournament, but the city declined to reverse its policy, instead voting to restore the tournament to amateur status.
“I think the people in the city will support whatever volleyball tournament comes here,” then-Councilwoman Lida Lenney said in the Times article. “And in fact, will take pride that we did not knuckle under to the interest of the alcohol industry.”
However, after the decision, prize money dwindled as did the level of competitors.
“It has sunk,” said Brian Wisely, a Laguna Beach High School graduate and local business owner who won the tournament in 1996.
“Laguna Beach, [Huntington] State Beach and Manhattan Beach were the cradles of beach volleyball when I was growing up,” Wisely said.
He doesn’t want to see Laguna become its graveyard.
“The tournament means a lot to me and I am ecstatic that it could be restored to some of its former prominence,” Wisely said.