Thursday, August 19, 2004

 

Beach vball on front Page of yesterday's WSJ

X-Treme Envy: Olympics Makeover Lures Young Viewers --- `Fuddy-Duddy' Sports Lose To Bikes, Bikinis, Disco; `It's a Big Party Out Here'

By Peter Waldman and Vauhini Vara
961 words
18 August 2004
The Wall Street Journal
A1
English
(Copyright (c) 2004, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

ATHENS -- During play on Center Court at the Olympic tennis complex, stadium entrances are sealed by tall metal gates. Battalions of ushers grimly stand guard, and the umpire admonishes the audience: "Quiet, please!"

Across town at the Beach Volleyball Center, the Olympics enter a dimension more akin to the television show "Baywatch." Men play in surfing shorts, women in bikinis. Disco and heavy-metal tunes blare between points. A DJ who sounds like Wolfman Jack with a Greek accent announces the score and goads the audience, "Put your hands together and make some noise!" Between sets in the two-on-two matches, cheerleaders in scanty silver swimsuits prance and gyrate in the sand.

"It's a big party out here," says Holly McPeak, a U.S. beach-volleyball player who has won both of her matches so far in her third Olympics. "The fans go crazy."

And there are lots of them. Unlike at the tennis stadium, where a thin crowd watched Americans Martina Navratilova and Lisa Raymond dispatch two Ukrainians in a first-round doubles match Sunday, evening sessions of beach volleyball have been packed.

"It's the scene, it's the people -- come on, you want to watch people play volleyball on the beach," says NBC's Molly Solomon. She's directing her network's cable coverage of the Athens Games, which includes as many as four beach-volleyball games a day. "Young people gravitate to it; we're trying to cater to that."

The modern Olympics may have been built on idealism and authenticity, but marketing is the key to survival. So the Games, as with most entertainment enterprises, are reaching out to the under-35 crowd coveted by consumer advertisers. Traditional Summer Olympics sports like swimming, gymnastics and track don't cut it with Gen-Xers. They want more action, more risk and more flesh.

Beach volleyball is just one of several new Olympic sports aimed squarely at this crowd. Ms. Solomon attributes ratings improvements during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City to younger audiences tuning in for snowboarding. Along with beach volleyball, cross-country mountain-biking became an Olympic sport at the Atlanta Games in 1996. Trampoline gymnastics and the triathlon were added in Sydney in 2000, and stunt-heavy BMX bicycle racing is slated to join the 2008 Olympics roster in Beijing.

"The Olympics are considered so fuddy-duddy, so old-school -- and that's not a compliment," says Dave Wiens, team manager for the RLX/Ralph Lauren mountain-biking team, which has an Olympian in Athens.

The Olympics want to steal thunder back from the X Games, its louder, brasher imitator that is wildly popular among teenagers and 20-somethings. Viewership for the X Games, which feature death-defying exploits on skateboards and such crowd pleasers as bicycle high-jumping, has nearly doubled since 1995. But ratings for the Summer Olympics fell 19% for the 2000 Games in Sydney from the 1992 Games in Barcelona, NBC says. Still, the X Games TV audience remains minuscule compared with that of the Olympics.

"The hard thing right now is that everything has to be better than the last -- bigger, stronger, faster, more exciting," says Jane Buckingham, director of Youth Intelligence, a Beverly Hills, Calif., consulting firm that studies young people's interests. She says extreme sports elicit the reaction, " `Hey, we haven't seen this 100 times before, so it feels new,' instead of, `Ah, it's just another baseball game.' "

Todd Wells, a U.S. mountain-biking Olympian, describes the art of pitching his bike down a steep, chalky dirt path strewn with tree branches, roots and rocks. "You're breathing in as hard as you can, and you're sucking in these huge amounts of dust," he says. "You're suffering."

Fellow Olympian mountain-biker Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski says he once caught his front wheel on a rock, slammed into the ground and broke his collarbone -- then went on to finish the race.

U.S. volleyball legend Karch Kiraly places beach volleyball in the middle of today's sports spectrum -- edgier than professional football, baseball and basketball, yet tamer than bicycle high-jumping.

"We're a little of both -- a nice combination of athleticism and sex appeal," says Mr. Kiraly, 43, who won three Olympic gold medals in volleyball -- two indoor and one beach -- but is sitting out these Games to work as a color commentator for NBC. "We encourage people to get up and dance. The last thing we want are people sitting on their hands like at a tennis match."

The U.S. Olympic Committee essentially adopted America's pro beach-volleyball league whole. All four U.S. pairs at the Games -- two women's teams and two men's -- play on the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour. The Olympic team leader, Al Lau, is an AVP executive.

If all four teams advance through the medal rounds, NBC and its cable networks could broadcast as many as 30 beach-volleyball matches, giving the league -- in which the network owns a small stake -- a huge boost.

"We take `Baywatch' to a whole new level, with world-class athletes at the core," says Leonard Armato, a former sports agent who reconstituted the beach-volleyball tour in 2001 and is married to Ms. McPeak. As he speaks, during a break in a tight match pitting two chiseled Greeks against some springy Brazilians, the silver-swimsuit squad teaches the raucous, mostly Greek crowd the wave.

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Beach volleyball is an Olympic team sport played on sand. Two teams, positioned on either side of a net which divides a rectangular court, hit a volleyball, usually using the hands or arms. Players on each team attempt to hit the ball over the net in such a way that it touches the ground inside the court boundaries, and to prevent the ball from touching the ground on their own side of the court. Beach volleyball is a popular recreational activity on many beaches around the world, sportsbook, and is generally most popular in areas with wide sandy beaches; however, it is also frequently played on inland sand courts, and has become quite popular in some land-locked countries, notably Switzerland. Though the official rules call for two players per team, recreational (non-competitive) games often have more players. http://www.enterbet.com
 
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