The Big Dig: Volleyball Continues its Spike
2 Nov, 2020By: Michael Popke
On hardwood, in the sand and on the grass, volleyball has continued its upward curve, making it one of the saving graces as COVID passed. Orlando hosted the AAU’s Junior Nationals over the summer, garnering a lot of attention. But before that happened, all the way back in June, Missouri had opened its borders to sports tourism – including volleyball. And some cities in that state haven’t slowed down since.
“The main thing that has kept us going is youth sports,” says Alyssa Phares-Fee, senior director of sales and strategy for Visit Cape in Cape Girardeau. “We took a break, like everybody did, from mid-March into May, but then [Gov. Mike Parson] opened the state up in June. Every weekend, we’ve had something — including a lot of volleyball tournaments.”
In fact, volleyball business traditionally slows down in the fall for this Mississippi River city, but Phares-Fee says several tournaments ended up being booked for October. Easily accessible via Interstate 55, the city also is located in close proximity to many major cities where sports events have remained on hold for the time being.
“We’ve caught the attention of tournament organizers from out of state, because of the fact that our facilities were able to safely host indoor tournaments,” Phares-Fee says. “And that’s made it possible for me to keep working, for our hotels to stay busy and it’s something we don’t take for granted.”
The city’s primary facility hosting indoor volleyball tournaments and other sports events since mid-summer is the four-year-old Cape Girardeau SportsPlex, which is operated by the City of Cape Girardeau Parks & Recreation Department and offers 12 regulation hardwood volleyball courts.
Nationwide, destinations are eager to set up the nets and let the action resume. The Cape Girardeau SportsPlex has five major volleyball tournaments on the schedule for January 2021 alone, and some volleyball events will use both the SportsPlex and the Show Me Center multi-purpose arena on the Southeast Missouri State University campus.
From state-of-the-art indoor volleyball facilities in Conway, Arkansas; Round Rock, Texas; and Placer Valley, California, to sand volleyball venues in places obvious (Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama, as well as Atlantic City, New Jersey) and not so obvious (Boise, Idaho) to the grass fields of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, here are seven additional volleyball destinations to keep in mind as you look ahead to 2021.
Idaho was among the first wave of states to shut down in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus‚ a strategy that is now working in the state’s favor, according to Brandon Fudge, sports sales manager for the Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Boise is in a position to bounce back sooner than other areas, because we have the facilities to do so and we haven’t been hit as hard with infections as other areas. Moving forward, when we talk about sports travel, I think it will be more regional — at least for a while. Right now we’re catering to teams coming from eastern Washington or northeastern Oregon, and for them, Boise might be a nice change of scenery and a new opportunity to experience the city.”
Boise offers three indoor venues for volleyball: the Ford Idaho Center, the Extra Mile Arena at Boise State University and the CenturyLink Arena. But the city also has focused in recent years on establishing a strong sand volleyball presence.
“Since we don’t have the beach, we need to make Boise more enticing than a coastal location,” he says. Thanks to the 2014 launch of a women’s sand volleyball program at Boise State University, that has been easier. The Boise State Sand Volleyball Complex has become the region’s premier destination for sand tournaments, where the surrounding foothills and mountains replace the ocean scenery.
“Volleyball definitely has a place in Boise, and there’s room for growth,” Fudge concludes. “Having college teams in town is great, for both indoor and sand volleyball. We’re a very active community, and sports are always going to be at the forefront as we find reasonable and safe ways to get back to playing.”
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Sports returned to Atlantic City in late July in the form of AVP America Beach Week at the Albany Avenue Beachfront. Smart strategies resulted in a safer environment for all players and visitors as well.
“We had what we call Atlantic City Ambassadors monitoring the bathrooms and not letting more than two people in at a time. People on the beach were required to social distance, and tents were spaced out 10 feet from each other,” says Dan Gallagher, director of sports sales for the Atlantic City Sports Commission. “Teams and families were clustered together, but outside of that, everyone had their own space. It was important when people asked questions that we could tell them we had the proper procedures in place.”
Gallagher is confident Atlantic City’s plentiful beach volleyball venues — along with the 22 indoor courts with Sport Court surfaces available at the Atlantic City Convention Center — will bring events back as athletes and their families return to the court.
“We see the sports industry spearheading the mass gatherings movement, in comparison to conventions, trade shows and concerts,” he says. “And we’re eager to lay the framework for those other market segments.”
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama
Beach volleyball was poised to return to Gulf Shores and Orange Beach this fall. In October alone, no fewer than three tournaments were on the calendar, plus the 24-team Shrimp Festival Volleyball Invitational for high school players. The primary beach venue is Gulf Place, while the Orange Beach Sportsplex also offers sand courts.
“We are seeing greater interest in beach volleyball and more teams participating in beach events,” says Michelle Russ, director of sales for the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission, citing the fact that the NCAA sanctioned the sport in 2016 and began offering a national championship. “Since then, interest in beach volleyball has continued to grow at all age levels, with more opportunities for collegiate play.”
In fact, Gulf Shores was supposed to host the NCAA’s 2020 National Collegiate Beach Volleyball Championship in late April and early May before the pandemic canceled that event.
Russ nevertheless remains optimistic. “Teams are ready to play and organizers are ready to host events,” she says. “There is a pent-up demand, and many outdoor events are ideal to host during the remainder of 2020.”
Hard courts and sand aren’t the only volleyball surfaces attracting tournament organizers. A preference for grass is on the rise, too. For proof, look no further than the Waupaca Boatride Tournament, also known as the US Open of Grass Volleyball, an annual men’s and women’s grass outdoor event that takes place every July at Brighton Acres in Oshkosh.
“We have seen a steady increase in team registrations for the Waupaca Boatride event,” says Jodi Jensema, sports sales and service manager for the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This year  would have been a record year before COVID-19 struck. We aren’t technically located on a beach area, but we construct an outdoor sand area, which allows us to do both grass and sand.”
For indoor action, the Kolf Sports Center on the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus has hosted the NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball Tournament (most recently in 2016), as well as the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s women’s volleyball championship. The Menominee Nation Arena also can host volleyball events, Jensema says.
Round Rock, Texas
Another destination capable of welcoming high-profile volleyball events is Round Rock, where the Round Rock Sports Center can accommodate 12 hardwood volleyball courts in a space equipped with LCD scoreboards and a high-definition video wall.
Round Rock calls itself “the Sports Capital,” and given the venues available, that is no surprise.
“Round Rock has gained a reputation as a premier volleyball destination,” says Nancy Yawn, director of the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This can be attributed to our top-notch volleyball facility, diverse accommodations and family-friendly atmosphere. Volleyball continues to be a growing sport, with a strong showing for practices and events.”
As it did in most cities, the pandemic brought youth sports to a halt in Round Rock.
“Volleyball was strong in January and February, but COVID-19 stopped all sports from mid-March through mid-May,” Yawn says. “May allowed practices to resume and teams filled the Round Rock Sports Center and [outdoor] Multipurpose Complex, getting ready for competition. We are excited to be hosting volleyball [and other] tournaments once again.”
Earlier in the spring of 2020, the Conway Juniors hosted the annual Conway Classic Blast at multiple locations around the city — including the Don Owen Sports Complex, (a large multi-purpose indoor/outdoor facility that can accommodate as many as six volleyball courts) and the McGee Center (a similarly sized facility with comparable indoor offerings located on the other side of Conway).
The Conway Classic Blast had the distinction of being able to attract 195 teams — 1,750 players — and was the largest event in the club’s history, according to Rachel Shaw, executive director of the Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Our youth volleyball was wrapping up the season right as the pandemic hit Arkansas,” she says, adding that the University of Central Arkansas’ Beach Bear Classic sand volleyball tournament in April was canceled. “We are hopeful that we can figure out a way to host safe indoor events in early 2021.”
Placer Valley, California
A new $34 million, 160,000-square-foot facility with 35-foot ceiling clearances and the capacity for 24 hardwood volleyball courts opened in mid-February in Roseville, providing plenty of opportunities for event owners interested in excellent facilities on the West Coast.
Originally named the Placer Valley Event Center, it was christened the Roebbelen Center in mid-September under a naming rights sponsorship with the largest general contractor based in the Sacramento region.
After three weeks of hosting two sold-out volleyball tournaments and one sold-out basketball tournament, the facility was shuttered briefly due to COVID-19. In early September, the Placer County Board of Supervisors declared the end of the county’s local health emergency regarding the pandemic, citing a low incidence of diagnosed cases – as well as plenty of interest in maintaining the community’s economic, health, mental and social wellbeing.
“We are in the process of determining whether or not tournaments will soon be allowed to take place inside the event center,” says Donna Dotti, director of sales for Placer Valley Tourism, which encompasses Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln, adding that demand for fall volleyball tournaments has been strong.
When approval comes, she notes, it will be welcomed – and quickly acted upon, since there is already plenty of interest in the area.
“Having an event center that can accommodate 24 courts with no obstruction is huge for the area. As a result, one local club just established a new league, which will host three new tournaments in 2021. Once we get the green light, I have a variety of events ready to go.” SDM