Where Have All the Spikers Gone?

The pros have packed up their volleyballs and split Miami Beach.

Six years ago, when Bill Barrere and other dedicated volleyball players went looking for a game on Miami Beach, they had just one choice: 85th Street. The location at the northern edge of the city was inconvenient, and the meager facilities (just two courts) often meant long waits for a chance to play.

So when brothers Jack, Chuck, and Bob Penrod in 1986 opened a concession stand at Fourteenth Street in South Beach, Barrere saw an opportunity. The Penrods had recently signed an agreement with the City of Miami Beach that gave them exclusive control of all commercial operations on the public beach from Fourteenth Street south to Government Cut - food and beverage sales, beach- and recreational-equipment rentals...and volleyball.

Barrere suggested to the Penrods that they invest in a few volleyball courts. "At that point I told them they could easily attract the 85th Street players and everyone else who liked to play beach ball if they put up some courts and did things right," Barrere recalls. "They could even start tournaments and attract some of the really good players."

The Penrods were receptive to Barrere's pitch, and set aside a little cash for six courts. Barrere volunteered his time to build them. "I thought this could be the beginning of a really good thing for volleyball on the Beach," says Barrere. "Things looked like they were really going to take off." After a half-dozen years and countless hours of labor, Barrere is still waiting. "It's really disappointing," he says glumly. "There are leagues all over the place, we have all kinds of younger high school players coming up, and it's just getting bigger and bigger. But volleyball here is still disorganized. The Penrods are to blame for a lot of that."

In 1987 the Penrods opened another concession stand at Tenth Street, and brought with them all but two of the Fourteenth Street volleyball courts. Again Barrere helped to build them. About a dozen tournaments were held at the new site, attracting some topnotch professional players, even though only a few of the courts were playable due to the poor quality of the sand. "It was full of shells and rocks and construction junk," says Barrere. "You'd make a dive and get ripped up by that stuff." The Penrods paid for some limited sifting of the sand, but according to Barrere, not to the degree that was necessary. "I realize you have to worry about your profits to run a successful business," says the 47-year-old furniture builder and crane operator, "but at the same time you should put a little money back into the facility so people who come there are happy. They just seemed interested in turning a buck."

Then in December 1988, the brothers opened Penrod's Beach Club, the sprawling nightclub and restaurant complex at the southern end of the Beach, and once again they decided to move the courts, leaving just two at Tenth Street. (This time they didn't ask for Barrere's help.) Initially the Beach Club site attracted several professional and amateur tournaments, despite the fact that the eight new courts were littered with debris.

But the glass, rocks, and shells didn't seem to bother the crowds of fun seekers and beer drinkers that packed Penrod's and took to the courts en masse. Barrere says their sheer numbers overwhelmed the more serious players. "Volleyball helped the Penrods put money in the till and get their names in the paper by getting all the pros down when they were at Tenth Street," Barrere says, "and now all of a sudden they were saying, `Screw volleyball. We can get more money out of these dumb kids playing six or eight to a court and drinking beer.'"

With the spirit of a true fanatic, Barrere returned to Tenth Street and negotiated a deal with concession manager Debbie Penrod. In exchange for a percentage of the take from any major tournaments that might one day be held there, Barrere was free to improve the courts and organize events. Using about $2500 of his own money, he rebuilt seven courts and hosted weekend tournaments to raise cash for new equipment and more courts. In about a year's time, he was able to increase the number of playable courts to the ten that exist today.

Organizers of professional tournaments had already followed the lead of Barrere and other serious players in abandoning Penrod's Beach Club. But worse, they left the Beach altogether. Today no professional events - with their national sponsors and crowd-pleasing star players - are held anywhere in Miami Beach. Officials from the three major professional tours - the Association of Volleyball Professionals, the Women's Professional Volleyball Association, and the Eastern Volleyball Association - blame everything from the poor condition of the Beach Club's courts to conflicts between the Penrods and corporate sponsors who wanted to sell food, beverages, and clothes at their tournaments.

"Those courts aren't the greatest," says Matt Gage, tour director for the Association of Volleyball Professionals. "We had to drag an awful lot of rocks out of there." Bill Ardito, executive director of the Eastern Volleyball Association, adds, "We'd really like to come down to Miami Beach but we haven't exactly been welcomed with open arms by the city or Penrod's. In the past it's been so disorganized, and a lot of the players have had problems with the condition of the courts and with the management at Penrod's."

Penrod's manager of beach operations, Joe Schraff, acknowledges the strained relations that have led the pros to move to places such as Fort Myers, Daytona Beach, and Fort Lauderdale. "We got a really bad rap with what went on before because of some of the people running volleyball for us," Schraff asserts, "but we want to change that. We really want to get rid of the stigma." More than that, Schraff says, Penrod's wants big-time ball to return to the sand on South Beach. In words reminiscent of those spoken by Bill Barrere six years ago, he says, "We think this is the place where volleyball could really take off, and we want to see that happen." That would please Barrere. "It's a shame it's taken so long to come to that conclusion," he says, "but anything that's done now to bring back good volleyball and good courts can only help the sport.

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