Manhattan Beach struggles to reverse the deteriorating direction of its treasured six man volleyball tournament.
Charles Saikley Jr. was playing in the back row of a tightly contested Manhattan Beach Six-Man volleyball game last summer when he dove for the ball and into a guy’s foot.
“He was standing right outside the court, and I missed it,” Saikley Jr. recalled. “It was an important point. He wasn’t even watching our game.”
After the game, Saikley said, he went back to his team’s tent and was told to leave.
“There were people trying to kick me out of my own tent, saying it was theirs,” he said.
“Last year was the first time I’ve seen the tournament out of control,” he added. “It’s just not volleyball. It was ridiculous. Way out of control.”
The city estimates the crowd on the first day of last year’s tournament, involving 200 six-player teams, at 60,000. Many were drunk and openly drinking on the beach.
“Sunday was back to normal,” Saikley Jr. said. “How come all those people didn’t come back Sunday? Because they’re not volleyball players with love and passion for the game.”
Saikley began playing in the tournament 21 years ago, when he was 12 years old. But that’s not the only reason for his concern. His father Charlie Saikley was the tournament’s director from 1964, when he moved to Manhattan Beach from Indiana and became the city’s Parks and Recreation supervisor, until 2005 when he died of cancer. That year the tournament was renamed the Charlie Saikley Six-Person Volleyball Tournament and his son Jay was named tournament director.
Last year, Saikley Jr. said, was the first time he felt his father’s vision for the tournament had been betrayed. He isn’t alone in his sentiment.
“What would Charlie think?” 2000 Olympics volleyball gold medalist Eric Fonoimoana wondered last week. Fonoimoana has played in the tournament for two decades. “I don’t think Charlie envisioned this. Last year…it was supposed to be a littler tamer, but it seems like it’s progressively bigger and bigger, with the Internet hyping it, and now it’s the place to be, if you will.”
Some have pointed to corporate sponsors as one reason for the tournament’s viral growth.
“When it goes to the bigger branding teams… they have a team in and now they let everyone know to come down. They advertise it and then all these national branding companies are pushing it,” Jay Saikley said. “It’s had an effect that we are reeling from and are forced to deal with. If I had my way, I wouldn’t let any of these teams in.”
On Tuesday, the City Council is scheduled to discuss potential solutions to the crowd-related problems. Among the ideas to be discussed are reducing the number of teams, changing the tournament’s date and a zero-tolerance alcohol policy.
“We simply don’t have the manpower to respond if people riot,” Manhattan Beach Police Chief Rod Uyeda said at the April 6 City Council meeting. “And that’s my biggest fear since I’ve been in the city. My only fear has been the Six-Man.”
Six to eight arrests were made last year and two intoxicated people were rescued from drowning in the ocean by lifeguards, according to police.
“It’s lost its focus as a volleyball tournament,” Manhattan Beach Councilmember Nick Tell said at the meeting. “We can’t just accommodate 80,000 people, because soon it will be 100,000. We’ve got to figure out how to drop that number or ultimately this community will revolt and this will get cancelled, which will be a sad result.”
Alcohol has always been illegal on the city’s beaches, but city officials said this year police will no longer turn a blind eye to the kegs buried in the sand, red cups, Jell-o shooters and other alcoholic beverages and containers that traditionally make their way into the event.
“I hold that if we make it as difficult as we can to bring alcohol into the event, spectators will go somewhere else and bring the party somewhere else,” Mayor Pro Tem Richard Montgomery said in an interview this week. “Word will get out that this year Manhattan Beach is cracking down on alcohol.”
Montgomery said the majority of problems are not caused by players, but spectators. He will, however, propose a “death rule,” which would disqualify an entire team from the tournament for five years if even one member of the team is caught with alcohol.
The city hopes that by deterring the party crowd, the tournament will revert back to an athletic-oriented event.
“All great sporting events, it seems, along the way have to figure out their niche and figure out what they are going to be,” said newly named AVP commissioner Mike Dodd and 1996 beach volleyball Olympic silver medalist. Dodd has played in the Six-Man since the 1970s. “The Manhattan Six-Man is such a combination of a great volleyball event, a great social event and a great family event. And it’s also a huge party. Where you draw the line on the party element is really what the tournament needs to figure out.”
A tournament, not a party
Charles Saikley Jr. saunters into a Manhattan Beach coffee shop, a binder tucked under his arm full of 30 years of newspapers clippings, photos and other literature chronicling the history of South Bay beach volleyball.
He apologizes for running a half hour late, saying he had to make sure he brought everything — the binder, books on local volleyball history and dozens of photographs he transferred onto a flash drive at the last minute.
“I’d rather speak in my father’s words than in mine,” he says, pointing to the binder.
The self-dubbed “historian in the family,” Saikley Jr., 33, has assigned himself the task of documenting his father’s legacy. He opens the binder and tells the story of how over roughly 50 years a time-honored volleyball tournament became, in his view, a party.
According to Saikley Jr., the first tournament was first held in 1957 — not 1961 as commonly reported by the city. Roughly 25 teams competed on five courts on the north side of the pier.
The tournament is part of the annual International Surf Festival, in which lifeguards and community members compete in a variety of beach sports, including swimming, surfing, paddleboarding, bodysurfing, and dory racing.
“Volleyball was added to keep the spectators entertained while the lifeguards came in from the water,” Saikley Jr. said. “The main focus was on aquatics. As volleyball exploded and grew in popularity, people got more interested in it.”
Charlie Saikley Sr. has been credited with setting the standard for how beach volleyball tournaments are run. He helped make the AVP Manhattan Beach Open the most prestigious beach volleyball tournament in the country and founded the junior Manhattan Beach Open.
“Now beach volleyball is an Olympic sport,” Saikley Jr. said. “It is recognized internationally and it all started at one place — the Manhattan Beach Open, the Wimbledon of volleyball. And it’s played in the format my dad created.”
“My dad — being a coach and recreational supervisor, and already running a six-person girls club volleyball program— brought the Six-Man to the point where everyone could get on a volleyball court, knock a ball around and have fun together,” Jay Saikley said.
Saikley Jr. recalls, as a kid, going up against world-class Olympians in the tournament. In 1982, he watched one of his older brothers, at age eight, compete against former Lakers player Wilt Chamberlain.
“It was all about learning to play and getting better,” Saikley Jr. said. “That’s why he encouraged kids to play.”
The tournament was eventually moved to the south side of the pier and grew to 43 courts with 200 teams participating each year. Eighty men’s open division, 80 women’s open division and roughly 40 masters’ division teams — ranging from 12 to 40 team members — compete in Saturday matches. The top 32 men’s, 32 women’s and several master’s teams advance to Sunday.
“The interesting thing about this tournament is on Sunday there is a single elimination element first, then a double elimination,” said Manhattan Beach recreation services manager Mark Leyman. “That’s the beauty of the tournament. It’s a really perfect format all around. You have to show up Sunday morning and it gives an incentive to score a lot of points on Saturday.”
Saikley Jr. said that his dad’s vision for the tournament was to keep it a local event.
That vision has become increasingly difficult to respect. According to the city, 2,000 people attended the tournament in 1998. In 2002, attendance jumped to 12,000 and to 20,000 in 2004. Last summer 60,000 people lined the courts, spilling into downtown.
“It’s amazing for all of us who have seen it. For years and years, it was just a few scattered tents down by the water,” Dodd said. “Then all of sudden some tents on the bike path side, and now it’s like a freeway, double-sided, and going in and out and back and forth.”
“There are literally times now I’d want to go see a friend’s son playing and he’d be on court 13 andI’d be out on court 37 and I’d look and see what it would take to get to court 13 and say, maybe I need to take a dip in the water instead. I’m not going to make it there,” Dodd said.
In 2002, the city banned couches, recliners, equipment delivery, and amplified music, and limited team tent space. But those measures did little to slow the tournament’s growing popularity.
From party to riot
Google “Six Man Volleyball Tournament” and one of the first websites that pops up is pubclub.com, a party site featuring a page devoted entirely to Six-Man.
“The annual Surf Festival may be curiously named as it is primarily a whacky volleyball tournament, but it combines outdoor competition, a very loose atmosphere and an all-day/all-night party to make it the quintessential Manhattan Beach event,” reads the website.
Photos on the page highlight the event’s matches, athletes, massive crowd and bikini-clad women.
“It’s nearly impossible to walk along the tents by the shore,” reads a caption under one photo.
Another notes that the site’s representatives cheer at the tournament: “Shot shot, what a shot…” and “Win or Lose, We Booze!”
Jay Saikley noted such sites have contributed to the increase in tournament attendance and the often out-of-control behavior by spectators in recent years.
“There are so many new attendees who don’t know the laws and rules,” Jay Saikley said. “The event is a volleyball tournament. The spectators don’t all understand it because they see it on party websites.”
“If you really look at the photos in past history, you definitely see a change from the ‘90s to about 2002,” he added. “After the computer scare of 2000, the Internet became bigger and was used as an advertising tool. It’s those websites and the Internet that have let this tournament’s notoriety go around the world. It blows things out of proportion.”
The International Surf Festival’s promoter Scott Hubbell, of Scott Hubbell Production, attributes the ballooning crowd at Six-Man to something more old fashioned.
“I think it’s more word-of-mouth and if they use the Internet for that it wouldn’t surprise me,” he said. “It’s like telephone. But I know of no company that’s promoted Six-Man.”
Whatever the cause, police are concerned that increasing crowds and outlandish behavior raise safety and liability issues.
A riot that broke out at a 1986 OP Surf Contest in Huntington Beach is a frequently cited example of the potential dangers. Roughly 70,000 people attended the event and alcohol was being openly consumed by attendees, according to MBPD Captain Derek Abell. Attendees began to riot when police responded to reports of women being assaulted. The outnumbered officers quickly lost control of the crowd, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damages to the city.
Abell fears that the Six-Man, in its current state, could easily suffer the same fate.
“It can be overwhelming if we’re not careful,” he said. “All it takes is one incident to spark an incident. When you introduce alcohol and people make clouded decisions from intoxication, something small turns into a big fight.”
Saikley Jr. finds that hard to imagine at Six-Man.
“I don’t think this tournament has ever been threatened by a riot,” he said. “I don’t know how ‘the Six-Man’ and ‘riot’ have ever become intertwined in the same sentence.”
USC Social Psychology professor Dr. Jerald Jellison said that a situation like Six-Man could easily lead to an incident.
“When people get in groups they do things they wouldn’t normally do,” Jellison said. “They do riskier things than they would do otherwise.”
“Let’s say the police arrest someone,” he added. “Now that person’s friends react forcefully towards the police. This type of risky behavior is one of the forces operating in groups. In this situation, people could do more outlandish things and engage in behaviors more forceful toward the police. Drinking too much, boisterous behavior and showing off are all risky, proving ‘I can do this.’”
Abell said that alcohol consumption at the event — though officially prohibited — has become increasingly difficult to manage.
“It’s not like it was in years past,” he said. “We’ve gone from beer cans to hard alcohol and containers that make it more difficult to see what’s going on.”
Last month, Chief Uyeda told the City Council that the low ratio of officers to spectators complicates alcohol enforcement.
Twenty MBPD officers, six community service officers and 35 private security officers policed last year’s tournament, attended by roughly 60,000 people, according to Abell. He noted that police estimate attendance based on square area counts of the beach and downtown areas.
“There are way too many people for us to be able to manage,” Abell said.
Uyeda requested from City Council that all MBPD officers work this year’s tournament, which would double the police presence. He also requested an increase to 14 community service officers and 60 private security officers, in addition to 20 Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies.
Team entry fees will likely double to offset the anticipated $93,306 it will cost to cover proposed enhanced staffing. Last year, entry fees ranged from $400 for master’s teams to $600 for non-sponsored open teams to $1,000 for sponsored, open teams.
City staff will propose new fees of $500 for master’s teams, $1,100 for non-sponsored open teams, and $2,500 for locally sponsored open teams, according to Leyman. The fee would secure 12 spots on a team, with a cost of $100 for each additional player.
“We structured it this way to be equitable because most sponsored teams are getting a check cut to offset costs, but regular teams that don’t have sponsors have to pony up the money,” Leyman said.
“I disagree with the increased fees,” Saikley Jr. said. “It will shut out the local players and make it so the only people who can play are teams who get big sponsors.”
Leyman also said that fencing off the tournament and charging a spectator fee to offset costs may be an option in the future.
“We’re all open to it, but it takes a number of months to get heard by the California Coastal Commission,” Leyman said. “We have to start the process early for next year. But that would be ideal…Right now, the players have to foot the bill for the event and they just want to play volleyball and enjoy.”
Leyman also said that staff will propose a requirement that players be at least 18 years old to enter the tournament, which has traditionally been open to all ages.
“The consensus has just become that the event is not conducive to younger youths,” Leyman said.
“This contradicts my dad’s whole vision of the tournament,” Sailey Jr. said. “We got beat up but had fun doing it. I remember my dad saying ‘Swing for the pier.’ We were literally going up against Olympians as kids.”
The city will also consider pushing back the date of the tournament to late August or September.
However, changing the date could diminish participation since club and college volleyball players are not allowed by their organizations to play in other tournaments during their regular season, according to Leyman.
“It might lower the caliber level of players in the pool,” he said. “If half the teams didn’t sign up, we might not produce enough revenue to fund the event.”
Changing the date would also disassociate the tournament from the festival.
“I think a lot of tradition goes with the date,” Jay Saikley said. “The tournament started as a part of a bigger event. It’s not the right thing to do.”
Teams sponsored by large, national corporations will also be a thing of the past, according to Leyman, who proposes that only local, non-nationally branded companies be allowed to sponsor teams.
“We’ve had teams sponsored in the past, but at this point we don’t want big corporate sponsored teams,” he said. “We don’t want the headliners publicly using this event to further their product. If they are allowed into the event, there will have to be strict language or no signage. We are proposing no commercial or corporate sponsors for the tournament.”
“Keep it localized,” Saikley Jr. said. “It’s about volleyball. Nothing about sponsorship. We want to grow a sport, but not a party.”
Other proposed changes include the requirement that players wear wristbands, one tent per team, no home furniture, widening the emergency aisles and the addition of a bike parking area. Last year, thousands of bikes were strewn over the sand, with roughly 40 left behind after the event, according to police.
“There are still a lot of things to be worked out for Six-Man,” Jay Saikley said. “Police will hopefully start citing and arresting, and companies will stop marketing it as a free-for-all and it will turn back into a sporting event. It was great when there were only 2,000 people on the beach. Until we can find a way to have a significantly smaller number of people on the beach, it’s going to be hard to keep this tournament alive.” ER