All Set: Volleyball Seems to Be Everywhere in Central Florida
There isn’t an official moment in time when volleyball became a big deal. More like continual drops in the bucket. And now comes the proverbial flood. Here, there and everywhere, there is volleyball.
And Central Florida is at the epicenter.
- The 2022 USA Volleyball Open National Championship will be staged in Central Florida again at the Orange County Convention Center from May 27 through June 1.
- The 49th Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Girls’ Junior National Volleyball Championships will be staged at the Orange County Convention Center from June 15-26.
- The AAU Boys’ Junior National Championship will be staged at the Orange County Convention Center June 27 through July 1.
And while the convention center is a logical venue to hold large-scale events, Central Florida has a wide range of options for youth and adults to play indoor and beach volleyball.
How did this all happen? It feels like soccer 20 years ago when everybody’s kid was playing but there was no platform for big Super Bowl-esque activity. When I talk to my friends and family, it seems that every single kid is playing volleyball today.
Here, there and everywhere. The sport is now estimated to be played by more than 800 million globally.
“We’ve continued to see this growth pattern across the entire country,” says Steve Bishop, president and executive director of the Florida Region of USA Volleyball Inc., the national governing body for the sport in the United States. “In the high school realm, volleyball has now surpassed basketball as the number one girls’ team sport, and basketball held that distinction for almost forever. We have 450,000 girls playing high school volleyball, and about 300,000 of them are playing club volleyball. Some also play with AAU. Most of the ones who play at the high level are playing with USA Volleyball across the country. It’s not a real surprise.”
The indoor game – six-on-six players – is the traditional form of the sport. But outdoor beach volleyball – or the “sand game,” featuring two-on-two – is gaining traction quickly.
Beach volleyball was reportedly first played in 1915 on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, evolving to the point of widestream acceptance when it became an Olympic sport in the summer of 1996 in Atlanta.
One of the most prominent faces of the sport is Phil Dalhausser. He and his playing partner, Todd Rogers, were 2007 Association of Volleyball Professionals (AVP) Tour and Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) world champions. They followed those titles with a gold medal performance at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.
Dalhausser now runs a beach volleyball academy in Lake Nona. “Parents are starting to realize this is the fastest-growing sport in college,” he says. “More and more scholarships are popping up. And girls who are 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-9 and considered undersized for indoor volleyball are perfect for the beach game. More and more schools are picking it up because it’s an inexpensive sport. The up-front costs are mostly the courts.”
Bishop attributes the rise of both sports to “programming and opportunities.” And he can trace his own trajectory. When he established the regional office here in 2004, he said: “We have big dreams and big ideas.” It didn’t quite look that way back then, he says today, “when our office was a person of one. We produced four events a year and that was it.”
The region’s USA Volleyball office now oversees myriad events, including all-star indoor, all-star beach, a whole Paralympic division and a 21-court sand volleyball complex. The office also has a partnership with the convention center for staging events that include the largest USA Volleyball event of the year featuring 650 to 700 teams on 100 courts.
Lake Nona Network
Dalhausser can relate to a similar trajectory. A graduate of Mainland High School in Daytona Beach, he moved back to the area in 2018 along with his wife, Jennifer, and their two children. He picked Lake Nona as the site to set up his volleyball enterprise and then started to network with officials at Tavistock.
“I opened up two volleyball courts and bugged them to run this little academy,” he says, “The rest is history, but it’s been a bit of an uphill battle. Central Florida is dominated by the indoor game, but slowly but surely kids are going to start coming to the sand.” The program at Boxi Park now includes private lessons as well as adult social leagues on Thursday nights where players can grab a beer and a burger and hang out with their buddies.
Central Florida is preparing for another blast of volleyball with the boys’ and girls’ AAU tournaments coming in mid-June. In 2021, the AAU’s combined tournaments marked the largest event to date hosted at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC), with more than 135,000 attendees across two weeks. The activity created an estimated economic impact of $173.3 million for the region, according to OCCC officials.
Expect more of the same this year.
“They’re going to be bigger and even more remarkable,” says Mark Tester, executive director of the convention center. “I’ve heard that they may even have as many as 4,000 teams or so, which is unbelievable. Just imagine 130,000 people, not necessarily at one time, but flowing in and out of the community. I’m thinking, “How many pizzas are ordered? How many sub sandwiches are ordered? How many souvenirs are bought? And how many family members go to Universal or SeaWorld or Disney or ICON Park during that time? … It’s just tremendous for our economy.”
What’s happening in Orlando is that we’re playing volleyball and supporting it as means of driving revenue for a destination by hosting these events.
Here, there and everywhere, there is volleyball.
Longtime Central Florida sportswriter George Diaz contributed to this report.