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Beach volleyball, once the exclusive domain of surf bums and beach rats, has finally spiked its way into the big time.

Even as beach volleyball prepares for its first appearance as a medal sport for men and women at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, competition will continue to brew among the three top beer brands backing three separate, often-warring, leagues.

The competing beers behind beach volleyball are Miller Lite, Bud Light and Coors Light. Each hopes its players will make it to the Olympics based on the criteria laid out by the International Federation of Volleyball Players of Lausanne, Switzerland.

Sponsors are thrilled: "Beach volleyball is really positioning for growth next year in what's become a sport with a very healthy, active, youthful following," said Kevin Monaghan, director of new-business development for NBC Sports, broadcast partner of the Miller Lite Pro Beach Tour.

Miller Lite's beach volleyball relationship goes back 15 years; it's been a long-term backer of the venerable men-only Association of Volleyball Professionals, and Miller Brewing Co. is generally credited with helping the sport move from a locals-only, southern California thing to a national, media-intensive phenomenon.

Every weekend from March to September, thousands of passionate fans flock to temporary bleachers to watch the gods and goddesses of beach volleyball glisten with sweat while spiking balls for big prize money.

Even in oceanless areas like Minneapolis; Boulder, Colo.; and Austin, Texas, beach volleyball thrives, thanks to tons of sand trucked in for each event.

This year Miller Lite's Pro Beach Volleyball Tour boasted $4.2 million in prize money shared among the players over various tournaments, culminating in the biggest purse of all, $1.25 million at the Aug. 27 showdown at Hermosa Beach, Calif.

The AVP, which supports two-man team doubles volleyball, also claims beach volleyball's best-known star, Karch Kiraly, who is personally sponsored by Speedo and is almost certain to represent the U.S. in the Olympics. Of nearly equal visibility is tow-headed Adam Johnson, who is separately sponsored by Nike.

Major sponsors in addition to title sponsor Miller Lite include Coca-Cola's Nestea, Evian, 1-800-COLLECT and Footaction, among others; major sponsorship costs $1.5 million.

Rising fast, however, is the rival men's and women's Bud Light Pro Beach Volleyball League, which has zoomed from virtually nowhere in 1990 to prominence with 20 circuit games televised exclusively on ESPN and ESPN2.

The Bud Light League's biggest asset: famous and glamorous spiker Gabrielle Reece, another Olympic women's team hopeful who also happens to be a model, the host of MTV Sports and star of new syndicated sports TV series airing this fall called "The Extremist."

The Bud Light League, majority-owned by CE Sports of Van Nuys, Calif., plays a style of volleyball using four people per team; the league is surging and boasts co-sponsors including Sony, Paul Mitchell and Nike. Sponsorship costs are in the mid-six figures.

Not to be overlooked is Coors Light's Women's Professional Volleyball Association, which plays two-person volleyball on its own tournament circuit and is aired on CBS.

Despite their often-adversarial stances, the leagues might be helping one another gain spectator and sponsorship appeal.

"Altogether I think we create synergies for one another by raising awareness of beach volleyball and spotlighting the individualistic nature of the sport," said Bryan Stewart, executive director of the Bud Light League.

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