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  • Matt Colville

Gulf Place – NCAA Women’s Beach Volleyball Tournament


Photos by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey


Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.43

Gulf Place (Gulf Shores Main Public Beach) 101 E. Beach Blvd Gulf Shores, AL 36542



Year Opened: 2016

 

A National Championship comes to the Gulf Coast


Every year since 2016 the top Beach Volleyball teams in the country meet up on the beautiful white, sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama for the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championships. Beach Volleyball is the NCAA’s newest sport, having been officially sponsored by the NCAA since 2016. Before that sand volleyball had been a part of college sports, but only at the club or intramural level. When the NCAA took over in 2016 they changed the name from Sand Volleyball to the more official Beach Volleyball.


As of the 2022 season there are 64 Division I, 16 D2, and 6 D3 schools with Beach Volleyball programs. With only D1 having enough schools to support a championship, all three divisions are eligible to participate in the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship. The California schools dominate the field every year, with USC taking home four titles (including the 2022 tournament) and UCLA taking home two titles.


For the first five years only 8 teams were invited, but for 2022 the field was expanded to include 16 teams with a different format than in years past. There are currently eight D1 conferences for Beach Volleyball, so the winners of the conferences are invited to participate. In addition, two teams from the East Region and two teams from the West Region are given bids, while four at-large schools are also selected. The at-large teams selected could be D2 or D3 schools, making Beach Volleyball the only NCAA sponsored sport where schools from different divisions compete against each other.


Food & Beverage 3

The Beach Volleyball National Championships take place in a temporary area literally right on the beach. Because of this there are no permanent concessions on site. However, there are several tents on site selling drinks and snacks, and there are also two food trucks on property selling food – an acai bowl truck called Sowl Bowlz and a Chicken Shack truck. The tents basically sell cold beverages like bottled water ($2), Powerade ($3), bottled sodas ($4), and 12 oz. canned beer ($6) available in Michelob Ultra, Miller Lite, and Bud Light. They also had a bartender who was making mixed drinks at one of the tents.


There are also a ton of restaurants within walking distance of the venue, so since you are free to come and go as you want my recommendation would be get something to eat at one of the many local seafood restaurants in Gulf Shores.


Atmosphere 4

The scene here is pretty cool, as they literally just fence in a wide area of the beach and set up 11 temporary beach volleyball courts, with 5 being used for match play and the other 6 being used for practice.


This is the first year since 2019 that the tournament has operated with fan attendance. With 16 teams being invited for the first time ever, the tournament has expanded to five days. The event kicks off Wednesday morning at 9 am with the first round, and all 16 teams playing in a single elimination format. All matches are contested under five sets, with the first team to win three sets advancing. The early rounds of the tournament will start at about 9 am and go until it gets dark. Thursday is a practice day for the teams, as the tournament switches to double elimination on Friday. The teams then play back-to-back all day on Friday and Saturday until there are only two teams left, which play for the National Championship on Sunday, as well as the third-place game which is also played on Sunday. When the schools play, they use all five different courts, so it can get kind of confusing to know which one to watch, as there will be five different matches going on at the same time.


Since there isn’t an official game day program or anything to familiarize you with any of the players, your best bet is to just walk from court to court.


The official grounds are blocked by two large fences to the east and west, but to the south there is a small three-foot wooden fence, so people walking the beach are able to stop and view the action as the venue is a part of the public beach. They even have a large videoboard visible from the water. The waves were calm during most of the tournament, so it is possible to float in the water and watch the action as it is shown on ESPN.

The area where the matches take place is directly outside The Hangout, a popular beach-side restaurant best known for hosting the Hangout Fest every year. The grounds around The Hangout have a pretty cool set up with all kinds of banners and signs welcoming you to Gulf Shores and the Beach Volleyball Championship. The NCAA does a good job at making this a pretty cool event – they have a giant blown up Beach Volleyball with all the team logos, and they have a giant sand sculpture created on the beach. Also, around the beach outside the official grounds there are over 60 beach volleyball nets set up on the beach, hosting over 900 beach volleyball players for a junior tournament, the largest such in the country. There are all kinds of tents set up around the nets with different groups playing. I saw people from different beach volleyball clubs around the country, and they were even doing beach volleyball camps run by different organizations. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) even had a tent set up, and it looked like they were doing some sort of tryouts – they were even giving away free koozies and I saw perhaps the best beach volleyball player to ever play the sport, three-time Olympic gold medalist Misty-May Treanor.


There is one main gate where they take your ticket to the east of the entrance to The Hangout. Once inside the grounds it is relaxed and you are able to walk from court to court to view the action. Each court has a five-row metal bleacher setup surrounding the court, and in front of the bleachers are three rows of chair back seating using the types of chairs you would find at the beach; these seats are first come first serve and probably about 10-15 feet from the actual court. They have a rather large merch stand located around the courts selling t-shirts and memorabilia, and also have cabana-style seating under a giant elevated air-conditioned canopy tent called the NCAA Experience, where they have a full spread of food and drinks and TVs to watch. This is where the ESPN broadcasters sit during the match as well. Everything is laid back here and as the event is all day, you are free to come and go as you please.


Neighborhood 5

There are several bars and restaurants in the immediate area for you to watch the matches from, one being The Hangout of course, but another is the famous Pink Pony Pub, which at over 50 years old is Gulf Shores’ oldest bar. This cool dive bar is located right on the beach, and you can get a perfect view of all the courts from the front deck of this bar. There is also a Hooter’s next door as well, though you can’t see the sand courts from there.


The Hangout is located right where the main road into town (Hwy 59) meets the beach. Around this intersection you will find a ton of restaurants, as well as tourist and souvenir shops along this little stretch. Popular restaurants in the area include mostly seafood with my favorites being Sea N Suds, Gulf Islands Grill, Mikee’s Seafood, Steamed Oyster Bar, Shrimp Basket, King Neptune’s, Oyster House, Tacky Jack’s, Lulu’s, and Starlight Diner. The town of Gulf Shores is a little more developed than neighboring Orange Beach, so you will find a lot more restaurants and shopping in the beach community. You can also find the Tanger Outlets and a decent-sized strip mall just north of city limits. You can also venture into Orange Beach and shop at The Wharf as well; this upscale shopping center is located right on the back bay.


You could spend weeks in Gulf Shores and still have plenty to do. The main attraction is the beach and the water, but there are other things to do as well. For families the Gulf Shores Zoo is located nearby, and Waterville USA is a popular water park with a few roller coasters. For outdoor lovers Gulf State Park is nearby and features over 30 miles of trails through various sand dunes and woods; they also have cabins for camping and a pier for fishing as well. In addition there is Fort Morgan, a popular Civil War fort located about 20 miles to the west of Gulf Shores, which makes for a great day to explore the ruins of an old fort.


Fans 4

This was the first year since 2019 that fans were allowed to attend the tournament, and they showed up setting an NCAA beach volleyball attendance record. Over 10,000 spectators showed up over the five days, marking a 7% increase in attendance over the 2019 event. The beaches were packed with people, and the roads headed into Gulf Shores were lined with people, as it was a typical summer beach day on the Gulf Coast. Just because there weren’t many area schools participating doesn’t mean there wasn’t a mix of fans who traveled from out of state. LSU and Florida State had the largest group of fans who traveled, but I also talked to some UCLA fans who had traveled from California, some Georgia State fans from Atlanta, and some TCU fans from Texas. So it was a cool mixture of all these school’s different fan bases gathering together on the beach.


It is also possible to watch some of the tournament from outside the fence, as the wooden fence is only about waist high. There is about a 100-foot section of the beach open to the public to the south of the grounds where people were walking; I saw many people with tents set up, playing cornhole and drinking a cold beverage while watching the beach volleyball action unfold. You could also watch the action from the water as well. The weather was excellent during this week, and I took a dip in the ocean and could get excellent views of the courts and the videoboard. The Pink Pony balcony has excellent views of the court as well.


A tournament like this is also more of a spectator sport, as most people will not be familiar with many of the beach volleyball players or teams playing in the tournament. An event like this doesn’t make a great event to watch on Tv either, but the party and festive atmosphere, along with the beautiful beach setting, makes attending this event worth it.


Access 2

The one bad part about coming to this event is just getting here. Gulf Shores is located on the far southern end of the state about 60 miles southeast of Mobile. If coming from out of town I-10 will be your best bet – just take the Highway 59 exit (Exit 44), then go all the way south (about 35 miles) and you will pop out right on Beach Blvd. Be warned though this highway can be a nightmare this time of the year with traffic, and it can take upwards of over an hour just to get from the interstate to the beach. You could instead branch over to the next exit and take the Baldwin Beach Express, which is a little less traveled but means driving a longer distance, as well as paying a toll. But there is a giant Buc-ees on this road, and the gas station superstore makes for a great pit stop for people coming to the beach.


After fighting the beach traffic and getting down here you will still have to find somewhere to park, and as there is no public transportation in Gulf Shores, parking and walking will be your best option. There are several pay lots around The Hangout, including the main parking lot that charges a whopping $20 a car to park. However, there are several pay lots a couple of blocks to the west. The 4th and 6th street public beach access points charge $5 per car but have plenty of parking; you will just have to walk a couple of blocks. I was lucky enough to have a friend staying at a nearby condo, so I was able to park there and ride my bike over.


Return on Investment 3

Tickets are priced as follows: General Admission Day passes for all day are $25, with courtside tickets selling for $35 a day. You could also purchase the four-day General Admission pass for $55, or courtside for all four days at $85. The NCAA Fan Experience tickets sell for $250, and that grants access to the large A/C hospitality tent for all five days.


Looking at the ticket prices, tickets may seem kind of high to an average person, but you are getting to see some of the top beach volleyball players in the country. Some of these players have competed at past Olympics, so you are getting to see the best beach volleyball players. You are also getting to see an NCAA National Champion get crowned, which regardless of the sport is always pretty cool.


Also just being able to come to the beaches of Gulf Shores for the weekend is worth the trip alone. The hardest part is just getting here, but once on location you can enjoy the day walking the beach free of charge, and you can’t beat that.


Extras 3

One point for the number of sporting events held in the Gulf Shores-Orange Beach area. Gulf Shores-Orange Beach Sports and Events partnered with UAB to host this tournament. Besides the NCAA beach volleyball championship, the two towns host tons of different sporting events and tournaments throughout the year, ranging from youth to college sports. The nearby Orange Beach Sportsplex hosts the SEC Soccer Tournament for nine days every November, bringing fans from all 14 SEC schools to the area. The sportsplex also hosts the NAIA Soccer National Championship every year, and multiple D1 and D2 men’s and women’s tournaments.


With championship golf courses, beautiful water for fishing, and countless tournaments every weekend, this area of south Alabama is living up to its name as a national sports and recreation hub for the Gulf Coast region.

Another extra for the Hangout Fest which takes place generally the weekend following the Beach Volleyball Championship. They do an excellent job at breaking down the volleyball courts and constructing multiple stages to host the notable acts who play during the three-day music fest. Past performers at the Fest include the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Widespread Panic, Tom Petty, Foo Fighters, the Dave Matthews Band, Travis Scott, Post Malone, Fall Out Boy, Kendrick Lamar, Outkast, Paul Simon, The Weekend, and more.


Lastly an extra point for the setting itself, as you cannot pick a more prime location to have an event like this. I can’t think of any sport where you can sit in the ocean and still watch the action as it happens right in front of you. This is a really cool event to attend, and one of the more unique sporting events I’ve ever attended. In fact there are only a couple more years for you to experience the Beach Volleyball Championship here, as the tourney will move to Huntington Beach, CA in 2025.

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