There are a few pro beach volleyball players competing in Fort Lauderdale this weekend who might one day be Olympians, but there are two who have already done it — Nicole Branagh and John Hyden.
Branagh, 33, is perhaps the biggest name set to compete in Saturday’s main draw of the Jose Cuervo Pro Beach Volleyball Series, which will take place across from the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale.
She will partner with Tyra Turner, 35, who is a Fort Myers native and is in UCF’s athletic Hall of Fame.
Branagh paired with Elaine Youngs in 2008, when they finished fifth in the Olympics.
They are considered one of the five best women’s duos in the history of U.S. beach volleyball.
“Making the Olympics is still my proudest moment in volleyball,” said Branagh, a native of Orinda, Calif., and a former star at the University of Minnesota. “I would love to get back to the [2016 Olympics] and win a medal.”
Hyden, 39, competed in two Olympics — 1996 and 2000 — as an indoor volleyball player. The United States finished in ninth and 11th place, respectively, in those Games.
This weekend, Hyden’s partner is another veteran, Sean Scott, 38, who has played with a total of five Olympians in his career.
And since this is an Olympic year — the Games are set to start July 27 in London — beach volleyball should receive another boost in popularity.
Typically, the TV ratings for beach volleyball have been among the highest of all sports during the Olympics as fans are drawn to what is considered a sexy and fast-paced event.
But once the Olympics wraps for another four years, beach volleyball struggles to retain fans who had seemingly fallen in love with the sport.
Money also has been an issue.
The AVP Tour — which stands for Association of Volleyball Professionals — began in 1984 and had gained a following until August 2010. That’s when play was suspended because of financial reasons.
“That had a pretty big impact on our sport,” Branagh said.
The AVP Tour, which is now under new ownership, had an event in Manhattan Beach, Calif., last October and is planning to resume operations this year or next.
But until or unless that happens, one of the main domestic options for pro beach players is the Cuervo series, which is opening its season this weekend in Fort Lauderdale and plans six more stops: Chicago, Milwaukee, Belmar, N.J., and three visits to the Los Angeles area.
There is also the National Volleyball League, which had an event in Baltimore during Preakness week and promises five more stops, including Miami Beach on Sept. 28-30. The other events are set for Oshkosh, Wis.; Long Beach, Calif.; Aspen, Colo.; and Las Vegas.
“I still can’t wrap my head around why beach volleyball hasn’t taken off,” Branagh said. “Certainly, the economy has been a factor. It costs a lot to put on a tournament, and you can’t do it without good sponsors.
“That’s why I’m really grateful for Cuervo. This is the second year they have put this series together, and it’s free for the fans. Hopefully, they will come out and end up loving the sport.”