TAMPA — The University of Tampa has added a new women's varsity NCAA sport for next spring — beach volleyball — and coaches already are predicting that it will draw a loyal and spirited following.
UT will build a stadium court (adding to two existing sand courts) adjacent to the school's Fitness and Recreation Center, which gets plenty of foot traffic as students walk from the parking garages to the center of campus.
"I've been joking with our other coaches that this has a chance to be the best-attended sport at UT," said Jeff Lamm, an assistant with Chris Catanach's nationally acclaimed indoor volleyball program, who was named to the full-time beach volleyball head-coaching position.
"Think about it. We'll be playing music with a DJ. That's part of this sport. You're hearing the music and it's a nice day. You're walking by, so wouldn't you check it out? It's a cool atmosphere and really a perfect setting for a college campus."
Beach volleyball, best known for its professional tours and status as an Olympic sport since 1996, is the fastest-growing NCAA sport with 54 programs operating at the start of the 2016-17 school year. The programs — from Division I to Division II to Division III — compete for one national championship.
Lamm said he's hopeful that an exclusive Division II championship will be formed, but that classification's membership must grow to 40 to make that happen. For now, the Spartans would like to help form a conference. Among the familiar Sunshine State Conference opponents, Eckerd already has beach volleyball, Florida Southern is adding a program in 2017-18 and Saint Leo is studying the possibility.
Regionally, UT could schedule the likes of Florida State (last season's national runnerup), along with Florida Atlantic, Florida Gulf Coast, Florida International, Jacksonville, Stetson and North Florida, all of whom offer beach volleyball.
The Spartans are expected to have a roster of 16 to 18 players, who will comprise the five doubles teams needed for a match. Some of the players might transition from the indoor volleyball team, but that's not the ultimate goal.
According to NCAA data, 60 percent of the nation's beach volleyball players do not participate in indoor volleyball.
"We're primarily recruiting beach-only players, but we'll certainly have some indoor players who want to play beach," Lamm said. "Moving forward, there will always be the ability for the indoor players to play beach, but it will probably be on a tryout basis because we think we're going to attract some really good beach-only players."
Lamm, who has worked on Catanach's staff for 15 years, grew up in Sarasota and played beach volleyball on the Jose Cuervo and Bud Light tours. When a full-time position was offered to lead the new program at UT, Lamm jumped at the opportunity.
Beach volleyball has a ball, a net and three allowed contacts before it must cross the net for the other team's possession. Still, "it's a different kind of game and it brings in a different kind of athlete," Lamm said.
Indoor volleyball has six players to a side. It relies heavily on communication and teamwork as defensive-minded players dig out opponent's shots, then seek to set it to the front-liners for scoring spikes.
It's the same principles in beach volleyball, but with only two players. Like indoor, there are systems and strategy employed. With music blaring and the action non-stop, it's low-key and hyper-competitive at the same time.
"When most people think of outdoor volleyball, they visualize a picnic with six or so people playing on one side," Lamm said. "Beach volleyball is something much different. It's incredibly exciting. You're dealing with the wind, the sun, the heat. It's challenging."
Catanach initially opposed the addition of beach volleyball, thinking the coaching and budgetary responsibilities would fall to him, taking away from the school's elite indoor program.
Once Catanach realized UT president Ronald Vaughn and athletic director Larry Marfise were committed to making it a strong, free-standing program, he was all in.
"I think beach volleyball will be embraced on our campus," Catanach said. "There's already a buzz about it. We're already getting e-mails at a pretty good clip from kids who are interested in playing.
"The thing I liked the most is the decision (to add beach volleyball) was largely based on the feeling that it will really enhance campus life. There's a lot of cooperation and sharing that will need to be done initially. But I think the upside of it all is tremendous. It's an exciting thing to think about and look forward to. President Vaughn's philosophy isn't just adding a sport to do it. We're going to make it first-class and the best it can be."