Beach volleyball makes its mark in Vienna on its quest for world domination.

Beach volleyball is probably not the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of Austria, a landlocked, mostly mountainous country more closely associated with spandex ski suits and pointed skis soaring above alpine trees. Yet like the nation’s affinity with sailing, Austria has an unlikely love affair with the popular two–on-two sport, with its own pro tour and even earning two ninth places at last year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with the duos Clemens Doppler/Alexander Horst and Alexander Huber/Robin Seidl. And this year, Austria is hosting the 11th biannual World Beach Volleyball Championships in Vienna, with a 10,000 capacity stadium being built on the Donauinsel just for the occasion.

Beach volleyball
An Olympic discipline since 1996, the beach volleyball world championships have only been officially held since 1997. // Photo: PHILIPP SCHUSTER/ SWATCH BEACH VOLLEYBALL MAJOR SERIES/ RED BULL CONTENT POOL

It’s not the first time Austria has played host to the tournament: In 2001, the world championships were held in Klagenfurt, where the sport already has a big following. But it’s a first for the capital; together with the FIVB (Federation for International Volleyball), the city has its sights on making it the biggest volleyball event to date. Hans Peter Doskozil, Federal Minister for National Defense and Sports, has promised that it will be “the sporting highlight of the summer.”

Path to domination

Steadily gaining traction among audiences, this year’s tournament is all part of the FIVB’s long-term ambition to turn volleyball (and its cool cousin beach volleyball) into the number one family sports entertainment in the world, and it doesn’t seem all that unfeasible: In 2015, FIVB President Ary S. Graça outlined a nine-point program to achieve this, joining forces with global powerhouse and ambassador for all things adrenal Red Bull in a deal that is blazing a trail for global expansion. The support from a multibillion euro corporation that has already done wonders for extreme sports has been a huge step for volleyball. Back in 2013, the year after Graça’s election, broadcast rights were sold to television companies in 30 nations; by 2015 it was 100, and this year will top that with the world championships here in Vienna shown in 134 countries worldwide.

Beach volleyball
Ary S. Graça, FIVB president (left) // Photo: JOERG MITTER / RED BULL CONTENT POOL

Graça is certain that “Vienna has the ideal conditions to make this competition the best in its history,” citing generous funding and ample infrastructure. Vienna in turn is eager to prove itself dynamic and progressive; in the words of Vienna’s councillor for Finance, Economics and International Affairs Renate Brauner, “it is particularly important to me that we present the city as an innovative economic metropolis.”

As for the competition itself, the tournament will feature 96 male and female teams from around the world in a total of 216 matches. Of the respective 48 male and female teams, only the top two and the four best third ranked from the group stages will advance to the knockout rounds, while the eight remaining third ranked teams will battle it out for the last four brackets. Nations can enter more than one team, though they all still have to qualify – the U.S. for instance has six women’s and five men’s teams.

Beach volleyball
With teams of two competing on sand outdoors, beach volleyball differs significantly from its indoor cousin. // Photo: DUSTIN SNIPES/RED BULL CONTENT POOL

Step into the arena

So who are the big players in the game? American Philip Dalhausser might literally be the biggest at 206 cm, but Brazil and the U.S. have dominated both volleyball disciplines over the last 20 years, accumulating 43 medals between them. Austria still has none to its name, though the Malaysian stop of the World Tour this year saw the female duo of Lena Plesiutschnig and Cornelia Rimser walk away from their first tournament with bronze. Now on their home turf, they know there’s no better opportunity than here for them to step up. Clemens Doppler and Alexander Horst will also enter the fray, hungry to improve on last year’s Olympic performance.

The 85,000 square meter, purpose-built arena is clearly a statement of intent for both the sport and its future here, as are the affordable ticket prices, which begin at €4 with family packages for €10 that permit entry for two parents and two children; you can also enter the “beach village” to experience a costa del sol on the Danube, including a public viewing space for those unable to get into sold-out matches. The arena will house a restaurant, bar and club, all overlooking the Danube, as after the games are finished the summer parties and live music will begin. Ipanema? Miami Beach? If Vienna and Red Bull have their way, the Copa Cagrana might soon be uttered in the same breath. Spike!

July 18- August 6. Donauinsel.