What does conference realignment mean for NCAA beach volleyball?

The landscape of college sports was rocked to the core recently when one of its longtime flagship conferences, the Pac-12, appeared on the verge of disintegration.

We knew that UCLA and USC were leaving for the Big Ten, but then Oregon and Washington hopped on the bandwagon. Colorado announced it would depart the Pac-12 for the Big 12, and when Oregon and Washington bolted, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah joined the Big 12, too.

All that is left of the staggering Pac-12 are Stanford, California, Oregon State and Washington State. The storied “Conference of Champions” doesn’t have a media-rights deal for the 2024-25 sports year and beyond, and the recent defections make landing a lucrative one amid transitional times in TV more problematic.

For football, basketball and even women’s indoor volleyball, conference realignment will evoke profound ramifications to schedules and travel.

But will NCAA beach volleyball be similarly affected?

Probably not.

Beach volleyball remains in the formative stages, with roughly 20% of the more than 300 schools that have Division I women’s indoor teams sanctioning the sand sport. The vast majority of the beach programs are located in coastal states and most are in warm-weather climates, pretty much a necessity since it’s a spring sport that runs from late February through the NCAA Championships in early May.

The top teams all pretty much play each other in multi-squad weekend competitions, so realignment likely will have little effect on scheduling. Programs are limited to 16 competitive events during the regular season, which many collegiate coaches contend is not enough, and teams typically will play around 30-32 duals.

In the short term, the 2024 beach season should be business as usual, since the Pac-12 exodus won’t hit until the 2024-25 sports year that begins in the fall. The biggest immediate question is the status of the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association, which is down to four teams after TCU and Missouri State joined Conference USA.

The CCSA’s four remaining programs are LSU, Florida State, Grand Canyon and South Carolina, all of which were ranked among the top 17 in the final 2023 AVCA beach poll, so the league has strong underpinnings. However, the CCSA needs to add at least two teams to keep its automatic bid to the NCAA Championship. One possible addition might be Texas, which in its second season on the sand intends to ratchet up its recruiting of beach-only athletes after snaring Stein Metzger as its coach. Metzger enjoyed tremendous success at UCLA, including two NCAA championships and two national runners-up finishes.

USC in the Gulf of Mexico after winning last May/Michael Gomez photo

Looking ahead to 2025 provides a wider variety of possibilities. The breakup of the Pac-12 looms large because the conference is loaded with powerhouse programs. The only teams to win NCAA titles since the sport played its first NCAA national championships in 2016 have been USC (2016, ‘17, ‘21, ‘22 and ‘23) and UCLA (2018 and ‘19). Of the Pac-12’s nine beach programs, six were ranked among the top 20 in the final 2023 AVCA poll and four played in the 17-team NCAA Championships.

The Big Ten (Nebraska has a team that plays a limited schedule), Big 12, SEC and ACC do not sanction beach volleyball. One option for the nine present Pac-12 members in 2025 simply would be to play as independents. Under that scenario, the NCAAs would have one fewer automatic bid and the indies would not have the benefit of playing in a conference tournament.

An alternative might be for the Pac-12 teams to fold into existing all-sports conferences that sponsor beach volleyball as affiliate members. USC and UCLA might join Southern California rivals Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine in the West Coast Conference. Washington and Oregon could hop into the Big West. Stanford and Cal might go into either.

A possibility for Arizona, Arizona State and Utah could be the CCSA, which sponsors competition in beach volleyball and men’s and women’s swimming and diving. Or could the MPSF (Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, in which Pac-12 schools compete in water polo and men’s volleyball) add beach?

But now let’s consider what might happen if the Big Ten were to get on board with beach volleyball. USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington and Nebraska would have teams, although the Huskers squad at present serves more as a training alternative for its powerhouse indoor program.

One more school from the 18-member Big Ten would be all that is needed to be a recognized conference with presumably an automatic NCAA bid. The Big Ten has a number of indoor programs with rabid fan bases that might make beach a viable option. One coach told us privately if that school adds beach it will have to have a completely separate staff and program or it’s a no-go.

What about the Big 12?

TCU could return home from C-USA and would be joined to Arizona State, Arizona, Utah, and perhaps displaced Stanford and Cal as affiliates. Right there is a strong six-team league that could argue for an automatic bid.

But even with these possibilities, the fundamental nature of college beach volleyball doesn’t figure to radically change. The “haves” — USC, UCLA, TCU, Florida State, LSU, Loyola Marymount, Hawaii — are highly likely to continue to populate the top half of the weekly top 20, the next level will be the scrappy underdogs and the bottom third will have fun playing against each other.

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