North Salt Lake • Outside the SandBar, it’s winter — snow on the mountains, ice chunks in the parking lot, temperatures below freezing.
But inside this new beach volleyball venue, it’s summertime. The atmosphere is lively; shorts and tank tops are the official uniform; and players find something addicting about sinking their bare feet into 18 inches of clean, soft sand.
“I love it,” said Laena Drake. “I’m here three or four nights a week.”
She is one of several hundred Wasatch Front enthusiasts who have been lured to the SandBar to play a sport typically relegated to summer.
“It has opened the door to year-round play,” said Duncan Budinger, who played traditional indoor volleyball at California State University, Long Beach, and overseas before switching to sand and the AVP — the premier beach volleyball tour in the U.S.
He moved to Utah to get his master’s degree at the University of Utah and is thrilled to be able to play his favorite sport without having to make a trip home to California.
“It’s really helped with the beach itch,” joked the 6-foot-8 Budinger. “Usually I have to play rec basketball in the winter.”
You don’t have to be an expert to have fun, said owner Cory Merrell.
”We attract people who want to stay in shape and hate cold weather,” he said. “Maybe they don’t ski or snowboard, but they are looking for things to do in the winter.”
SandBar has open court times for those interested in relaxed play. There are weekday leagues for two-person men and women teams and coed teams, and tournaments on the weekends. Novice, intermediate and advanced divisions make sure everyone has a level playing field. There also are Spikeball and corn hole.
Merrell said he is trying to create a triple combination of sports, socializing and food and drinks. SandBar serves beer, and a restaurant is expected to open within the next week.
“We’re like Topgolf for volleyball,” he said. “People can come in and not necessarily be volleyball players and have a good time.”
The SandBar, which opened in January at 680 S. Redwood Road in North Salt Lake, is one of more than a dozen indoor beach volleyball venues around the country, including several in land-locked cities like Denver, Dallas and Toledo, Ohio, said Merrell.
There likely will be more, as beach volleyball continues to grow in popularity across the country and in Utah.
Colleges, which are adding women’s programs to meet Title IX requirements, are the ones driving the numbers, Merrell said. At least 60 colleges field programs, including the University of Utah, which added women’s beach volleyball to its sports lineup in 2017.
Beach volleyball has been on the Utah sports map for more than a decade, thanks to Bountiful’s Jake Gibb, a three-time Olympian. Gibb and partner Sean Rosenthal represented the U.S. in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games. For the 2016 Olympics, Gibb teamed with Casey Patterson, a former BYU indoor volleyball player.
In just two months, Merrell has seen a lot of interest among youths 18 and under and believes the year-round facility has the potential to “completely raise the competition” in Utah over the next three to four years.
A Salt Lake City native, Merrell visited several out-of-state venues before deciding to build the 21,000-square-foot facility off I-215 at Redwood Road.
“I felt like it could be done in Utah and done well,” he said.
He considered retrofitting an existing warehouse, but most of the options had low ceilings, poor lighting and column supports that would interfere with play.
Once the new building was complete, crews dumped 36 truckloads — about 1,200 tons — of high-quality sport sand.
“It’s a good combination of jumping and diving sand,” said Bobby Boggs, who coaches the APEX junior volleyball club in Park City and brings his players to The SandBar for practice.
When the weather gets warmer, there are plans to add four outdoor sand courts.
Merrell has been planning SandBar for nearly five years, getting the idea in 2013 while working on his master’s at the U.
“I knew I wanted to start my own business,” he said. Many of his fellow students were leaning toward tech companies, but he wanted “to be around sports in some way.”
Then Merrell was introduced to beach volleyball, which he says requires more skills than its indoor cousin. “When there are only two people on the court, you have to set well, hit well and be more well-rounded in the sport,” he said.
Merrell started the business slowly, organizing beach volleyball leagues at Liberty Park. After three years, there were enough teams to fill the summer roster. That’s when he — and his father, Steve Merrell — invested in the year-round venue.