Leon Dubov is watering his 692 tons of sand. It’s a Wednesday night at 6:40 p.m, and the bar he owns in Sunnyside, Queens, is completely dead. A curious patron of the brewery across the street sticks her head inside the facility, but quickly disappears. “Imported from New Jersey,” Dubov explains while spraying the hose right where the players will stand. “I have to do this once a day.” He predicts that his volleyball courts will soon be full of league participants, co-workers, stragglers looking for a pickup game. And he’s right: By 7 the place is hopping. But even though there’s a fully stocked bar mere feet away, no one orders a drink.
New York City already has bars where people can play bocce, shuffleboard and tabletop games—what The New York Times recently called “activity-driven” spaces. They’re effectively bars where the main draw isn’t drinking, and they make sense at a time when many so-called “sober-curious” people are experimenting with drinking less, or not at all. But even within this new paradigm, volleyball is a surprising choice for a bar’s theme. Startup costs are in the tens of thousands of dollars, finding a giant warehouse with huge ceilings and the appropriate column spacing is near-impossible in a place like New York, and there’s the fact that it’s fundamentally difficult to play a two-handed game while gripping and sipping a beer. Perhaps that’s why—despite the fact that a Top Gun sequel just raked in a billion dollars at the box office, and nostalgia for the 1980s and ’90s is high across all aspects of our culture—this idiosyncratic corner of not-quite-nightlife seems destined to disappear before most people even become aware of its existence.
Someone might easily mistake the outside of Dubov’s QBK Sports for an apartment duplex if not for a plastic banner that reads “VOLLEYBALL BAR AND LOUNGE” out near the sidewalk. The fluorescent lighting inside doesn’t exactly scream “bar,” either. There’s a granite countertop that looks like it belongs in a suburban New Jersey kitchen. The closest thing the business has to a beach theme is the fact that the bathroom tile is black, and shows sand. Drinking at QBK Sports is like having a pop at a Planet Fitness. The beverage program itself is straightforward—Modelo on tap, hard seltzer in cans, a few bottles of booze on a stainless steel bar cart.
Allie Wise is a typical QBK customer. She’s a marketer in Manhattan, and her co-workers commute from all over the city—or New Jersey—meaning it’s tough for everyone to get together for a happy hour. So the 23-year-old, who grew up playing competitive volleyball on Long Island, emailed Dubov to see if he could help. Showing up to a park as a lone person could be awkward, she said, but it was easy to form a five-person team after popping into QBK. Although she concedes that the appeal of the place is more about the sporting facility than the bar itself, she gets a sense of camaraderie from sharing a post-game beer and a basket of fries with her new buddies. “It’s really hard to make friends as an adult,” Wise told me over the phone. “It’s nice to meet a new realm of people where we have something in common that isn’t just work.”
While QBK is the first volleyball bar in New York City, the concept has been around since at least the ’90s. Houston, in particular, seems to be a hotbed. There are at least eight in that city, according to Matthew Richard, general manager of Sideout VolleyBar; the bar and grill, which opened in 2017, was the most recent addition. Despite the competition, Richard said that business is good, and that Sideout is in the process of moving to an even bigger location for the fall. But he readily admits that drinking is not the main attraction at his establishment. “When you throw out terms like ‘volleybar,’ you start attracting only that select group,” he says, meaning serious athletes. “I wanted to start a bar that happened to have volleyball courts, but it ended up being the other way around.”
It’s not just QBK that’s having a hard time. Consider Downers Sand Club, which is in an office park–filled exurb about 45 minutes due west of Chicago. Prior to the pandemic, 80 teams played at DSC, many of them made up of co-workers who played as a team-building exercise. The severe curtailing of in-person office culture means that now, there are almost no teams. “This atmosphere was a great place to meet people,” DSC owner Jim Weyrick told me. “Every year there would be people on my summer teams who became friends and went to the outdoor volleyball world, and then I lost them. Then COVID hit and I lost everyone.”
Downers was actually once part of a local chain. Weyrick, who grew up playing volleyball in Illinois, took over from the previous owner in 2014 to prevent this final location from closing. Business was good and DSC resembled a third place full of regulars who genuinely cared for one another—a man even proposed to his girlfriend on the sand. But now Weyrick can barely keep the lights on, which is in part due to staffing issues, and in part due to the pandemic. There’s also the fact that it’s the middle of summer, and patrons might not be as eager to spend their precious leisure time inside a room painted with palm trees and blue skies when they could be outside, surrounded by the real thing. In New York, for instance, there are plenty of places to play the sport—Prospect Park, Central Park’s Great Lawn, Pier 6 of Brooklyn Bridge Park. These places are obviously BYOB, whereas Dubov, of QBK, doesn’t allow drinks on his $50,000 pile of sand.
Back at QBK I meet up with Dubov. He doesn’t drink or play the game himself, but still knows enough to give a basic lesson. (“At the end of the day, I’m running a sports facility,” he says.) He instructs me to hold my arms above my head and make a prism with my hands to set the ball, and demonstrates how to make a flat surface with my forearms to return the ball to him.
We hit until about 7 p.m., when paying customers begin to trickle in. I order an IPA and ask, “How does a guy who doesn’t drink or play volleyball end up owning a volleyball bar?” Dubov was inspired by an uncle who owned a bar in Coney Island. He enlisted that uncle’s help after learning about two volleybars in the tri-state area: Endless Summer on Long Island, and the Highline Arena in New Jersey. It seemed obvious to him that New Yorkers would be eager to patronize such an establishment. There was, in his estimation, a huge hole in the market for people who want to go out in the middle of the week and try something new.
“Friday is date night,” he explained. “But Monday and Tuesday, people are looking for something to do after work. And that’s my sweet spot. I want to be their something.”