LAUSANNE, Switzerland, March 26 (Reuters) - Volleyball, which like most major sports is facing stiff competition from other recreational activities, will branch out into the winter sport arena in earnest this week when the inaugural Snow Volleyball World Tour gets underway.
Still among the most popular and widely played sports in the world, volleyball has several hundred million fans and players as well as secure berths for both the indoor team and beach versions at the Summer Olympics.
But electronic games are giving every sports club on the planet a run for their money and youth-friendly surfing, sport climbing and skateboarding are preparing for their their own place in the sun when they debut at the Tokyo Olympics.
That is why volleyball is now becoming the first major summer sports federation to attempt to carve out a niche in winter sports territory.
The Austrian ski resort of Wagrain-Kleinarl will on Thursday host the first stop of the FIVB Snow Volleyball World Tour, which also includes stops in Italy and Argentina.
Teams of three with one substitute will compete on outdoor snow-covered courts in high-altitude mountain arenas, with athletes dropping beach attire in favour of thermals, hats and football boots for better grip.
The FIVB hopes snow volleyball can follow in the successful footsteps of beach volleyball, another short-handed version of the traditional game which has firmly positioned itself in the summer sports calendar.
"Snow volleyball has grown significantly over the last ten years," international volleyball federation (FIVB) president Ary Graca told Reuters.
"It began with localised events as people demonstrated that volleyball can be played anywhere and has since developed into a professional, global sport."
While the European volleyball confederation (CEV) already has its own tour, the FIVB has now recognised snow volleyball as one of its disciplines.
After the world tour this year, the FIVB plans to add a world championship in 2021 and a demonstration event at the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne.
Olympic aspirations were initially pretty high after snow volleyball was showcased during the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea but any talk of Olympic inclusion is still premature given the sport's young evolution, the FIVB says.
"Snow Volleyball Night in PyeongChang... showcased snow volleyball to the world and now, with the launch of first edition of the FIVB Snow Volleyball World Tour, more people than ever will be able to watch and enjoy the sport," he said.
Graca hopes it can attract a new set of followers for his sport, while also giving winter sports a much-needed popularity boost in parts of the world where volleyball is popular but snow is rare.
"It is my hope that, as well as engaging athletes and fans who live in the northern hemisphere, more of the traditionally summer sport nations will discover a love for winter sport through snow volleyball," Graca said. (Reporting by Karolos Grohmann, editing by Nick Mulvenney)