The Rise of Women’s Volleyball

2021 NCAA DI women's volleyball championship selections announced | NCAA.com

The 2021 NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament gets underway this week, and the quality of the teams this year is pretty staggering. I’ve become a super fan of women’s volleyball, and (you know me) I’m seeing some things that need discussion, because this sport is outgrowing its parochial infrastructure. If the powers that be play their cards correctly, this could become the new rage in televised sports.

The bottom line is this: Volleyball is not only the top participatory sport for girls in the United States, but it’s also the fastest growing participatory sport for girls. Girls don’t just play volleyball in school; there exists a rapidly-growing club level volleyball that is expanding to handle the demand. This is producing REALLY talented players who then go on to scholarships from NCAA teams each trying to build the best volleyball programs possible. It’s impossible to overstate the upward pressure that all of this is putting on the sport.

Upward pressure is also coming from social media and the tools available for preparing and presenting promotional videos of their daughters and sisters for recruiting. YouTube is a goldmine of such videos and provides a service previous generations didn’t have. This is only going to get better.

Florida State is in the tournament with a remarkable team of almost entirely freshmen. They’re about to get even better next year with the addition of Audrey Rothman from Spring Park here in Alabama. I’ve seen this girl play, and she’s the top volleyball player from the state. She’s 6′4″ and a 6‑rotation player that will fit in beautifully with Florida State’s system. But, for every Audrey Rothman, there are hundreds of others talented enough to play in Division I, and that is raising the level of the game throughout every conference in the NCAA.

I love the game and the talent it takes to play at the highest levels. Every aspect of the game is getting better and better, because coaching and preparation have also evolved to accommodate the interest from young girls. NCAA Volleyball women are terrific role models for girls, because there’s a certain elegance, fun, and glamour that accompanies the sport. Volleyball players are by nature VERY smart and capable leaders, and who would argue that our world needs such people?

With all of this, you’d think that the sport would be considered among the other potential moneymakers of college sports, but that’s not the case. On some campuses — especially in the Big Ten — a women’s volleyball ticket is the hardest to get. These schools have given resources to the sport and have been repaid with creative fans who turn each match into a loud and fun campus event. From bench dance contests to playing The Beatles “Let It Be” complete with phone lights waving whenever their opponent challenges a call that went in their favor.

With all of this going for it, women’s volleyball is suffering badly from growing pains, especially with television. ESPN gives cursory scattered matches on its channels, but there is no overview media assigned to the sport. Conferences operate with autonomy, each advertising that only volleyball from THEIR conference is worth watching. These conferences have their own cable or streaming channels, and the result is a high degree of parochiality in the sport. Certain conferences are stronger than others, but all are judged by their records and statistics, which are skewed by the level of competition in each. For example, there are eight teams in the tournament from the Big Ten, and it’s more than likely that all will make it to the second round. That means that of 32 teams, 8 would be from one conference.

But that, too, is facing the upward pressure from the younger girls. Conferences other than The Big Ten (who’s the genius who came up with B1G?) are rising to the very top, and the Louisville Cardinals are this year’s example. The competition will only get tougher throughout all conferences.

As an old television guy, much of my focus has been on how the sport could become more television-friendly. There are plenty of good announcers to handle the sport, but they aren’t helped much by production. Graphics, statistics, and personal accomplishments could be presented so much better. Key to games are the challenges to referee calls, which require replay. However, the sport moves so fast that the points of contention aren’t easy to “see” absent very high speed cameras at the net and the court’s out-of-bounds line. Storytelling is also weak, because there aren’t the resources dedicated to making it better.

There is no news report that covers volleyball thoroughly, and this is important to establish and maintain the growth and evolution of the sport. No reports on upcoming high schoolers. No reports about club tournaments or human interest stories of young girls playing volleyball. A weekly, one hour program with Paul Sunderland and commentators that covered everything in the sport would be very useful for the growing competition level. Somebody needs to track all of this.

There needs to be television coverage of the sport from outside the bubbles of the conference networks. This coverage would include news and updates from around the NCAA.

There is no America pro volleyball league, and it’s inevitable there will be one. The sport is simply growing too fast to not give these women a chance to pursue careers in volleyball. I’d run a slate of games on Sunday afternoon to compete with NFL football. Perhaps an Alumni League would serve the same purpose.

At some schools, the sport isn’t promoted on campus, which results in light crowds on hand to set the excitement level during matches. Obviously, there needs to be drives on campus to recruit students for the gallery, but teams could also reach out to the local club and high school scenes to fill those stands, even if it means comping the tickets. A televised match with little audience is bad TV.

Volleyball is filling a need by providing a sport that is actually more fun to watch when women play the game, not men. That makes it unique in the sporting world and another powerful reason for college athletics to take notice. Remember, it’s the fastest-growing participatory sport for young girls in the U.S.

ESPN, are you hearing this?

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