Volleyball Is Great, Not That Anybody Cares

Few people realize this, but there might not be a more exciting spectator sport than volleyball, which combines the strategy of baseball with the action and athleticism of basketball. There's almost never a dull moment.

I live within twenty minutes of two NCAA Division I schools, one of whose women's volleyball team ranks among the best in the country. And with the most expensive individual game tickets costing less than a watery macrobrew at a game played by the local NFL team, the economic advantage for a sports fan is obvious.

I'm still trying to figure out exactly how volleyball works. The basic gist is simple: hit the ball over the net in such a way that the other team can’t return it. But the subtleties are more elusive. How do players rotate positions on the court from point to point? What types of serve might someone hit? Which attacker will the setter feed? What's the difference between a 6-2 and a 5-1 formation, and why does it matter?

There's plenty to ponder but precious little time to ponder it, thanks to the constant on-court action. Given its pace and flow, the sport should appeal to a wide audience. Yet aside from a few pockets of the United States[1], volleyball is largely ignored.

Consider the home attendance of the top 10 NCAA Division I women's teams[2] as of this writing (through week 8 of the regular season):

Rank

Team

Attendance per game

Percent capacity

1

Nebraska

8,167

103.3

2

Texas

2,112

52.8

3

Minnesota

4,175

71.5

4

Wisconsin

5,942

98.8

5

San Diego

572

11.2

6

Kansas

1,270

97.7

7

Washington

1,886

18.9

8

North Carolina

2,220

32.5

9

Penn State

3,631

62.5

10

Florida

638

6.3

In the interest of full disclosure, I'm a University of San Diego graduate and a women's volleyball season ticket holder, so maybe I have an ax to grind. Still, it's odd that Arkansas (3-16) draws more fans per game than a team riding a 16-match winning streak, longest in Division I volleyball this year.

Things could be worse. The Alcorn State Braves are 2-15 and average eighty-eight fans per game in a facility that seats 10,000. They won their first match of the year September 6. The victory came at home, with seventy-five people watching a total of twenty-two players. The Braves waited a whole month for their second win, also at home, in front of fifty-four people.

Folks don't know what they're missing. As with many things, the more you watch, the more you learn. And even if you don't understand everything you see, you can appreciate it on some level. Watching a well-executed jump serve that plunges sharply into the back row is a pleasure, as is watching a libero dive for a ball that seems impossible to hit, until she somehow does it.

It's subtler than watching the attackers, who are impressive in their own right. Spiking a ball into the other team's territory is an act of naked aggression, like basketball's slam dunk. Those of us less gifted can vicariously experience that power.

And yet such spikes are impossible without the setter, the team's point guard (or quarterback, if you prefer football). She must quickly and accurately read the opponent's defense, decide which attacker should get the ball, and deliver it with precision.

There is artistry and strategy as crisp passes are executed, rapid decisions made on the fly within the context of a larger plan that must constantly be reevaluated under ever-shifting circumstances. The key to success in any sport is the ability to make adjustments, and volleyball is no exception. Watching teams adapt within a match, or within a season, to solidify strengths and address weaknesses is satisfying on an intellectual level.

At the same time, the sport's fast pace satisfies a more visceral need. Assuming the two teams are good, and preferably well matched, there is action and tension on every point, followed by the release of shouts and raised fists.

But none of that matters if people aren't in the stands. Here in San Diego, the Toreros' September 30 match against then-eleventh-ranked BYU was well played by both sides. All three sets were close, and the match could have gone either way.

Those of us in the stands witnessed an adrenaline-filled athletic competition. And as you might expect from two top-ranked teams from the same conference, there was a decent crowd: 1,752, including a sizeable contingent supporting the visitors. (The Cougars rank twenty-second in the nation in home attendance). It remains by far USD's largest home crowd of the season to date.

So what happened at San Diego's next home match? Did everyone come out to watch a ranked team that had won twelve straight matches? Nope, it was back to the usual meager crowd: 378.

What's the problem? Is it location? No, the university is centrally located and easy to find. Parking is plentiful, although the school started charging (a little) this year. Is it price? Again, no. My season tickets, which are general admission, cost $50 plus small service charge. That's for fifteen home matches as well as five more featuring neutral teams participating in preseason tournaments the university hosts.

Even if I bought individual game tickets, the most I would pay is $5. For that low price, I can sit wherever I want at every match to watch one of the best teams in the nation. And when the Toreros are on the road, I can watch them live online for the even lower price of free.

In some parts of the country, small crowds aren't a problem. Those top four teams have rabid fan bases, which is evident not only from their attendance figures but also from message boards. People engage in lively debate about their favorite team and players, the way people do in more popular sports.[3]

In Hawaii, women's volleyball borders on religion. That's where I first started following the sport casually back in the early '90s. Their matches are always packed, and the crowd gets loud.

Maybe 15 years ago, Hawaii came to the mainland to play San Diego State (the other Division I school in town), and my wife and I wanted to go see them. Tickets to Hawaii's home matches were hard to come by at the time, so we figured this might be our best chance.

I called the San Diego State box office that morning to ask whether any tickets were left, and the guy on the other end started laughing. When we arrived, we saw why. There were about 200 people in the stands, at least 80 percent of whom (including us) were rooting for the visitors.

While we all watched an exciting athletic competition for minimal cash outlay, thousands more who could have didn't. Too bad for them. And too bad for the players, who deserved better.

Although volleyball's blend of strategy and action allows for brief periods of reflection, it mostly demands attention, rewarding those who watch with a careful eye. What would make it even more rewarding is if more eyes were watching at all.

The sad reality is that volleyball will probably never enjoy the mass appeal that the big four sports in this country do. While baseball, basketball, football, and hockey are firmly entrenched in our culture and have the funding (advertisers, taxpayers, etc.) to keep it that way, volleyball faces the same uphill climb soccer has endured for decades.

Part of the problem, as Volleyball Handbook author Bob Miller notes, is that it's hard to get kids involved in the sport at an early age because the requisite skills are relatively advanced compared with those needed for other sports. Throwing, catching, and kicking a ball are easier than deflecting it in a controlled manner. Miller says, “By about 12 years of age, most kids are mature enough in motor development and body strength to handle the basic volleyball skills.” Problem is, by about 12 years of age, many of those kids have been playing other sports for a long time.

Growing the sport presents challenges on many levels. Player development starts relatively late, and it isn’t easy to make inroads on a sporting landscape that is well entrenched and well-funded. This is bad news for volleyball. On the bright side, as long as there are people willing to play and coach the sport, it will remain a cheaper and in many respects superior alternative to what is most popular in mainstream American sports.

[1]    Women's volleyball is huge in the Midwest (eight of the top ten teams in attendance are from the Big Ten or the Big Twelve) and Hawaii, while the men's game thrives on the West Coast and at BYU. Also popular on the West Coast is beach volleyball, a different game played by two people per side (no substitutions) on sand instead of six people per side (with bench players) on a hard court indoors.

[2]    Women's volleyball is much more popular than the men's version in the United States: forty-nine Division I schools currently draw more than a thousand fans per game on the women's side, while only five schools did so last season on the men's side. (Men play in the spring, so their season ended in May). Put another way, the UCLA men's team had an average attendance of 1,026 last season, which would rank them 48th on the women's side. Bob Miller, longtime coach and author of The Volleyball Handbook, suggests one possible reason for the popularity of the women's game: “Title IX, the federal education amendment approved in 1972, provided the impetus to develop female athletics in the United States. This gave volleyball a huge boost.” According to Miller, the men's game didn't start to gain traction until the 1980s. The gender disparity was still evident in a 2003 survey, which reported that nearly 400,000 high school girls were playing volleyball, compared with fewer than 95,000 boys. A similar survey in 2010 cited volleyball as the third most popular sport among high school girls, while it failed to crack the top ten for boys. (According to the latter survey, eight times as many girls as boys play volleyball).

[3]    Volleyball has long struggled, at every level, to find its place within the larger scheme of American sports culture. There have been attempts at professional leagues, but none has endured. The International Volleyball Association, which ran in the late '70s, even featured former NBA great Wilt Chamberlain for one game. Unfortunately, the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which likely would have given the sport the widespread exposure it needed, effectively ended that venture. The Premier Volleyball League, the latest entrant, has been in existence since 2012.

***

Geoff Young writes about all manner of sports, from major to criminally underappreciated. You should follow him on Twitter.

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