Early next week, 48 of the best women’s volleyball teams in the country — including Nebraska — will descend up Omaha in the lead up to the 2020-21 NCAA Tournament.
Omaha was set to host the 2020 Final Four before the pandemic changed everything, and once the NCAA came up with a plan for spring volleyball it went back to Omaha to host not only the Final Four, but the entire tournament.
“Omaha does amateur sports events better than any place in the country,” Coach John Cook said. “Columbus might argue with that; another similar type town. But Omaha does it great, so I think Omaha is the perfect choice.”
However, CHI Health Center Omaha hosting the entire 48-team tournament (the NCAA took some heat from a few of its most prominent coaches about the reduced field, but didn’t budge) has created some logistical challenges as the first three rounds of the tournament will be played in the facility’s convention center in a make-shift set-up.
“What I would have liked to have seen different is instead of setting up courts in a convention center, let’s use the great facilities in Omaha, and even in Lincoln,” Cook continued. “So we could have used the Devaney, Sokol, Baxter Arena and we could have had some really nice venues that teams could have gone and played in. You still don’t have to fill them up with fans, but I just think that is a lot nicer of an NCAA Tournament because those are three great facilities than kind of the set-up that they have now with it in a convention center, no locker rooms, no bathrooms. It’s going to be really interesting how this is all pulled off.”
The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament used a similar set-up, playing its games at a handful of different facilities around the Indianapolis metro area. However, the volleyball tournament is sticking with one facility for all 47 matches. That has led to some concerns for coaches.
“I was on a call yesterday that a lot of coaches are concerned about the set-up in Omaha, in the convention center, with some of the things I just mentioned,” Cook said. “We have a practice time that’s 7:40 in the morning, we have a practice time an hour before our match on Thursday. We don’t practice an hour before our match on a game day. There’s just a lot of stuff like that that everybody’s going to have to navigate and is concerned about, and then the logistics of actually playing a match — having a locker room, having a white board, having bathrooms, where do they change? The volleyball players warm up and then they change into their uniform. How’s that going to work in the middle of Convention Hall C?”
The NCAA has borrowed Teraflex courts from all three in-state Division I programs so the teams should have a quality playing surface, but the lack of locker room access is a significant problem. Cook and others have compared this set-up to that of a club tournament, which is a damning comparison for what is supposed to be the sport’s biggest event.
In addition to the logistical issues for the matches themselves, the NCAA has capped travel parties at 27 people. Few programs have the number of players and support staff that Nebraska does, and that limitation might not be a problem for most, but it just adds to the pile of issues mounting surrounding this year’s tournament.
“This is what the NCAA does to you,” Cook said. “Our travel party is 27. You can research and see what basketball was; I’m sure they were more than 27. We have 17 players, so that leaves us 10 people, and you have to include an administrator in there, so that leaves nine people. For us that’s our coaches, our director of ops., so we’re leaving behind social media (Nick [Burkhardt] is not in our travel group), our sports psychologist is not in our travel group. So we had to make choices and are basically taking the coaches and administrators and our team.”
For reference, the men’s basketball travel party limit was set at 34 this year.
Another bombshell dropped on Thursday afternoon after Cook spoke with the media as well as Big Ten analyst Emily Ehman relayed that the NCAA and ESPN will not provide broadcast crews for the first two rounds of the tournament.
Just got word that the first two rounds of the @NCAAVolleyball Tournament will NOT have broadcast crews/commentators.
This is absolutely unacceptable. Teams have been preparing for over a year and a half for this opportunity. We need to be better. @NCAA
— Emily Ehman (@emilyehman) April 8, 2021
All matches in the first three rounds will be streamed online on WatchESPN. Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield spoke about that during his Thursday presser as well, and Creighton coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth called the decision “not acceptable” in a tweet.
#Badgers Kelly Sheffield not afraid to speak mind. Notes early NCAA volleyball matches will be on ESPN3 (streaming) but with no announcers. Warns that could blow up like poor weight facilities at NCAA women's hoops. Calls it lazy.
— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) April 8, 2021
So soon after the controversy surrounding the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, the NCAA appears to have dropped the ball once again in terms of showing that it truly supports its women’s sports. I’m sure there are a lot of factors that go into this equation, but ultimately this is a failure by either the NCAA or its partners, and if its the latter that still falls back on the NCAA for not stepping in and finding a way to resolve some of these issues.
The circumstances certainly aren’t ideal, but the players themselves are choosing to approach the tournament with gratitude for the opportunity.
“We’re just super excited that we even get to have a tournament because I know at the beginning of this year and obviously in the fall it got canceled, so we’re just excited that we get the chance to play in the tournament,” Nicklin Hames said. “The fact that it’s in Omaha, we’re super excited.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has created many challenges for the NCAA, and that point shouldn’t be lost in this discussion. This isn’t anywhere close to a normal year. That being said, I have a hard time believing this was the only way the NCAA could have handled things, and the waves of criticism that have crashed down on those in charge are very much deserved.
The student-athletes have put in so much work and sacrificed so much to pull off a season during a pandemic. They deserve better.