Lauren Stivrins and Nicklin Hames recently attended a Nebraska basketball game. It was the Huskers’ final home game of the season at Pinnacle Bank Arena and volleyball’s dynamic duo were front and center in the student section.
It didn’t take long for fans to notice. And once they noticed, the requests started coming. Little girls and boys flocked to Stivrins and Hames, hoping to get a photo or an autograph. Both happily obliged.
“I think we’re really blessed in that we get to play volleyball at Nebraska," Stivrins told Hail Varsity. “We are very recognizable people and that’s really cool because I know a lot of my other friends that play at other schools are not as recognized. To have the whole state of Nebraska supporting us in this way has been super awesome.”
The position the Nebraska volleyball team is in is a unique one. They’re highly influential. Stivrins and Hames alone have more than 45,000 followers combined on Instagram, a number that grows by the day. It’s the kind of following that makes the initial passing of a bill in the Nebraska unicameral allowing student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness especially intriguing. A lot of time and attention has been focused on how a bill like this would impact a team like Nebraska football, but it’s the women of Nebraska volleyball who woud likely benefit more than most.
That kind of following comes with plenty of eyeballs though. There’s always someone watching.
And in many cases, those watching the closest are the little girls and boys that stop the women like Stivrins and Hames for a photo at a men’s basketball game.
Sunday, March 8, is International Women’s Day. The day is a “global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women.” International Women’s Day has been around in some capacity for more than a century, with 15,000 women marching through the streets of New York City in 1908 for better pay, shorter working hours and voting rights. In the 112 years since, the day continues to push for an equal world that “raises awareness against bias and takes action for equality.”
Sports teams and sports brands globally will celebrate the day in a variety of ways. The Washington Wizards are hosting a panel of women in sports prior to the team’s March 8 matchup with the Miami Heat, Puma partnered with ‘Women to Win', Stephen Curry and Under Armour plan to celebrate with the latest Curry 7 drop, Barbie created a doll in honor of runner Dina Asher-Smith and an all-women crew will broadcast and produce the Blackhawks-Blues NHL matchup. That’s only a short list of everything planned, but it gives a glimpse at how the sports world intends to celebrate women for the day.
But International Women’s Day is just that: one day. The work to bring equality for both women and men in sports has to extend beyond it. For example, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, men receive $179 million more per year in athletic scholarships than women. Collegiate institutions are also spending more across the board on their men’s sports. Women receive, on average, only 24% of athletic department’s operating budgets. While stark in contract, these numbers—at least at first glance—are in compliance with Title IX.
“The only provision that requires that the same dollars be spent proportional to participation is scholarships,” Title IX says in its FAQ section. “Otherwise, male and female student-athletes must receive equitable ‘treatment’ and ‘benefits.’”
The Department of Education probably explains it better, stating that while institutions are “required to provide reasonable opportunities for such awards to members of each sex in proportion to the participation rate of each sex in intercollegiate athletics,” it also “does not require the same number of scholarships for men and women or individual scholarships of equal value.” Things like out-of-state versus in-state tuition, overall enrollment of a university and, more vaguely, “by professional decisions college and university officials make about program development” can all play a role in the discrepancy between dollars spent between women’s and men’s sports.
The argument is often that men’s sports simply generate more money than women’s sports. That’s not the case across the board, though. The U.S. women’s national soccer team, for example, earns less than half of what the men’s soccer team makes per game. In a complaint filed against U.S. Soccer in March 2019, it was stated that “female WNT would earn a maximum of $99,000 or $4,950 per game, while similarly situated male MNT players would earn an average of $263,320 or $13,166 per game.” The complaint also brought light to the discrepancy the women faced in how often they played, trained and traveled, as well as the medical treatment and coaching received.
The catch is that the U.S. women’s soccer team has generated more revenue over the past three years than the U.S. men’s soccer team, according to a Wall Street Journal review. And because of the discrepancy—and inability to come to an agreement on the matter—the fight for equal pay will go to trial. It’s currently scheduled for the first week of May.
At Nebraska, three sports reported operating profits in 2018: football, men’s basketball and volleyball. Football generated $94.24 million, men’s basketball generated $19.54 million and volleyball generated $4.23 million. But before the “Aha!” moment, it’s important to remember that one football game typically exceeds 90,000 in attendance. The Bob Devaney Sports Center—where volleyball plays—holds less than 10% of that with 7,907. Capacity alone can convolute the argument, but each team’s sellout streak helps bridge the gap. Football currently sits at 375 consecutive games sold out—an NCAA record—while volleyball boasts 268 consecutive regular season sellouts, the longest in the history of NCAA women’s sports. Both show a fierce loyalty from fans.
Nebraska is in a unique position. Husker volleyball is one of a few women’s sports programs in the NCAA that makes an overall profit. That creates an opportunity for the women of Nebraska volleyball to be pioneers for women in sports. They’ve found that where coverage might lack—and it does when you consider only 2% of ESPN SportsCenter’s coverage was dedicated to women’s sports in 2015—and have utilized things like their social following to make space and create opportunities.
“Sometimes it’s still a struggle,” Hames said. “Everyone always looks at football so that’s a struggle. But I feel honored to follow all of the people before us paved this way for us and let us be on this pedestal."
Representation matters. What children consume in media shapes what seems possible for their futures. When you see someone that looks like you, lives where you live or comes from a similar situation as you doing something, you can visualize yourself doing the same.
Plus, representation isn’t just good for the sake of it. It’s also good for business. In sports, women make up a large chunk of viewership. That includes nearly half of the NFL’s audience in 2019.
In 2018, women made up 49% of the 108 million-plus people who watched the Super Bowl. It’s why companies like Microsoft launched their “Be The One” spot with Katie Sowers just in time for the big game in 2020. It’s also why more and more advertisements feature people of color and LGBTQ-friendly messaging in major sporting events.
When Hames, a native of Maryville, Tennessee, was 12, that representation came in the form of Kelsey Robinson and Mary Pollmiller at the University of Tennessee. Both Robinson and Pollmiller would later transfer to Nebraska but before they did, Hames saw the duo in action— Pollmiller was even Hames’ first setting coach—and wanted to be just like them.
“I always looked up to them,” Hames said. “I’d always run out there and I’d play with them all the time when I was younger. I just remember how awesome I thought they were. I’d always get autographs from them.”
Eight years later, Hames is now at Nebraska living the dream made possible by women like Robinson and Pollmiller. The same goes for Stivrins, who never imagined she’d be in the position she is today. It’s even strange to think about now for the senior captain.
“Never did I think I’d get to be one of these people,” Stivrins said. “When I’m around my team, I forget because we’ll be goofing off in public with no idea. People will then be like, ‘Oh my god, it’s them.’ They’ll ask for pictures. You forget sometimes but it’s so cool that people look up to us and it’s crazy to think about.
“But we’re so thankful for it and I do think we owe it to the previous Huskers that have paved this way and made this program what it is today. We’re so lucky we get to continue on with this legacy. If we can inspire younger people like we were at the time, that’s great, that’s awesome and this program will continue to flourish and women’s impact on sports will become even bigger than what it is today. That’s really cool.”
None of this probably registers in the moment for women like Hames and Stivrins when a little girl or boy asks for a photo or autograph. These kinds of requests come with the territory when you’re part of one of the best volleyball teams in the country.
But there’s something bigger at play. For every “Stivrins Slide” set perfectly by Hames, a set of eyes fixates on what’s possible.
“I think sometimes women are put down and not seen as strong as men, especially in the sports world,” Hames said. “I think it’s cool for [young girls] to see that you can do anything you want to do and you can reach this high level. You can make just as big of an impact on anyone as men can. I think that’s really cool that we get to be an example for that.”
Sure, there’s plenty of work still to be done and it’ll take more time. But on International Women’s Day, it’s a reminder of just how far women in sports have come.
Nebraska volleyball is playing a big part in that, thanks in part to dynamic duos like Stivrins and Hames.
“It’s honestly one of the best parts of being in this role,” Hames said. “Just seeing the impact and the light in the eyes of kids when they see you, or when they interact with anyone on the team. I think that’s what makes it so worth it.
“Even though we’re just playing a game, we’re impacting so many different people and I think that’s the most special thing about it.”