CHICAGO — At the inaugural Big Ten Volleyball Media days, media members packed into a narrow conference room at Big Ten Network Studios in Chicago to hear what representatives from the 14 conference schools had to say about their summers, their upcoming season and more.
The interest was so great that the Big Ten made a venue change for year two, moving the event downstairs to a much larger room to give the players and media more room to work with, the latest example of the sport’s surging popularity.
“The Big Ten is stepping it up,” Coach John Cook said. “This is awesome to have this, it’s exciting to be here. It makes you feel special to be a volleyball coach and part of this conference. I got to meet the new commissioner. Thank you to the Big Ten for for having all this and how we’re treated here. We feel like rock stars and I think these athletes deserve it. It’s been a long time coming, but this is really, really cool.”
Junior captains Lexi Rodriguez and Merritt Beason joined Cook in Chicago to represent the Huskers and field questions from the assembled media, including an eight-person contingent from Nebraska. The most popular discussion topic was Volleyball Day in Nebraska, headlined by the outdoor match between Nebraska and Omaha at Memorial stadium with more than 90,000 tickets sold.
With less than a month until the match, reality is starting to set in for the Huskers.
“I think it’s going to be an amazing opportunity and experience and I’m so honored that I’m still in college to be a part of it because it’s going to be something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Rodriguez said. “I said it earlier, but for women’s sports, not just volleyball but just women’s sports in general, I think this is a huge monument for where we need to go in the right direction. And I’m just, again, super excited to be a part of it. It’s going to be nerve-wracking, but I think Husker nation’s amazing and they are going to give us the biggest warm welcome ever, so it’s going to be super exciting.”
Cook said he attended a packed Dead & Company concert at Folsom Field in Boulder recently to get a feel for what playing in front of a sold-out football stadium might look like, and it gave him goosebumps trying to imagine what it will be like for his own team to take the place of the band. He’s still having a hard time imagining it.
“It’s a really hard thing to grasp, that that many people are going to be there watching us, but at the end of the day, we’re very grateful that Husker nation is as strong as it is and that we even have the ability to play in the football stadium,” said Beason, a Florida transfer. “I think that’s really cool and like Lexi said, it’s huge for volleyball, but women’s sports in general. So for us to be a part of it is really special and it’ll be history in the making. And for us to be a part of it and to be able to play in it is really cool. Not many people get to say that they did so.”
Nebraska and Creighton set a new regular season attendance record early last season before Wisconsin hosted Florida at the Kohl Center to one-up the Huskers and Bluejays and set a new record. Beason played in that match with the Gators, and now she’ll get an opportunity to compete in another record-seeing match with her new team.
Cook has a unique perspective after helping to build up the Wisconsin program as its head coach then going head-t-head with the Badgers at Nebraska, and he sees the attendance rivalry between the two programs as something that has helped the sport grow even further.
“I don’t remember what year it was, maybe ’94, ’95,” Cook said. “We were playing Penn State, they were number one, undefeated at the time, and I told our administration, ‘Guys, we’re going to pack the Field House.’ They had two people taking tickets and of course, we actually beat Penn State, great match. I think there was 8,000 in there but a lot of people were disappointed because they didn’t want to wait in line that long or got turned away. So that was the first glimpse of if you create something really big and special, people will come and see it.
“And I think the competition between Nebraska and Wisconsin and whoever else wants to try to hold all these attendance records, this is great for volleyball because it’s what makes the world go round. People love that and that’s why they tune in to ESPN, Big Ten and follow sports. And we’re trying to take it so we can keep it and we don’t have to go back and forth with anybody.”
With more than 90,000 tickets sold, any other program is going to have a difficult time one-upping Nebraska.
“I don’t think Camp Randall is going to seat 90,000, so I don’t know,” Cook said. “I think were going to set a world record here. I didn’t think any of this was going to happen. I was thinking if we could get 20,000 we’d be happy. And President [Ted] Carter and our AD Trev Alberts, they believed we would sell out Memorial stadium because it’s been sold out in every event there since the ‘60s.”
Volleyball Day in Nebraska is just one example of the continued growth of women’s volleyball in the United States, and in the Big Ten specifically. Another example is the TV schedule for the 2023 season, which the Big Ten released on Tuesday morning.
In total, more than 60 matches will be televised across the Big Ten and FOX Sport networks. That includes at least 55 matches on Big Ten Network, the most ever, and for the first time, FOX will show two matches either leading into or following an NFL game on Oct. 29. Viewers will see either Ohio State at Michigan or Minnesota at Wisconsin, depending on their local market.
Cook isn’t surprised to see television networks continue to invest in volleyball, which BTN broadcaster Rick Pizzo told him is the most fun spot to watch.
“It’s happening so fast, the games go by, there’s always action,” Cook said. “You’ve got these great athletes playing a very highly skilled game. I think he’s right and I just see the ratings keep going and the talent level gets better and better. There are so many great teams all across the country now and people are into it.
“I see it at the younger ages at the club tournaments. I was just in Chicago last month and there are 104 courts going on in the convention center, 104 courts going an 8 to 2 wave and a 2 to 9 o’clock at night wave. Just think how many kids are playing. Volleyball is booming now now and it’s going to be interesting because I know we’re going to play Sunday night at 6:30 a couple of Sundays; that’s going to be interesting but could be a really cool TV time.”
In total, Nebraska will have at least 20 of its 29 matches this season televised including 14 on Big Ten Network, five on Nebraska Public Media and one on ESPNU.
Volleyball’s growth has been rapid in recent years, and as Purdue coach Dave Shondell said on Tuesday, Nebraska has helped lead the way. The buzz surrounding Volleyball Day in Nebraska suggests he’s right.