Last week, the state of Nebraska played host to a record-setting women’s sports event.
At the CHI Health Center in Omaha, 15,797 fans filled in to watch No. 2 Nebraska beat in-state rival No. 17 Creighton. That attendance figure broke the NCAA record for a regular season volleyball match.
The Huskers, a consistent top volleyball program, don’t have much trouble bringing high attendance numbers. Athletic director Trev Alberts brought up the idea of the team playing a game at Pinnacle Bank Arena, with the goal of bringing in higher attendance numbers than what the Devaney Center allows. Volleyball head coach John Cook shot it down for this season, but is somewhat open to the idea.
That being said, the women’s basketball team — which calls PBA its primary home arena — has sights set on its own sellout.
“Our goal is, we want to sell out Pinnacle Bank Arena for a women’s basketball game,” head coach Amy Williams said back in June. “We feel like that is very realistic with the product we can put on the floor but also with the fanbase that we are blessed with here in the state of Nebraska.”
With the start of the season less than two months out, that desire hasn’t changed. It’s a taller task for this program than it may be for volleyball. Even with a 2021 NCAA Tournament appearance, the basketball team hasn’t proven itself to be championship caliber, and the best basketball attendance of last year was routine for volleyball.
Of course, it’s not a competition between basketball and volleyball. Williams was happy to see the large turnout for the five-set thriller in Omaha.
“It shows how passionate the state of Nebraska is about supporting all sports, but in particular female sports,” Williams said.
The numbers do reflect that. Nebraska volleyball has led the country in attendance every year since 2013, except 2020, when no attendance was permitted. Women’s basketball regularly ranks in the top 20 nationally, landing at No. 17 this past season.
Williams said that the investment from the state comes from an alignment of values.
“This is just a state that really values hard work and values great talent and young people that are out there putting it on the line for themselves and their team and each other,” she said. “And it’s just an incredibly passionate and highly intelligent fanbase across the state.”
The attention paid to women’s sports, and women’s basketball in particular, is growing nationally too. The Big Ten Network shattered its viewership records for the sport last season. The viewership for the NCAA Tournament went up as well.
Williams said seeing the growth gives her “chills” especially as it’s the 50th anniversary of Title IX. She’s happy to see the opportunities available now for student athletes and her own daughters.
“People are really embracing and celebrating what the young people in our sport are doing and how fun it is to be entertained by that,” Williams said. “It’s pretty special and it’s been fun to watch the growth and I think we’re going to see more and more of it.”
She specifically mentioned the NCAA Tournament, and how its gender inequities have been recognized and improved upon. Last year was the first year the women’s side could use the March Madness and Final Four branding. Nebraska was part of the bracket, seeing it firsthand.
“The way that was just handled made our kids feel really special, being a part of that in the NCAA Tournament a year ago,” Williams said. “Being able to watch that grow is all part of it.”
Williams and her team want to return to the NCAA Tournament and continue to “raise the bar” for the program. That also may be necessary for the team to have a sellout. The first sellout crowd for women’s basketball came when the team played at the Devaney Center and brought in 13,595 fans for a win against Missouri near the end of the 2009-10 season. There were four more crowds of over 10,00 that year too, a mark the Huskers haven’t hit again since. The difference? Nebraska had an undefeated regular season that year.
The largest women’s basketball crowd at PBA was the first one, as 9,750 fans attended Nebraska’s game against UCLA.
With the team finding tournament-level success once again, there are flashes showing that the team is capable of pulling in high numbers. The Huskers’ game against Iowa at home brought in 8,415 fans. The last two home games of the season pulled in over 6,000. The average attendance — 4,489 in 2021-22 — was the highest its been for the team since 2016-17
With Iowa being a top Big Ten program and a rival, that home game, landing on Feb. 18 this upcoming season, could reasonably be one that helps the team accomplish its sellout goal. There’s things that need to be done before that, though, Williams said. Her team isn’t looking that far down the road, just at the next game. That’s how the Huskers plan on replicating and building on what they did a season ago.
“We’re wanting to play at a high level,” Williams said. “We have a group of young women that are excited to go out there and play hard for Nebraska across the front of their chest and play hard for this fanbase.”