Commentary

State of the volleyball union

Originally Published: December 23, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

Spend time talking with the top coaches, players and officials in women's college volleyball and you realize they all wonder about the same things.

What would it take for volleyball to make a bigger leap into sports spectators' consciousness? What steps must be taken to help in that growth?

The overwhelming consensus is that the women's college game should be more popular, in general terms. But that belief alone doesn't make it so.

Women's college volleyball appears to be a great product without an equally great sales pitch or vibrant marketing force. Can it change? Can selling volleyball more vigorously really upgrade its place in the overall sports landscape? Is it a matter of getting the right people to really buy in?

[+] EnlargePSU volleyball
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelPenn State's dominance in women's college volleyball is on-going, but doesn't garner the same attention of other dominant women's programs.

With the Final Four in Kansas City just completed last weekend -- Penn State won its fourth consecutive NCAA championship -- it's a good time to look at the state of women's college volleyball now. And where it might be headed.

"Our sport isn't growing as fast as we want, because we know it's a wonderful sport," Stanford coach John Dunning said. "But when you think of all that's happened in the last 38 years since Title IX passed, this is an explosion. It's not an atomic explosion, but it's continued-growth explosion."

Iowa State coach Christy Johnson-Lynch, who won the 1995 national championship as a player with Nebraska, knows how popular volleyball can be, having experienced it in Lincoln, Neb. She's trying to replicate something like that in Ames, Iowa.

"It starts in your city, your area -- you have to be successful and put a good product out there," Johnson-Lynch said. "We have the challenge of playing in a huge arena, but we've found ways to make it smaller and a better environment for volleyball.

"The next step for us is getting on TV more; when that's happened, it's been awesome for recruiting and visibility."

Ah, yes, television. The change to rally scoring in 2000 made volleyball matches more television-friendly, because it's regulated their length better. Still, football so dominates televised sports in the fall, it's hard for anything else to gain much traction. Then when college basketball tips off in November, the window for volleyball's media exposure gets even smaller.

But couldn't Wednesday -- generally now one of the few nights that live football games aren't televised -- become a volleyball night on outlets such as ESPNU and the Big Ten Network?

The key would be to maximize the best possible matchups on that night, and that should include something volleyball rarely does now: have some marquee non-conference meetings later in the season. A lot of the best teams from the power conferences do play each other, but in August and early September before league competition starts.

Non-conference meetings between strong programs later in the year, when the season has been rolling along for a while, should be attractive to television.

"I think it's a possibility, and I'd be in favor of it," Penn State coach Russ Rose said. "But it would have to be a conference decision to do that. You see those conference 'challenges' in men's and women's basketball. It has to come from the commissioners getting together and saying, 'We have the money to make it happen and the television availability.' "

The Big Ten, which will add volleyball power Nebraska next year, and the Pac-10 are two of the obvious candidates to have teams in showcase non-league matchups later in the season.

"It's wise to pursue that," Dunning said. "Because both conferences have been so good for so long, people want to see them match up.

"And no matter how you look at it, it never hurts you to play teams that are really good. That's what athletes want. Timing is an issue year to year; we know that. But those are things we have to get over."

Reaching out?

Getting the best matches televised nationwide is one thing. It's another to actually expand your viewership.

One of volleyball's paradoxical realities is that it's aided in some ways but hurt in others by the disparity between female and male participation at both the college and high school levels.

There are 328 schools currently competing in Division I women's college volleyball, but only 23 for men. The National Federation of State High School Associations' report for 2009-10 listed 403,985 girls participating in volleyball at 15,382 schools, compared to 50,467 boys at 2,089 schools.

Thus, there are not nearly as many males who have played organized, competitive volleyball at any scholastic level as there are those who've played sports such as football, basketball or baseball. So they have less familiarity with volleyball, especially in terms of understanding it strategically or developing a spectator interest that comes from past or current participation.

The way this can be viewed as a positive, though, in that volleyball -- at least in the United States -- seems to "belong" more to women. So the women's game is rarely compared in an unfavorable light to the men's game, which does happen with women's basketball.

Speaking of which, there is some friction between that sport and volleyball for a few reasons, including a degree of frustration by those in volleyball that women's basketball gets more media attention -- look at Penn State's winning streak of 109 matches in a row vs. UConn's 89 straight games -- and is perceived to have always been a greater promotional priority to the NCAA.

The two sports' respective NCAA tournaments don't conflict (December vs. March/April), and while programs compete for prospective players, those athletes that played both sports in high school tend to weigh their options and choose the sport that fits them best.

So, ideally, more programs should subscribe to the theory of a rising tide lifting all boats: Attention and affirmation given to any women's sport is good for them all.

Johnson-Lynch said that she has a very positive relationship at Iowa State with the women's basketball program and coach Bill Fennelly.

"One of the reasons I came to Iowa State was because they had drawn so well for women's basketball," Johnson-Lynch said. "I thought, 'There's a fan base there that loves women's sports, and there's a chance we could be in on that, too.' "

However, an overall lack of coaching friendships between the two sports could be another reason they don't necessarily often work together as well as they could to their mutual benefit, since both face similar obstacles.

[+] EnlargeJulianne Faucette
Texas athletics photography Texas has come close in the NCAA tournament. Could a more even bracket have helped the Longhorns?

Bracket racket

Women's volleyball and basketball coaches voice similar complaints: that NCAA selection committees don't always help their sports because tournament brackets are not done as well as they should be.

The makeup of the committees has been questioned by coaches in both sports, too, in regard to the depth of knowledge members have. Three on this year's 10-member Division I volleyball committee are former volleyball coaches.

Wisconsin's Terry Gawlick, the outgoing volleyball committee chair, said she thought one of the committee's strengths was that most of the members were in oversight positions for volleyball at their school or conference.

But they are also overseeing a lot of things besides volleyball, including in some cases fund-raising and compliance. So how many volleyball matches -- in person, on television or on-line -- do they really get a chance to watch?

A bracket that seemed as unbalanced as this year's did in volleyball -- even Penn State fans were surprised by how less-competitive their region looked than the others -- makes everyone outside the committee wonder if its members have time throughout the season to keenly evaluate the sport.

Most coaches don't want to go on the record with their committee issues, for fear they'll be "punished" down the road. One prominent coach who asked to stay anonymous said, "During the NCAA tournament is when you're the most fired up to confront it. But it's the hardest time to be critical, because that's when the committee is the most defensive. There's something like a thermometer that measures the frustration we have for bracket problems each year, and the meter's up to here right now.

"That's a sign that there is an issue, but it's also the time they're going to listen the least. Human beings are that way."

Which may explain Gawlick's assertion, "I thought we had less criticism this year than last year."

Volleyball seeds just the top 16 teams, and part of the procedures and principles is to have the fewest number of teams taking flights as possible. Women's basketball seeds all 64 teams and follows an "S" curve in placing them on the bracket that -- for whatever its flaws -- tends to produce four regions that are more balanced than what we saw this year in volleyball.

The problem with "reducing" flights is that there's still no way to avoid having several of them, so the decisions on travel often can appear pretty arbitrary.

And Hawaii, a perennial power, is a consistent travel problem when it comes to the NCAA tournament. It costs a lot to fly teams there for early-round matches, but Hawaii -- where the sport is extremely popular -- often deserves to host.

You could probably guess the final issue coaches have with the bracket.

"The committee has to challenge the value of the RPI," Southern Cal coach Mick Haley said. "You can't use it to weigh teams' value as much as they seemed to this year. It's just one tool to measure teams, and it's not always that accurate.

"I really feel like the bracket problems are not anybody's fault, but we need to be able to make decisions and changes that are good for the sport."

[+] EnlargeMisty May Treanor
AP Photo/Natacha PisarenkoSand volleyball, popular at the Olympic level, could provide future gains in the college game.

Hit the sand

One change that could be very impactful is the addition of sand volleyball as a sanctioned NCAA sport. It will be effective in Division I in August 2011, with play to begin in the spring of 2012. It's considered by a majority of coaches as a positive development, even if logistics will present some challenges.

"I think it's good for the game to give women more opportunities," Washington coach Jim McLaughlin said. "Does it hinder the indoor game? I don't know yet. I want to focus on the indoor game, although I grew up playing on the beach. We're going to add a beach team, but I won't be able to coach it."

This will take more coordination on everybody's part; schools that start sand programs must decide how to structure the coaching and oversight aspect of them. But optimism seems to prevail.

"I really want to see it go, and we're going to do our best to jump into that world," Dunning said. "I think it will be one of the most impacting things in the history of our sport. The whole sport will get bigger."

The sand game will give women's college volleyball exposure in the spring and early summer, away from the Goliaths of pro/college football and college basketball. At least some of the viewing audience that might develop then should carry over to the indoor season in the fall.

Some programs may have to start from scratch. But, athletic deparments can also use sand courts for injury-rehabbing and condition as well as competition.

"There are a lot of challenges with this for a school like Iowa State," Johnson-Lynch said. "We're trying to decide, 'Do we invest in it? Is that going to be a benefit to us?' We don't have an indoor facility for sand volleyball in Ames, so we have nowhere now to train in the colder months."

Haley doesn't have that problem at USC, of course. But he believes that eventually a lot of schools in colder-weather states will take to the sand game.

"It's going to be its own deal, as people come to fund it," he said. "I don't know that there will be a lot of athletes playing both, other than the exceptional ones, because of wear and tear on their bodies. But it might become really popular, and if it does, it will not just be a West Coast sport."

Future progress?

McLaughlin, who coached the women's team at Kansas State for four years before taking over at Washington in 2001, said the questions are in his head all the time about whether women's college volleyball can really cross into more mainstream popularity.

"I've thought about this my whole career," he said. "We were getting some big crowds at Kansas State, and we have them at Washington. We know we have something valuable."

Indeed, talking to people in volleyball, you won't find much dissent about what they think needs to happen to grow the sport. Television exposure for the best matchups. A consistently balanced tournament bracket from a volleyball-savvy committee. Successful integration of the sand game. Schools' marketing departments and the NCAA itself truly understanding they do have something really entertaining to sell with this sport.

What you do find, though, is that there isn't nearly as much productive communication between the various power structures -- and powerful individuals -- as there should be.

"In any endeavors, when it becomes clear that there are issues, everybody has to get over themselves and not have it be about just them," Dunning said. "And say, 'I love volleyball. I want what's right for my team, but I want volleyball to grow.' We have to let our guard down a little bit and listen more to each other."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.