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We had the opportunity to interview NCAA president Mark Emmert last month, just before the championship match of the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Tournament. 

In an informal setting in Columbus, Ohio, with a handful of media members, he took questions about volleyball and more. And we had a glimmer of hope, if someone will take on the fight, of changing the geographic parameters stifling the making of the NCAA Tournament bracket.

Emmert is not a volleyball guy, per se, but as the president at the University of Washington, he was in the stands when the Huskies won the NCAA title in 2005.

We started by asking his general thoughts about NCAA volleyball.

“Well, first of all, it’s been on such a nice run,” Emmert said. “I was just chatting with one of the Washington members of the selection committee, and when I was at UW, after I left LSU, we won a championship in ’05, and it was a great event, but it’s maybe half of what’s going on here this weekend. It’s been wonderful to see the audience, the attention, the participation, everything’s been on a really, really nice trajectory, and the quality of the competition, the quality of the athleticism is pretty stunning. It’s in a pretty good spot right now.”

Perhaps, but there’s definitely a feeling among volleyball people, coaches and those of us close to the game, that this is not treated like it’s in the upper tier, especially in comparison to women’s basketball.

“Yeah, I understand that, and there are comparisons around all the sports,” Emmert said. “We’re trying to make sure that what we do is promote each of the sports on their own feet, and I think you’re gonna see a wonderful reflection of that tonight and the way this tournament’s been treated and the way it’s been throughout all of the rounds.

“The commitments to women’s basketball have been very longstanding and nobody wants to promote one by taking another down, but we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for all of our women’s sports. Volleyball’s obviously been growing, so’s softball, so are a handful of sports, women’s soccer, obviously. So we’re gonna keep working at it and make this as good a tournament as we possibly can.”

NCAA president Mark Emmert

Has there been any talk about getting more TV exposure for volleyball earlier in the tournament? After all, the first two rounds were available on only ESPN.com.

“We obviously have media contracts, with ESPN or whoever our providers are, whether that’s radio or streaming or TV, and they’re obviously trying to get as many good games on as they can. We keep pushing them with all of our sports to get as much out there. But for them, it’s a business decision, of course. I think the more they broadcast these games, especially, and the quality of what’s going on in college volleyball, we’ll see more of it because people like it when they watch it.”

The NCAA bracket — and not just in volleyball — is affected so greatly by geographic restrictions. The 400-mile radius, keeping flights to a minimum, the forced matchups against nearby NCAA opponents (think BYU-Utah, Rice-Texas, Pittsburgh-Penn State, the Florida schools). What can be done to limit that element and have not a geographical tournament but one seeded from 1 through 64 and played accordingly?

“That’s up to the selection committees themselves and they have to look at that and balance out all the obvious tradeoffs,” Emmert said. 

In the case of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, there were geographic exceptions, such as UCF’s going to UCLA and Mississippi State’s going to Washington. 

“Members make the rules,” Emmert said. “They (the selection committee) can go into the championship groups and say, ‘We want to approach this differently and put a different proposal on the table.’ And that’s something that needs to be discussed. That’s not part of the implementation of these events that I or our staff have anything to do with.

“If they want to change that rule, I’m certainly not standing in their way, nor is anyone who works for us. But those are policies of the championship committee, and if there’s good reason to change them, I’ll be supportive of it.”

And, finally, what about the growth of men’s volleyball?

“There has been a really good working group established by the USOPC that’s made up mostly of collegiate athletic directors, and they’ve been looking at a whole array of our Olympic sports, including men’s volleyball, and try to find different solutions to grow the sport at the collegiate level. 

“They haven’t reach recommendations or conclusions yet. They’ve made some really nice general recommendations, and I think we’ve got a chance to move forward on some of them. And men’s volleyball would be in that. But it’s a big challenge, and we all know it.”

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