The enormity of the world-record-setting crowd that gathered in Lincoln, Nebraska, two weeks cannot be understated: Ninety-two-thousand-and-three fans paid to watch women’s college volleyball in a football stadium!

Equally as meaningful is the aftershock of the ratings on cable TV generated by that ground-breaking match.

The atmosphere was electric at Memorial Stadium on that unforgettable Wednesday night. The fans had a blast. The sea of Nebraska red made for sensational Kodak moments (or our photo gallery by Matt Smith). That it set a record as the largest crowd to watch women’s sports event in history made headline news on TV and in mainstream publications, generating invaluable exposure for the sport

Television viewership that reflected what legendary announcer Paul Sunderland called a “seismic event” for volleyball. Big Ten Network was “elated” when the overnights from the Nielsen scientific survey showed that 518,000 total-average viewers had tuned in, senior vice president for programming and digital media Michael Calderon told Volleyball Magazine.

Such an audience seems likely to set the tone for a season of collegiate women’s volleyball on TV that includes more matches on high-profile linear platforms and culminates with over-the-air ABC broadcasting the NCAA final for the first time.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I think we would crack 500,000 for this match,” Calderon admitted. “I knew it was a big story, a really important moment for women’s volleyball and women’s sports in general. It was really cool in the moment, in the event, just to see all the social commentary and social reactions, the pictures and the video that people were circulating and that we were pushing out on our social channels.

“I started to feel toward the end of the night this might actually be a much bigger number than we were expecting. I was hoping for 250,000-300,000, which would have been a really successful event for us. So we were thrilled when this became our second volleyball match to exceed 500,000.

“The first one was last year on Black Friday, Nebraska-Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship, which did 587,000,” Calderon noted. “That was a really meaningful match and it followed a Nebraska-Iowa football game. This was a stand-alone Wednesday night (non-conference) match with no lead-in. We hadn’t even televised a football game to promote it on.”

Over a 38-year career in broadcasting, the venerable Sunderland has witnessed pretty much anything that could be seen in volleyball, and he simply was blown away by the stadium match from Lincoln.

“It was a seismic, historic event,” Sunderland said. “I was trying to put it into context, and I was talking to some of my colleagues about benchmark events in the history of the sport in the United States.”

Sunderland ran down a list that included the USA men’s indoor team’s gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the NCAA championship match between Wisconsin and Nebraska in 2021 and the gold medal won by the USA women’s indoor squad coached by Karch Kiraly in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Then he stated emphatically, “That match in Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, has to go down as one of the seismic, most important events in the history of the sport, not only in the United States, but in the world.

“It not only was remarkable, but it was beautifully executed and produced by the folks at the University of Nebraska. That was an ode to the sport of volleyball in the state of Nebraska, a tribute to the Nebraska volleyball program, historically built under Terry Pettit. That tradition of success has been continued by John Cook, and I venture to say that only in Nebraska could this marker of 92,003 have been put down.”

Kudos, indeed, to Cook’s program for having the courage to dream big with an enterprise that entailed significant risk. After all, the university could have been left with egg on its face if it had rained on August 30.

I saw a lot of comments from die-hard fans noting that the level of play in the Cornhuskers’ lopsided three-set victory over Nebraska-Omaha out of the low-major Summit League wasn’t so hot, and that the event would have been substantially better if Nebraska had played against a ranked opponent.


This wasn’t about the volleyball. It was about spectacle.

When folks used to go to the circus once a year, did they nitpick that the third dancing bear in Ring 2 was out of step? Did they debate whether the daring trapeze artist might have over-rotated a bit on his quadruple somersault?

The proverbial “squash match” between programs on vastly different competitive planes was ideal in this situation. The point was to send the crowd home happy with a victory by women in red, and satisfied that they had been part of a shared communal fan experience that turned out to be a really big deal.

The bulk of the folks in the stands were there not for the steak, but the sizzle. The lure was setting a world record while perhaps witnessing a women’s college volleyball match for the first time. The Cornhuskers found a way to satisfy casuals in an environment of fractured mainstream media that makes cultivating them more difficult than ever.

A deeper dive into the TV ratings show how casual eyeballs did tune in on that Wednesday night. Big Ten Network has a “reach” of about 48.7 million TV households, roughly 38% of the available 128 million TV homes. Sunderland agreed with my postulation that the stadium match might have hit 1 million viewers if it had aired on ESPN, which can be accessed by 72.4 million TV households and had an average hourly prime-time viewership of 1.87 million in 2022.

Conversely, BTN logged an average hourly viewership in prime time of 79,000 in 2022. Calderon said that women’s volleyball matches on his network averaged 126,000 viewers last season. Yet the stadium match ranked No. 12 on that day on all cable TV with a .14 rating in the key 18-49 demo, according to the SpoilerTV site.

The football aired by Big Ten Network on the following Saturday avenged viewerships of 343,000 (for Fresno State-Purdue) and 294,000 (Toledo-Illinois). That means the 518,000 for women’s volleyball was 175,000 more than the most-watched football game. These ratings most surely will not go unnoticed by TV decision-makers, and not just those from BTN.

“It’s not the first time that’s happened,” Calderon said, “but it speaks to the growth of volleyball. We feel that in collaboration with our schools, (BTN) has done a lot to collectively grow the sport, driving viewership over the last decade. We’ve increased our investment in the number of televised matches. We saw an opportunity to embrace a great women’s sport — a great television sport – and it’s not going to be the last time that we have a highly rated volleyball match that beats a football game.”

Sunderland is employed to call matches for ESPN, but he was effusive in his praise for BTN’s coverage of the mega-event.

“I don’t work for the Big Ten Network and I have no skin in the game, but congratulations to them for a wonderful production, but also for investing,” he said. “Promotional mentions are dollars and cents. (BTN invested) a lot of promotional dollars into drawing the quote-unquote casual eyeballs to that very special event, and it was a monumental success. This was a watershed moment, as is the move of the women’s NCAA championship to ABC.”

I threw out a number of 2 million viewers to Paul as a possibility for the NCAA title match on a broadcast platform and Sunderland’s knee-jerk response was, “No question. Getting back to the great job the Big Ten Network did, ABC will certainly do its due diligence in promoting the championship, which is really important. When you’re tuned into general ABC programming, or you’re tuned in where the promos most likely will land, in a college football game or Monday Night Football (aired on ESPN, which also is in the Disney umbrella), they will garner significant eyeballs.

“It’s like when you plan a really big party at your house. You go off the checklist: Beer, wine, the hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, main course, music, etc. You want to throw a really nice party for all your friends and then you hope that it pays it off,” Sunderland added. “When you invite people to come, you hope the product pays it off, right?

“So what I’m really hoping for is that in this first time on network television, that the championship is historic. Now that’s a roll of the dice. Wouldn’t it be amazing serendipity for the first time this match was on ABC television, that it was an absolutely knock-down-drag-out five-set thriller?”

A key component in the promotional buildup by the folks at ABC and ESPN was to schedule more regular-season women’s volleyball on the main ESPN channel and ESPN2. Sunderland called the match on Sunday afternoon between Stanford and Texas, played before a packed house 4,707 in Austin, and it notched a total-average viewership of 203,000 on ESPN2. The WNBA game that followed it on the Deuce (New York Liberty-Chicago Sky) had 174,000 viewers. Keep in mind that Disney and the Spectrum cable system with 15 million subscribers have been embroiled in a contract dispute that has locked out roughly one-fifth of a potential audience for a show on the ESPN “family.” So we see another telling scenario with casuals watching college volleyball.

Two big matches with “casuals’ potential will air on the main ESPN channel this coming week when Nebraska visits Stanford on Tuesday and Louisville entertains Kentucky on Wednesday.

Flipping back to the Fox corner of the NCAA women’s volleyball picture, Calderon pointed to a key date on its schedule, Oct. 29, when the Big Ten match between Wisconsin and Minnesota, teams with rabid fan bases, will have the lead-in of more than 10 million viewers watching an early NFL game on over-the-air Fox.

“BTN is a joint venture with Fox Sports,” Calderon said. “One of the great benefits of that is that we work closely with them, collaborate with them, and they’ve taken notice in terms of our success with volleyball, and how our audience has continued to grow. We have a really special opportunity on October 29. That day Fox has an NFL single-header. One of the bigger games in that window is Packers-Vikings. So after Packers-Vikings and the other (early) games, the viewers are going to get Wisconsin-Minnesota, which is a huge match.

“It’s an unbelievable opportunity to turn new fans into Big Ten volleyball fans. And expose the sport to an audience who’s probably never even seen it.”

When 2 million was tossed out as a potential viewership, Calderon responded with, “I don’t want to give a number, but I feel there’s a really good chance to become the highest-rated college volleyball match of all time. It has that potential.”

Volleyball fans nationwide should mark October 29 on their calendars.

Even though the NCAA championship match will be aired by the competition, Calderon would be overjoyed to see ABC pop a huge number for the NCAA final in December.

“It’s wonderful for the sport and a ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ scenario,” he said. “The more people who watch the national-championship match this, that will result in higher interest in the sport next year. That will help us all who are invested in the sport.”

So for the can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees die-hards who have posted ad nauseam on social media that “growing the game” entails streaming an endless number of matches to viewerships in the hundreds of die-hards, sorry, folks, but this is how a sport grows. A million or more mainstream eyeballs help create casual fans who later might become more heavily invested. Nobody becomes a hard-core without first being a casual.

Sunderland rubber-stamped the contention that streaming platforms such as ESPN+ are “for the niche, for the hard-core volleyball fan. Let’s say somebody’s channel-surfing and they come upon Stanford at Texas (Sunday on ESPN2) … and look at that environment.

“They go, ‘Wait a minute, these 5,000 people in this building really give a s—. I’m going to check this out.’ If you’re going to throw a party, as we said, you have to deliver. And ESPN with its programming is doing a really good job of inviting eyeballs to very compelling venues.”

Calderon, meanwhile, oversees not only the Big Ten Network’s traditional cable TV, but its Big Ten Plus digital platform behind a subscription paywall. Even in this era of cord-cutting and the DVR, he bought whole-hog into the notion that the “stumble upon” factor remains in play.

“Linear is the most important component to a media mix for any type of growing property,” Calderon said, “whether it’s Big Ten volleyball or some start-up professional league. You need to have the linear exposure in order to create interest in casual fans. Everything behind some sort of subscription service is going to be really difficult for you to ever grow the product.”


  1. You want a real explosion 💥 in future viewership and popularity? Have Nebraska get to the ESPN televised final against either Stanford or Texas-and win. They are starting 4 freshman a sophomore, and 2 juniors. Nebraska would instantly become the most popular team in the sport-and the most hated team in the sport.

    That’s a pipedream, but the sport would get a huge push into the national consciousness with a Nebraska presence…


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