This is a good time to be a TV-watching American volleyball fan.
ESPN went all in on NCAA volleyball in 2017-18, picking up beach volleyball to add to its extensive coverage of women’s indoors and the men’s final four.
In other words, all three NCAA volleyball championships are now brought to us by the Worldwide Leader.
“We love having the sport,” said Dan Margulis, ESPN senior director of programming and acquisitions. “It’s a good sport for us.”
The ratings on the women’s side back him up. ESPN tell us that the NCAA women’s national-championships coverage brought it more than a million viewers and the 2017 national-title match in Kansas City was the third most-viewed championship game on record across ESPN networks and up 77 percent from 2016.
ESPN also did well in its three-day beach coverage, televising it for the first time. Sunday’s championship match on ESPN as UCLA beat Florida State drew 298,000 viewers, up 14 percent from last year when it covered by TBS. TBS/Tru didn’t have nearly as many hours of coverage the past two years.
ESPN had the men’s semifinals and final once again. The championship match between Long Beach State over UCLA, a five-set thriller at UCLA with a strong crowd, drew 145,000 viewers, down 45,000 from last year.
ESPN shows European pro matches on ESPN3.
What’s more, others are entering the fray.
FloVolleyball recently got in on a deal between the FIVB and IMG to televise FIVB events, including the ongoing Volleyball Nations League. Flo also broadcasts or livestreams a variety of other volleyball competitions, including the Big Ten regular-season and a number of juniors tournaments.
And the AVP has stepped up its game this year, forgoing free live streams to broadcast-quality coverage shown exclusively on Amazon Prime.
Start with the NCAA beach, where ESPN took over the three-day event in Gulf Shores, Ala., and showed every match of the eight-team tournament in some form or fashion.
“There’s always something you can do to make it better, but for the first time to do the event, and to not have the opportunity to go in and observe the event in person before you get it, I feel like we did a really, really good job,” said ESPN coordinating producer of volleyball Pat Lowry. “Our coverage plan, well, we gave anyone who loves volleyball every option they could possibly want.
“There was streaming on each court individually on ESPN3 or on the app, to our whip-around coverage on the linear networks. We were eight hours live on ESPNU on Friday, four hours live on ESPN2 on Saturday and then the hour on E2 on Sunday plus the championship on ESPN, I feel like that, along with the resources we put into feature materials, storytelling, and then the actual coverage with two jibs, a drone, I feel like we killed it, honestly.”
She said they had almost 30 cameras on site.
“We were very pleased, both from a digital and from a linear standpoint,” Margulis said. “Pat did an amazing job of covering each court in addition to what we were doing on the linear channels.”
ESPN brought in experienced beach-analyst Holly McPeak, the former Olympian, but most of the rest of the crew was relatively new to the sand.
“There was a lot of homework done, for sure,” Lowry said.
The announcing crew included Sam Gore, a play-by-play veteran who does NCAA indoors for ESPN, and Courtney Lyle, a relative ESPN newcomer who has done indoor volleyball, too.
The other analyst was former Washington State player Camryn Irwin, who, like McPeak, also works for the Pac-12 Network.
ESPN brought in one of its stars to work the sidelines in veteran Holly Rowe, who is a fixture at the NCAA indoor regular-season matches and the NCAA championships. Nell Fortner, who does NCAA volleyball for ESPN and the Longhorn Network in the fall, came in for the first day to help out on the sidelines.
“It was so much fun that now I’ve got people begging to work it,” Lowry said.
The weather in Gulf Shores was perfect for the three days. It was mostly sunny, the wind rarely played a factor and while it got hot, it didn’t rain.
The five-match format makes for exciting finishes and ESPN capitalized on that. What’s more, it prepared plenty of features that it aired throughout.
Lowry said she’s still digesting and evaluating the coverage.
“When you have a national championship coming down to two courts and they’re both in dual-point and you’ve got a two-box (on screen), there’s a lot of stuff going on, well, I’m just trying to figure out with the format did we put that on in the best way to digest it and understand it? I’m still evaluating that. So I can’t tell you I would challenge it, but that’s what I’m questioning right now.
“But from a feature standpoint, from an equipment standpoint, the number of cameras — we had almost 30 cameras out there — that’s a lot of cameras. It went well.”
Attendance for the men’s tournament was down. In 2017, before a packed house in Columbus, Ohio, where host Ohio State beat BYU, ESPN drew 190,000 viewers. This year, on Cinco de Mayo, the total was down and it’s too bad, because there rarely have been more exciting matches. But except for a few matches on ESPN3, ESPN does very little with men’s volleyball and didn’t promote the men’s championship nearly as much as the beach.
“We’re definitely happy with the men’s championship,” Margulis said. “We had it on ESPN2, but it is a different kind of tournament. It’s set up differently from the women’s, which has more teams.”
An ESPN spokesperson pointed out that “two years is a fairly small sample size when comparing viewership due to so many variables that can impact the number.”
Veterans Paul Sunderland and Kevin Barnett (now doing the AVP this summer) called the men’s matches. Lowry said she thought long and hard about bringing them to Gulf Shores.
“I feel like I ended up leaving the right people in the right place,” she said. “But it was a tough situation because there was significantly more air time in Gulf Shores than we had in L.A.”
Lowry added she was “so pleased with Courtney and Sam and especially the way the men’s turned out, it was probably the right decision.”
But ESPN’s mainstay is NCAA indoor women’s where it has grown and grown. Outside of the Big Ten and Pac-12, most conference matches from around the country can be seen on ESPN3 and plenty are shown on the SEC Network, Longhorn Network and ESPNU.
The women’s final fours are sold out long in advance.
“The atmospheres are key,” Margulis said. “That’s one of the things when we do championships. If there’s a crowd there, people come out to see it from a TV standpoint, too.”
Added Lowry about the women’s championship, “We’ve seen an increased rating and increased exposure.
“In my world, that’s always good news simply because of the resources we allocate and how we’re covering something. It was great news and the fact that we did it again a second year, I was thrilled to see the commitment our company made.”
Bottom line: ESPN is pretty happy with volleyball.
“We’ve really embraced it and it’s done well for us,” Margulis said. “You can go with numbers and things like that, but the environment of the championships — you look at the (women’s) indoor, that championship environment was insane. That place was packed.
“Beach volleyball, that was unbelievably impressive, that whole setup. The men’s volleyball had a decent crowd as well, but particularly on the women’s side it’s been really strong. We carry it throughout the regular season as part of our conference commitments, and their conference championships, and with the championships we’ve been very pleased.”