Action from Sunday’s NCAA Beach final between USC and UCLA in Gulf Shores, Alabama/Matt Smith photo

The boffo TV ratings recorded in the NCAA’s National Beach Volleyball Championship final Sunday afternoon on ESPN should validate to the NCAA’s cable TV partner that the women’s sand game does indeed deserve prime placement on its flagship channel.

The tense title dual between red-hot rivals USC and UCLA, won by the Women of Troy 3-2 for a three-peat when their 3s pair prevailed in a third set, rang up a whopping 208% increase in total-average viewership over the 2022 final on ESPN2 between USC and Florida State, with 380,000 tuning in compared to 123,000 last year.

The demographic that advertisers (and thus TV networks) most covet is the 18-49 age group. In the prime demo, the final on Sunday posted a 300% jump over 2022, rising to a .12 rating from a .03.

The final climbed to 36th on the day on the highly influential Showbuzz cable TV chart that tracks performance in the 18-49 demo, up from 113th the previous year (full chart below). In 2021, the most-watched dual of the NCAAs was the semifinal between UCLA and Loyola Marymount. With 189,000 viewers and a .07 18-49 rating, it finished 101st on the Showbuzz chart, and the final between USC and UCLA ranked 147th with 152,000/.03.

While the move from “the Deuce” to the more prestigious ESPN cannot be discounted, these massive year-over-year gains came during a period of migration by viewers to streaming platforms that has cut deeply into the number of TV households with access to traditional cable channels. ESPN, for example, was available in 73.3 million homes in April, down from 79.75 million in January of 2022.

Harder hit than the total-average viewership, listed as “P2” on the charts, has been the 18-49 demo. Younger viewers have been far more likely to ditch cable than the loyal 50+ “geezer” group. So when a show on contemporary cable TV shows any increase year over year in the key demo during these cord-cutting times, that’s significant news to advertisers and network bean-counters.

Looking deeper at why the performance in the demo might be important for beach volleyball’s TV future, consider that of the 380,00 who tuned into the three-hour telecast on ESPN, 153,000 were from the 18-49 group. That’s 40.2%. Now compare that number to the percents of viewers from 18-49 vs. P2 in other sports events last weekend: Sunday Night Baseball on Fox, 22.9%; USFL football Sunday on NBC, 22.4%; the Kentucky Derby on Saturday on NBC, 21.3%; NASCAR Cup racing Sunday on Fox Sports 1, 18.2%; and the PGA on Sunday on CBS, 16.6%.

Furthermore, the NCAA beach saw all seven of its Saturday telecasts on ESPN2 break into the Top 150 of the daily Showbuzz chart.

Two exceeded the total viewership of the 2022 NCAA final. The duals finished 95th (USC vs. TCU in the semifinals, 117,000/.04, which switched to ESPNews after about 15 minutes); 101st (TCU vs. Stanford quarterfinal, 145,000/.04); 104th (UCLA vs. Florida State semifinal, 107,000/.04) 107th (FSU vs. LSU quarterfinal, 131,000/.03); 109th (USC vs. LMU quarterfinal, 118,000/.03); 141st (LMUt vs. Hawai’i first-round match, 47,000/.02 at 9 a.m. Eastern); and 146th (UCLA vs. Cal quarterfinal, 84,000/.02). In 2022, only three duals made the Top 150, coming in at 128, 145 and 146.

To top it off, one of the seven first-round duals that aired Friday during a weather-delayed day on ESPNU (the eighth was pushed to Saturday) actually cracked the Showbuzz daily Top 150, The dual pitting LSU and Florida Atlantic that started at 1:42 p.m. Eastern had an average viewership of 35,000 and an 18-49 demo rating of .02, placing it 141st on Showbuzz. While that might not seem like a lot, the average hourly viewership on ESPNU in prime time in 2022 was 49,000.

ESPN’s PR department on Wednesday morning posted a graphic on social media that provided more details. It said that across the board for all duals televised on ESPNU, ESPN2 and ESPN, viewership was up 100% year-over-year. Viewers watched a total of 119 million minutes of beach coverage, up 25%.

The ratings in the women’s beach final skewed more heavily toward a male audience than female, which generally has not been the case with the NCAA women’s indoor volleyball title match. In the 18-49 demographic, the rating for males was .17 and for females .06 (a typical distribution for sports telecasts). In the younger 12-34 group, it was .05 for females and .10 for males. The breakdown for the 2023 indoor final between Texas and Louisville in 18-49 was .22 female to .21 male in 18-49 and .14 female to .10 male in 12-34.

Blanton’s perspective comes from all sides

Coach Dain Blanton of USC has worked as an analyst on the collegiate beach nationals, and said the ratings boost reflects the growth of the sport. ESPN’s three-day coverage of the tournament enjoyed its typical high production values. Its team of on-air talent was top-notch, with analysts Holly McPeak, a three-time USA Olympian and a 2004 bronze medalist, and Nicole Branagh, who represented the USA in the 2008 Games, lending instant credibility

“ESPN covering the NCAAs is just outstanding, with the resources that they’re putting behind it,” Blanton said. “With all of their channels, to put it on big ESPN, that reach is just phenomenal, and it’s starting to pay off. It’s easy access to one of the most exciting sports that you can watch, and that’s why you have this year-over-year growth that’s absolutely off the charts.”

The NCAA announced earlier this week that the nationals drew a record attendance of 11,667 to the pristine white sand of Gulf Shores, Alabama, despite two days of the competition being interrupted by weather, so the tournament not only drew eyeballs to TVs but put butts in seats.

“The sky’s the limit for our sport,” Blanton said. “We just need to push it. We need to get more scholarships and it will just continue to grow. When (a network gets) good returns like that, when you get crazy growth numbers, you are going to invest even more and give it even more room to grow. Maybe next year, every one of the duals is on big ESPN. A product that is getting the returns, getting the interest, getting the viewers and getting the ratings really is something special. We have to ride that momentum, building on it year after year.”

TV viewers seem to have caught on that the team-dual format creates wonderful TV and never lags. The three-ring circus aspect gives production staff the option to switch to another court if the score gets lopsided on the one it’s showing. Because each court carries equal weight in the outcoming the 5s are just as important as the 1s. USC’s title dual with UCLA was played in flights, with the 2s and 4s opening, and the 1s, 3s and 5s following. That added more to the drama and stretched the TV window beyond the 90 or so minutes that is typical of a dual with all five courts in action concurrently.

“The flights format is way more compelling than just a bracket with pairs playing, because there’s that team aspect,” said Blanton, who has done extensive TV commentary for traditional beach tournaments, including the AVP and the Olympics. “You have 10 players on the team starting and you have those first flights with two matches, so no matter what happens in those first two matches, it’s not going to decide the outcome. It’s such a cool environment because (the advantage) can constantly change hands and quickly a dual can change directions. You never really have it in the bag until it is over.”

That 380,000 TV viewers were motivated enough to watch college-beach volleyball on a Sunday afternoon chock-full of competition from mainstream sports ought to be a wake-up call to the NCAA and to the schools with beach programs. The lesson: Fans will embrace a professional-looking product.

In covering the beach scene this spring, I have seen some efforts at airing the sport that are worthwhile and others, frankly, that could appeal only to friends and family members who are intensely interested in a particular team. The ASUN, for example, did a good job with its streaming shows on ESPN+. The production values, while not up to network cable-TV standards, included commentary and switched from court to court. A casual viewer among the 25 million subscribers to ESPN+ could click on the ASUN feed and not immediately be moved to watch something else.

The same cannot be said for a lot of the other streaming content out there, much of which consists of one stationary camera placed behind the endline of a court with no commentary. Such bare-bones video does absolutely nothing to grow the sport. The standard should be far higher than “it’s better than nothing.”

Women’s college sports on an up escalator

Why should college beach strive to put its best foot forward in every instance when presenting its product to the viewing public? Women’s college sports seems to be riding a wave of momentum spawned by the incredible TV ratings generated during the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in March.

The national championship game between LSU and Iowa on ABC blew the doors off of the previous record for a women’s basketball game, with an average of 9.9 million viewers and a peak of 12.6 million across all platforms. In context, that was more viewers than were drawn by the Cotton, Orange or Sugar bowls. The NCAA women’s final-four games on ESPN also saw record viewerships, an average of 4.5 million for the two semifinals, up 66% from the previous year, and 5.5 million for the Iowa-South Carolina. Those again are huge gains that defy the stereotype that casual fans don’t want to watch women’s sports.

“Most importantly, women’s sports are getting more equal coverage.” Blanton opined. “You can’t say it’s fully equal yet with men’s sports, but we’re moving in that direction, and that equality is so awesome to see. You see that the interest is there. It’s so cool to be a part of that growth and to be involved with a women’s sport that is growing so quickly. This is the fast-growing emerging sport that we’ve ever seen in the NCAA, and so we’ve got to continue that momentum.”

A logical question would be: Will this rising tide lift the NCAA indoor women’s volleyball boat as well? The 2021 NCAA final between Wisconsin and Nebraska did boffo ratings, delivering 1.188 million viewers on ESPN2. However, the title match in 2022 between Texas and Louisville dropped to 786,000 viewers. Historically, the viewership of the women’s indoor final has risen or fallen depending on the schools involved.

Coach Kelly Sheffield of 2021 NCAA-champion Wisconsin is confident that the indoor game has growth potential on TV, even in the cord-cutting era, saying that volleyball in general is “just scratching the surface” of its potential.

“What we are seeing over and over again is that an increasing appetite exists to watch women’s sports on linear television,” Sheffield said. “The more that we are investing in it and promoting it, putting it on from ESPNU or ESPN2 to the flagship ESPN, the more the numbers increase. The audience is responding to women’s sports overall and we are just scratching the surface as far as our sport goes, women’s indoors, beach and men’s indoors.”

Speaking of indoor men’s volleyball, the NCAA Division I-II championship match Saturday on ESPN2, won by UCLA over Hawaii, registered a huge jump up in relative rating. Despite a 5 p.m. Eastern start and competition from the women’s beach tournament, the men’s final finished 61st on the day on the Showbuzz chart, up from 145th in 2022. Its total average viewership was up 37.1% year-over-year, 229,000 vs. 167,000, and its rating in the 18-49 demo was .07 compared to .02 last year, when Hawai’i swept Long Beach State.

The rating on Saturday might have been higher if volleyball fans had not been forced to choose between sticking with a contentious beach semifinal between USC and TCU that was flipped from ESPN2 to ESPNews at 5 p.m. Eastern, and the UCLA-Hawai’i men’s title tussle.

I opted for the beach dual and then switched over to the men, which was midway through the second set. Even if beach and men’s indoors had not overlapped, why would the NCAA wish to make its fans who wanted to watch everything weather more than 10 hours of TV? Does it make any sense to schedule the tournaments for men’s indoor volleyball and beach volleyball in the same week?

Looking ahead to NCAA women’s indoors

Sheffield said that these issues and others, including ESPN’s showing the first two rounds of the NCAA women’s tournament behind a subscription paywall on its ESPN+ streaming platform, “is a holding down of our sport that I am just not getting.”

“Can you imagine if (the TV partners) invested in even better announcers?” Sheffield asked. “We have a lot of really good announcers. But can you imagine if all of our matches had that higher quality (of presentation), could you imagine a pregame show or a halftime show or a postgame show with the marketing and promotions going into these things?

“The growth we have seen is exciting, but what’s even more exciting is the potential. I believe that some key decision-makers are starting to see the potential. It might not happen as fast as any of us (in the sport) would want. But then when you get on TV, you have to put on an event that keeps them there. Look at that beach final, with how close it was, that was fantastic.”

Sheffield said a logical next step for the indoor women’s game would be for all games in the 64-team bracket to be aired on traditional TV and for volleyball fans to be given the chance to experience the bracket mania seen in basketball.

“There’s absolutely no question, absolutely 100%, that the opening rounds of (the women’s indoor NCAAs) should be somewhere on linear TV and not just streaming,” he said. “With the women’s indoor, there ought to be a bracket challenge (promotion). How difficult would it be to put a bracket challenge in there? You are going to get people interested in other than just their school.

“The athletes that are in our sport are elite. The level that the game is being played at, whether you watch beach, indoor men or indoor women, you see these elite athletes doing a lot of fantastic stuff.

“When it first came onto the scene, you had a lot of indoor players doing beach as kind of their side gig, if you will. That’s not the case anymore. These are athletes who specialize in beach and playing it at an extraordinarily high level. The men’s is played at a level that when you watch it, the athleticism just screams at you. These guys are incredible. They deserve a lot more (exposure) than just the (NCAA) final on linear TV and the rest of their tournament on streaming.”

Through it all the quality of the volleyball and the interest from its fervent fans shine through.

“There is a holding down of our sport that I am just not getting,” Sheffield concluded. “But even burdened by these ankle weights, the sport continues to shine and the fans continue to respond. And that is exciting.”


  1. I don’t know much about ratings and it’s nice to see a percentage increase in viewers. But common sense tells me these ratings are slightly above what a blank screen would get.

  2. One step would be for the Pac 12 and Big 10 Networks to broadcast their men’s indoor games. It is a crime that PSU v OSU, UCLA v OSU, Stanford v PSU which are played every year are not broadcasted. I will not announce some some of the less popular Olympic sports that they do broadcast.
    In addition, Big 10 and Pac 12 volleyball broadcasters especially and fans need to realize that the indoor volleyball women’s game no longer only revolves around their teams if it ever did. This attitude and bias especially on air by supposed professionals really hurts the game and their reputations.They should realize that the broadcasts are also viewed by many volleyball
    fans of teams from other conferences.


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