Why did 92,000 people turn up to watch a college volleyball game in Nebraska?

Fans watch Nebraska take on Omaha in a college volleyball match at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln
The record-breaking crowd takes in the Nebraska vs Omaha college volleyball match - Omaha World-Herald via AP/Chris Machian

When Terry Pettit arrived at the University of Nebraska to head up its volleyball programme in 1977, no more than 100 spectators would watch matches – on wooden chairs set up around the court by players. Last month, 92,003 packed into the Memorial Stadium, traditionally home to the college’s American football team, to watch the “Cornhuskers” beat Omaha in straight sets. In doing so, they set a record attendance for a women’s sport event.

“It was like nothing I’ve ever been part of,” Pettit says, as he reflects on what was dubbed “Volleyball Day”. “The interest was not primarily in whether Nebraska won that match; the interest was in the celebration of women’s sport. There were former players in tears that a women’s event was receiving this type of recognition. The impact is really special.”

The idea for the day was sparked after the University of Wisconsin-Madison had attracted the highest attendance for a National Collegiate Athletic Association volleyball match (18,755 in 2021). Nebraska was determined to regain that record and encouraged the state to get behind its bid, staging not only the regular-season match against Omaha in the football stadium but an exhibition game beforehand and a concert from country musician Scotty McCreery afterwards.

Tickets were priced at $25 for adults and $5 for children, and when 40,000 sold in only a couple of hours with no marketing or advertising strategy needed, organisers recognised that they could target the world record for a women’s sport event of 91,648, set when Barcelona played Real Madrid at the Nou Camp in 2021 (a reported 110,000 people watched the unofficial Women’s World Cup final in Mexico in 1971 but the figure is unconfirmed).

Nebraska’s Merritt Beason (right) and Lexi Rodriguez run out to face Omaha at at Memorial Stadium
Nebraska’s Merritt Beason (right) and Lexi Rodriguez run out to face Omaha in the record-breaking match - USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Dylan Widger
Fans watch Nebraska take on Omaha in a college volleyball match
Overhead images showed the sheer scale of the event - Omaha World-Herald via AP/Chris Machian

It took more than two days to cover the football pitch and build the stage for the match consisting of 800 sheets of plywood to ensure the court was springy but safe to play on. Then there was the process of making sure the court was flat, with someone on a mechanic’s creeper sliding under the floor to level everything out.

With volleyball normally played indoors, the weather presented another challenge. Randy Gobel works in facilities at the university and months before the match he and his team laid pieces of the court on the sidewalk – one red, one black and one plain wood – to check how hot they got in the sun. They also had i-mops on hand to vacuum up any dew that could make the court slippery. Fortunately, on the big day, it did not rain and the court surface remained at a normal temperature.

So, what did Gobel make of Volleyball Day? “I was strength and conditioning coach for the football team for 20 years, so I’ve been to a lot of big stadiums, but this was a special crowd,” he says. “It was totally different and it was amazing to see.”

Nebraska is one of the leading states for agriculture, so why is volleyball so popular? Gobel points to the impact of Pettit when he arrived, of how he followed the lead of football coach Bob Devaney in visiting towns across the state and speaking to high-school coaches to help develop programmes. “It was a long-term process,” he says. “We don’t have a professional team in Nebraska so Nebraska sports fans are hungry. If you’re successful, they’ll show up, and a lot of times, even when you’re not successful, they’ll show up.”

Success has certainly not been in short supply. The Cornhuskers are five-time NCAA champions – a tally beaten only by Stanford and Penn State – and from 1976 to 2011 won the regular-season conference in all bar four years.

Pettit spent more than 20 years as coach of the Nebraska volleyball team so is well positioned to offer an insight into how much the programme has grown. By the time he left his role in 1999, the team would regularly draw crowds of 4,000-plus and these days, with his former assistant John Cook at the helm, they play at the 8,309-capacity Bob Devaney Center, where every match has been sold out for the past decade.

Nebraska Cornhuskers middle blocker Andi Jackson (15) attacks the ball against the Omaha Mavericks during the third set at Memorial Stadium
Meticulous preparation ensured the wooden flooring held up to elite standards in the outdoor venue - USA TODAY Sports/Dylan Widger

Yet despite the global acclaim that has followed Volleyball Day, Pettit insists that it is the foundations of the college’s programme that have been central to its enduring success. “Women’s sport is not a one-time event, women’s sport is selling tickets, so you sell out all of the time,” he says. “You need regular events, otherwise people will go to a one-time event and it won’t necessarily have an impact on what is happening every week.”

The continual sell-outs for matches at their regular home mean Nebraska volleyball is in the rare position of being a profitable women’s sport college programme. It made $2.12 million (£1.71 million) in ticket sales alone in 2021-22 – only the University of Connecticut’s basketball team generated more – and Pettit expects an increase in income from other streams, too.

“Volleyball pays for itself through ticket income and that will increase as there is more interest,” he says. “The real money in sport is TV contracts, and, as women’s sport grows, interest grows, and when the TV contract is renegotiated for the Big 10 Conference that Nebraska play in, they will receive more programming and TV money. Women’s sport is now financially generating income.”

He does sound a warning, though: “One of the reasons women’s sport is attractive is it doesn’t have the same baggage that comes with men’s sport sometimes. The irony is the more money is involved, the more TV is involved, there is the potential for the things we see in men’s sport. It will be interesting to watch.”

Pettit is also quick to herald the impact on women’s sport of a law change more than 50 years ago. Title IX is a gender-equity law that was introduced in 1972 and banned sex discrimination in all federally funded schools and colleges. Not only did it give girls and women greater access to education, it changed the sporting landscape for women, particularly in terms of college scholarships.

“It had such an impact on women’s sport,” says Pettit. “A lot of transformational things happened in the 20th century but I believe by far the biggest transformation, the biggest revolution – at least in the US – was Title IX. That legislation changed everything.”

The results were there for the world to see at Memorial Stadium on August 30, 2023.

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