I asked a high school female volleyball player to name her top three favorite volleyball players. She took a long pause, then said the first name of a high school volleyball player she saw play a few months ago, then she thought for a few more seconds, and finally remembered Kerri Walsh-Jennings. Ask the same female volleyball player to name her top three favorite basketball players. Without any hesitation she quickly rambles off Steph Curry, Lebron James, and Giannis. Volleyball is her favorite sport and her goal is to one day play college volleyball. She is like half a million other young, female volleyball athletes in the United States who are eager to fill their free time with volleyball.

Although volleyball has been the #1 sport for high school girls for over half a decade, our sport has faced an uphill climb to earn a share of recognition and attention in mainstream media. It wasn’t until ESPNU launched in 2005 that the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship final was televised.

Volleyball’s biggest challenge from a TV standpoint is viewership. Because males are still the largest demographic for televised sports we lag behind sports that are more popular with men – football, basketball, soccer, hockey, etc.

In 2021 women’s basketball coaches and athletes, through the power of social media, fought for gender equality during the 2021 NCAA tournament. The men’s and women’s tournaments were played in a bubble and it became apparent the men and women were far different in the form of luxuries provided. Fast forward to 2022 and women’s basketball had all 67 NCAA tournament games televised for the 2022 tournament. Volleyball’s NCAA Division I tournament in December had 12.

It is not a battle of volleyball vs women’s basketball, but more of an argument as to why women’s basketball and not volleyball?  Volleyball is the only women’s sport to become mainstream (96% sponsorship) without a more popular male counterpart. Our sport has come so far without riding the coattails of men’s volleyball. Imagine where the sport could go if it received the recognition that women’s basketball receives. Our sport needs viewers.

From a television standpoint, viewers of women’s sports tend to be younger in age, and in fact, women’s volleyball has the highest percentage of female viewers (41%) per recently released Nielsen report. As networks seek more female viewership they are broadcasting more volleyball and women’s gymnastics.

The Big Ten Network launched in 2006 with a commitment to “event equality”, to produce and distribute an equal number of men’s and women’s events across all platforms.  In 2021 the network carried nearly 50 Big Ten Conference volleyball matches and paved the way for volleyball to be aired on the PAC 12 Network, ESPNU and ESPN+. Easier access to the sport has done so much to inspire kids to begin playing volleyball at a young age. Junior volleyball clubs are filling their gyms after school with 5-8 year olds in size small knee pads, eager to learn to serve over the net.

With the US capturing the gold medal in both Women’s Beach Volleyball and Women’s Indoor Volleyball at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the popularity of our sport is far from its peak. In 2016, Stanford’s NCAA Championship victory against Texas had an overall viewership of 576,000, according to ESPN. In 2021 Wisconsin’s thrilling, five-set victory over Nebraska in the Championship drew a record 1,118,000 viewers. That is despite not having any games televised through the first two rounds. We are ready and eager to watch volleyball, to shatter records, and take our sport mainstream where it belongs.

With more recognition, more access and more resources invested in volleyball, the average youth volleyball player will have a hard time deciding her top three favorite volleyball players because there will be too many to count.

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About the Author

Briana Schunzel is the Director of Marketing, Education and Partner Development for the JVA and joined the organization is August 2011. Bri enjoys interacting with passionate junior volleyball club directors and coaches on a daily basis, as well as building relationships with partners who share the same vision and goals as the JVA, and are all about giving back to the juniors. Bri has 12 years of coaching experience at the grade school level all the way through the college level. She was a four year starting setter at Ohio University from 2001 to 2004, where she garnered an All-American and Conference Player of the Year honors. She then continued her career competing professionally in Paris, France.