As the Nebraska women’s volleyball team strolled out of the tunnel for its most unusual home match, “Sirius” by the Alan Parsons Project, the walkout song for the 1990s Chicago Bulls, blared over the stadium loudspeakers.
The musical choice was symbolic, to be sure, but it might have actually understated the aura surrounding the team and its big moment. The Cornhuskers, five-time N.C.A.A. champions, were about to surgically dispatch an overmatched opponent, the University of Nebraska Omaha, but that was a foregone conclusion. The only suspense on Wednesday was whether the match would set a record for the most-attended women’s sporting event.
After the second set concluded with Nebraska well on its way to a victory, the public address announcer declared just that: a reported attendance of 92,003 people. That broke the American record — 90,185, set at the 1999 Women’s World Cup final between the United States and China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. — as well as the international mark, set at an April 2022 Champions League match in Barcelona, Spain, between F.C. Barcelona and Wolfsburg that was attended by 91,648 people.
“I love volleyball,” said Dylan Folda, a senior at Nebraska who attended the event, which also featured an exhibition match between two Division II programs in Nebraska. “They’re successful here, and they’re always fun to watch every year.”
The event resembled a full-day party for the state of Nebraska. Fans packed downtown Lincoln before noon and made their way to Memorial Stadium hours before the Cornhuskers made their entrance, many carrying signs of support for the team. Beer, which is normally not sold during football games, was flowing, and vendors surrounded the stadium, trying to capitalize on the mania.
At a moment when the dominant issue in college sports is conference realignment in football, Nebraska’s Volleyball Day served as an example of a growing realization among universities that investing in women’s sports can be great for business.
More and more athletic programs are seeing gains from women’s sports that challenge the outdated notion that there isn’t enough demand to make women’s programs financially sustainable. Now, business opportunities have manifested, many times in gimmicky ways previously seen mainly in men’s sports (for instance, recall basketball games played on aircraft carriers).
The Iowa women’s basketball team will host its own outdoor event on a football field this October, a scrimmage against DePaul that will highlight its star guard, Caitlin Clark. The Oklahoma softball team held a series of intrasquad scrimmages last October, treating its home crowd to a barrage of home runs before winning its third consecutive Women’s College World Series title.
According to Patrick Rishe, the director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, rules allowing athletes to make money off their name, image and likeness, known as N.I.L., as well as shifting societal views on gender equity, have contributed to greater investment in women’s sports, leading to events like Volleyball Day.
Not every Division I school has the same set of circumstances that would allow it to conjure what Nebraska has with its volleyball team. The state has no major professional sports teams, and the football program for its flagship university enjoys a near-monopoly on college sports fandom. (Ask Husker fans about fair-weather fans of Creighton men’s basketball.)
According to public records obtained by The Lincoln Journal Star, just one of 522 women’s sports programs at public universities in six major conferences — the Big East, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12, Southeastern Conference and Pac-12 — turned a profit in 2022. That one program was Nebraska volleyball.
In Lincoln, an immediate catalyst for Volleyball Day was competitive fire. The previous attendance record for the sport also belonged to Nebraska, but it came by way of a loss to Wisconsin in the 2021 national championship match in Columbus, Ohio, which 18,755 people attended. Motivated by that defeat, and boosted by a loyal fan base and even the state’s governor, Jim Pillen, the school made a plan to break not just the N.C.A.A. volleyball attendance mark, but the record for all women’s sports globally.
The seeds of the event were planted all the way back in the early 1990s. At that time, Husker football reigned supreme in Lincoln, and the team won three national championships in four seasons, forging a legacy that still resonates throughout college football, and certainly for Nebraskans in all corners of the state. Husker fans pine for those days, as the football program has made three coaching changes since its last 10-win season and has not won a bowl game since 2015.
For fans at Memorial Stadium on Wednesday, Nebraska volleyball was more than a vehicle for entering the record books: Supporting Cornhusker sports ran in their blood.
“It was just like a family thing,” said Zainab Funnah, a sophomore at Nebraska from Lincoln who is a member of the track and field team. “I grew up watching volleyball, football, basketball, everything in Nebraska.”
Trev Alberts, Nebraska’s athletic director, said in an interview that the volleyball coach in those days wanted to capitalize on the fervor for football, so Nebraska let many football fans into volleyball matches for free if they showed their football tickets, with the events often happening in succession and near one another in Lincoln.
But as the volleyball team continued to win — capturing its first national championship in 1995, before winning four more in the new millennium — that free lunch vanished.
Now, good luck finding volleyball tickets in Nebraska.
The demand has been resounding, and fans who want season tickets have had to navigate a long waiting list. The Nebraska volleyball team has led the sport in average attendance — more than 8,000 — every season since 2013, when it moved to a new, larger arena, not counting the pandemic-affected 2020 season. Many of its athletes have also benefited from loosened rules on endorsements.
According to data from Opendorse, which tracks N.I.L. deals and endorsements, the average N.I.L. compensation per deal for women’s volleyball players in the Power Five conferences since July 2021 is more than $3,000, with the Big Ten leading the way.
Though Opendorse does not rank universities by average N.I.L. compensation, a spokeswoman for the platform said the level of interest in a given program is a reasonable approximation for how much players are making from N.I.L. Lexi Rodriguez, the Nebraska libero who drew the biggest cheers during Wednesday’s pregame lineup announcements, has deals with the tax preparation company H&R Block and the rebates app Ibotta.
Even as the sun set over Memorial Stadium on Wednesday, the party wasn’t over, as a bombastic light and fireworks show turned the sky over Lincoln bright red.
Nebraska does not expect to make a killing off the single event. Alberts said the school expects net revenue of $750,000 to $1 million from Volleyball Day, which it will share with the three other schools that participated. There were no immediate plans for another event next year, he said.
But the match and its record crowd have drummed up interest in the program — interest that is likely to pay future dividends for both the team and the university.
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