It’s the most wonderful time of the year—the NCAA Volleyball Tournament!
Well... not really. Usually it’s in December. And usually there’s a full field of 64 teams. But of course, it’s Covid’s world, and we’re all just living in it.
I will get to when your team is playing in what are hopefully not very exciting second-round matches, but first, I need to get some excoriating of the NCAA off my chest.
The NCAA and Women’s Athletics
As you may recall, only a month or so ago, the NCAA was under fire for running the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament like the FYRE Festival. The disparities between the Men’s Tournament and the Women’s Tournament were many, and you can read a full list of them here. But a few “highlights” included male basketball players dining on lobster mac and cheese, while women... uh, didn’t get that. They got... airline food, it appears?
Bubble Life— Alan Bishop (@CoachAlanBishop) March 18, 2021
Potatoes Au Gratin
Lobster Mac & Cheese
Potatoes Au Graten
That ain’t bad!!! pic.twitter.com/7qey3BiXwQ
(I admit I’m intrigued by the possible differences between “Potatoes au Gratin” and “Potatoes au Graten.”)
There was also the well-documented difference between the men’s weight facilities, and the women’s weight... “facilities”:
It was a bad look for the NCAA, and seemed a clear indication of their lack of support and respect for female athletes. So, surely they learned from this outcry, and can do better with the NCAA Women’s Volleyball Tournament, right?
Tourney Field and Location
In the first place, the tournament was downsized from the usual 64 teams to 48, with all matches to be held in Omaha over ten days. Fine, Covid, whatever. However, it probably didn’t have to be quite this restrictive, and we know this because the NCAA found a way to host a full tournament (including play-in games!) for men’s basketball (the women’s tournament also had 64 teams). If 64 teams poses some unconquerable risk over 48 teams in volleyball, then why didn’t it in basketball?
They limited travel in basketball’s case too, using sites only within the state of Indiana. Couldn’t the same thing have been done here as well? In addition to the convention center, Creighton and Nebraska are both within an hour’s drive, and both have excellent D1 facilities. That would give the tournament three sites to work with, and allow them to spread out the matches more successfully instead of stacking them on top of each other. In the first two days of the tournament, the schedule currently calls for four matches to be played simultaneously. Wow, great exposure for these teams there, tourney organizers.
Television and Coverage
Let’s talk about exposure. If you’re looking forward to watching these teams... well, it’s pretty difficult to do that. ESPN will be streaming all of the matches... on ESPN3. If anyone has ever used ESPN3 for anything, I’d love to hear about it. They may as well have stuck these matches on The Ocho.
Oh, and ESPN’s first plan was to just... not announce the games. The NCAA, washing its hands yet again, claimed broadcasters had “no requirement” to provide commentary for the first two rounds of the tournament. ESPN pleaded “additional technical challenges” because of the pandemic, which is pretty clearly bullshit when the matches are all taking place in one building, and they found ways to broadcast basketball games all over Indiana. BTN regularly airs volleyball, with commentary, and goodness, so does NET (Nebraska’s PBS Station)—and did so this year—so you’d think a behemoth with the resources of ESPN could handle these “technical challenges,” wouldn’t you?
The Big Ten’s coaches were among the most vocal of critics over these shortcomings. #1 Wisconsin’s Kelly Sheffield said:
“It’s stunning they’re not (having) a broadcast team... To me it’s just lazy . . . that you’re just going to be looking at silence while watching NCAA tournament games... it’s going to come across as a high school type of deal.”
Purdue’s Dave Shondell was similarly disgusted, calling the decision “bush league.” He said “Women’s volleyball is not worthy of announcers?” he wrote. “Plenty [of] capable commentators happy to do the work for free. Let’s get organized.”
ESPN finally relented, and are providing “remote announcers” for the first two rounds... though still on ESPN3.
The decision to group all of the matches into a single convention center also drew ire, not only because it gave the whole thing the flavor of a high school tournament instead of a National Championship Tournament, the goal and pinnacle of many players’ careers. It also was revealed that the provisions for locker rooms were... not particularly great. Initially, Sports Illustrated reported that “locker rooms would not be available in the early rounds of the tournament.” Nebraska Head Coach John Cook was not impressed, and pointed out the obvious issue to the AP: “Volleyball players warm up and then change into their uniforms. How does that work if you’re in the middle of convention Hall C?”
The NCAA has since stated that each team will have “a secure changing area” on site... but after seeing the “weight room” for women’s basketball players, one doesn’t feel overly optimistic about this preparation.
There are at least two big takeaways and disappointments with what has happened here. The first is that it reveals the lack of seriousness with which the NCAA treats female athletes. It seems that Covid offered them a chance to really skimp on what they give these athletes—but the exertions on behalf of men’s teams revealed that “safety” was not ever the main motivator here. If you’re going to have tournaments, then have them. If something is safe enough to do for the men’s teams, you can do it for the women’s teams. If the set-up of the women’s tournaments is really the safest the sport can be, then you need to answer for why you endangered people for the men’s tournaments. There is no reasonable explanation here except for not giving a sh*t about women’s athletics.
And that leads us to the next missed opportunity in this whole fiasco. “But it’s about money! The women’s teams don’t bring in the money!” I know is the rejoinder of some. Ok... but how are they supposed to bring in money when there is no investment in making their sports available to the public? How are they supposed to build a fanbase when the NCAA and ESPN are actively making it a chore to watch a sub-standard broadcast?
This year actually offered a unique opportunity to the NCAA to build the audience of what is already a sport with a serious following. Usually, the volleyball tournament is competing with the end of football season and the beginning of men’s basketball season - two things which broadcasters and the NCAA care dearly about. This year... there isn’t that conflict! Why not go big? Why not make a feature of this great sport? As thousands of volleyball fans in the Big Ten and across the country can attest, it’s an exciting game with dazzling athleticism - why not give it this chance to attract some new fans?
Women’s sports are routinely dismissed because they don’t “generate revenue” or don’t “have fan support.” And yet, many women’s programs have shown that with sustained support and promotion, vibrant, committed fanbases do indeed follow these teams. Nebraska volleyball has been sold out for 270 straight matches, a streak that dates to 2001. There aren’t a lot of men’s football or basketball programs that can boast that kind of fan support. Cultivating fan bases for women’s sports might take longer and might take more creativity because of the long history of marginalizing and disdaining female athletes—but this doesn’t mean it can’t be done. For the NCAA and ESPN to pretend that these incredible athletes are inherently non-bankable, unpopular, and undeserving of exposure is the grossest sexism. The attitude seems to be “They should just be happy they get to play,” and it’s well past time we get past that.
Anyway, I have the NCAA to thank for some great new material for the next time I teach my college course on the history of collegiate sports - you can bet we’ll be analyzing this spring’s tournaments in our discussion of gender equity in sports.
Hey ho, let’s do talk about the tournament though. As mentioned above, you’ll have a hard time watching any of the early round action - it’s all on ESPN3. If you can do it, I urge you to—showing support for this tournament is important. If you can’t stream it, tweet about it. For most in the Big Ten, I suspect you’ll have an easier time tracking down the games on your school’s broadcasting apparatus - Nebraska, for example, has a hilarious and knowledgeable duo behind the mic in John Baylor and Lauren Cook West.
Here’s the bracket.
You can see the entire schedule here (as well as the announcers assigned by ESPN after they got called out.)
All of the Big Ten teams were seeded this year (including Penn State, which... um, was definitely based on name recognition and not on-court performance, but we’ll see what they do with it), and that means that although the tournament starts today, no Big Ten teams play until Thursday.
Thursday, April 15 (all games aired on ESPN3...)
9-seed Ohio State vs. Missouri
5-seed Nebraska vs. Texas St.
7-seed Purdue vs. High Point
1-seed Wisconsin vs. Bowling Green/Weber State
3-seed Minnesota vs. Georgia Tech/Lipscomb
13-seed Penn State vs. NoCar A&M/Rice (super good planning to have a team from Pennsylvania playing at 10:30 pm. Build that audience.)
All my saltiness aside, I hope you get a chance to check out these incredible athletes during the tournament. Hopefully, all of the Big Ten teams make it through the second round, and we’ll get a chance to see them on ESPNU and ESPN2.
Have you ever used ESPN3?
This poll is closed
No, I prefer "The Ocho"