On Wednesday, August 30th, the state of Nebraska attempted something big. Like... really big. World-record setting big. And importantly, they pulled it off.
92,003 fans packed Memorial Stadium to watch their Nebraska Cornhuskers play a pre-season game against Omaha, a team from only 50 miles away. There were no title stakes, compelling conference implications, or otherwise noteworthy features of the game - and yet, they came.
The genesis of this was the pettiness that makes college sports great - Wisconsin’s recent overthrow of Nebraska’s single-match attendance record reportedly sparked the idea to not just take it back, but shatter it. It’s no secret that Nebraskans love their volleyball, and there was a large stadium downtown that hosted a perennially under-performing team— what if the game could be held there?
Still, there was some risk - what if this Major Volleyball Event was planned, and only 12k showed up? That’s still a great crowd, but it would look a little silly in a stadium designed to hold nearly 90,000. So the Big Red Marketing Machine stepped up, and volleyball day in Nebraska was born. The event would feature four Nebraska teams (Where was Creighton? I actually don’t know, and am curious) playing two matches, UNL’s classes would be canceled (John Cook: “Only three things shut down the University of Nebraska: Snow storms, Covid, and HUSKER VOLLEYBALL!!!”), and both matches would be televised. It would be a Major Event.
And, it was. Huge props to John Cook and those who had the vision for this event, but I also have to hand it to the Nebraska Athletic Department for not half-assing this. It felt like a football game day, the stadium ran smoothly, there was a massive flyover during the anthem, and the pyrotechnic team had themselves a DAY. There was a drone light show following the match, as well as a post-match concert with the stage set up on the opposite end of the field. The production was top-notch, and it was great to see the volleyball team being feted this way. All manner of national and even international outlets picked up the earthshaking news that 92,003 people had shown up to watch a women’s college volleyball match.
Which brings us to the real reason this matters.
Female athletes deserve this too. All of it. The pomp, the coverage, the fireworks, the butts in the seats. The cheers, the accolades, the AP Newswires. The production values, the event-specific fan t-shirts, the little kids getting autographs. Women deserve it too.
Watching the Tunnel Walk from Memorial Stadium, I started crying, a wholly unexpected reaction. I love Husker volleyball, follow it closely, and go to quite a few matches, so I was excited, but didn’t expect tears.
I think it was two things. First, the joy - look at Lexi Rodriguez’s face during that video and try not to feel something. I’m not saying football players don’t feel excited or amped walking out of that tunnel, but there’s also an air of entitlement around their attitudes. They expect that there will be tens of thousands of people on the other side of that door, even though they aren’t actually very good at football. No one has ever told them that big crowds should ever be anything but the expected norm as a D-1 athlete at a Power Five school. The Husker volleyball team is actually very good at their sport - but there’s still a palpable sense of wonder that 92,003 people are on the other side of that door to see THEM.
And second, it’s the power of seeing women in a place or position where men expect to be, and where women too often are not. Weirdly, I felt similar feelings and cried similar tears when I watched Vice President Harris be sworn in. “There’s a woman there, finally. It has always been men.” And... “This is amazing. But why isn’t it the norm?” The “it has always been that way for men” is obviously not a new feature of the world, we all know it exists - and that’s why seeing these moments where it’s upended are so powerful for many of us. I want things like a female VP and a massive fan following for women’s athletic teams to be normal things for girls to grow up seeing, not historic aberrations. It has to start somewhere, of course. And that’s why this display of investment and support has the potential to be so important.
For too long, the Conventional Wisdom surrounding women’s athletics has been that it can’t be invested in/promoted/elevated to anywhere near the level of men’s sports, because “no one will watch it.” The assumption is not only that the audience doesn’t exist, but that it cannot exist. This has resulted in a lack of television exposure, less-desirable playing times, and worse facilities, all under the guise that there isn’t enough audience support to justify any of these “privileges.” In fact, these decisions actively sabotage and prevent women’s athletics from finding an audience, and then blame the sports or athletes themselves for not being more popular.
I’d be naive to believe that 92,003 people are showing up for volleyball everywhere - Nebraska truly is special in its support of women’s teams, and in particular its beloved volleyball team. I’d also be remiss if I pretended that this was the result of one magical summer of marketing, and not the product of literal decades of hard work, success, and a steady promotion of Husker volleyball. But even with these caveats... 92,003 people did show up to watch women play a sport. How can we see that and continue to tell our daughters that the audience does not and cannot exist for women’s athletics?
I’m so proud of my state for making this incredible moment happen, and for shattering NCAA, national, and world records for watching women’s athletics. It was a truly great day for Nebraska. But I’m not sure I want our record to last forever. I’d rather live in a world where this was an instigating event, and where tens of thousands of people routinely watch women excel in their sports, and command sold-out crowds in their home stadiums. Where women’s tournaments are actually on TV. None of this changes overnight - but this event proves that the time to start building these audiences, programs, and demand is now. It might be a long, hard slog, but it is worth it: