On Saturday, Nebraska hosted Illinois in women’s volleyball. For most people, this was a non-event, “must-see TV” that ranked up there with C-SPAN reruns and that weird guy on the cable access channel.
But for some folks, this was one of the most anticipated volleyball matches of the season. Illinois came into the match as the #1 team in the country. Nebraska came in ranked 4th. After 16 dominating seasons in the Big XII, Nebraska is in their first season in the Big 10 – a very strong volleyball conference. The match was a clash of volleyball powers and would give the winner an inside track to the Big 10 title.
Those who wanted to watch this clash had few options. While Nebraska’s home arena (the fabled Coliseum) seats over 4,000 fans, Nebraska fans have sold out over 150 straight matches. When Nebraska was in the Big XII, most of their home matches were televised in-state by Nebraska Educational Television. Many of those telecasts would be simulcasted nationally by CBS College Sports.
One of the big selling points for Nebraska joining the Big Ten was the Big Ten Network (BTN). Yes, BTN is mostly known for showing the football games of Big Ten schools, but they broadcast events from all sports. So it simply made sense that Saturday’s premier Big Ten volleyball showdown would air on BTN – which it did….on Sunday.
That’s right, BTN aired the match on tape-delay: at 8 am and 5 pm on Sunday. At 7 pm on Saturday, BTN aired a football highlights show.
Now don’t get me wrong: I get that football is the pilot, co-pilot, and first officer of college athletics. For better and for worse, it is the 800 pound gorilla that gets (and deserves) plenty of air time. I completely understand that the majority of BTN’s viewers would rather watch highlights of the Indiana-Iowa football game than a clash of college volleyball powerhouses. I am in no way suggesting that the Big Ten or BTN should set football aside to air volleyball live.
What I am suggesting is the Big Ten should move the volleyball matches so they are not going up against football.
Look: Volleyball is a niche sport, but it is a niche sport with the potential to be a solid performer on TV. First and foremost, there are some incredible athletes on these teams – quick, powerful, able to leap out of the gym, and drive a ball at 70 mph. The game is both easy to pick up (no more than 3 hits per side, when the ball hits the floor or goes out somebody gets a point, play to 25 points and win by 2) and complex in terms of strategy, defense, and numerous other factors. And yes, there is definitely a demographic who watches for the athletic young women in bun-hugger shorts (why do you think NBC puts beach volleyball in primetime during the Olympics?) Bottom line: with the proper exposure and promotion, the sport could be a respectable draw on TV.
Unfortunately, that is simply not going to happen when it is going head to head with college football and the World Series. Ideally, the NCAA would shift the volleyball season to the spring when fewer marquee sports are playing and cable sports channels are looking for something to bridge the gap between the NCAA tournament and the College World Series.
Until that happens, the Big Ten and the Big Ten Network need to schedule volleyball matches during the week when they can be televised. Yes, it could mean increased time away from campus for teams on the road, but other college teams (notably men’s and women’s basketball) are playing mid-week games for increased TV exposure. If other sports can gain exposure by playing their games on TV – live, not tape delayed – then why can’t volleyball?