Women’s college volleyball has never been more popular, especially across the Midwest.
Five Big Ten Conference programs rank among the top 10 nationally in attendance this season, with Nebraska (8,195 fans per game) again leading the nation and Minnesota (4,782) at No. 4. And one-off matches at large venues are gaining traction. Wisconsin drew an NCAA regular season-record 16,833 to a September match against Florida at the Kohl Center, the campus basketball and hockey arena, nine days after Nebraska and Creighton attracted 15,797 to the CHI Health Center in downtown Omaha.
Here’s an ever more impressive metric: On the Big Ten Network, only football and men’s basketball earn consistently higher ratings than volleyball, which jockeys with wrestling for third place. That popularity holds true at Minnesota, where only the three major men’s sports (football, basketball and hockey) draw better. Big Ten matches often sell out the 5,500-capacity Maturi Pavilion, aka The Pav, the former hockey venue attached to Williams Arena. The place rocks, with fans engaging a “Point U!” call-and-response with the Gophers’ public address announcer after each point.
(You won’t hear that Friday or Saturday when the U hosts first and second round NCAA Tournament matches, because the NCAA requires host schools to tone down the theatrics.)
Even so, college volleyball programs generally lose a lot of money, not only at the U but across the NCAA. Between coaching salaries and travel, it’s an expensive sport, with little to no media rights revenue to defray costs. Only Nebraska’s program turns a profit, mainly from ticket sales; the Huskers have sold out 303 consecutive matches in Lincoln since 2001.
At the U, volleyball ran a roughly $2.26 million deficit in 2019-20, according to the university’s annual NCAA Financial Report. (That covers the last season before the pandemic.) The loss might have been higher had COVID-19 restrictions not limited recruiting travel. And it’s not much different anywhere else.
Still, outgoing Gophers Coach Hugh McCutcheon believes volleyball can eventually be a revenue generator for the university. With expenses for athletics on the rise and institutions eager to cut non-football costs, he thinks it’s a topic worth exploring.
“I’m not saying volleyball needs to be a revenue sport tomorrow,” McCutcheon said. “But has volleyball shown, at least in this conference, that it’s possible? Yes, it has. Nebraska runs at a profit. Other schools are getting close. It’s certainly worth having that conversation.”
How can it happen at the U? Let’s look into it. Spoiler alert: It won’t come cheap.
The Nebraska way
It started as these things usually do, with an insult.
Shortly after Nebraska volleyball Coach John Cook took over from Terry Pettit in 2000, a Cornhuskers booster group known as The Beef Club invited him to speak. In Cook’s retelling of the story, his talk referenced a costly international trip the Huskers were planning that requiring significant fund-raising.
In the subsequent question-and-answer session, Cook said one attendee asked who was paying for the trip. Cook mentioned several independent funding sources, but apparently the man didn’t believe him. “If it wasn’t for football,” Cook recalled the man saying, “You wouldn’t be able to go.”
While inaccurate, the remark still stung, because Cook knew where it came from – the perception women’s sports freeload off “King Football.”
“I walked out of there and made a vow: Someday we’re going to shut that guy up,” Cook said at a recent press conference in Lincoln. (Cook, through a university representative, declined an interview request from MinnPost.)
The following season Cook challenged Nebraska fans to start a sellout streak like that of Cornhusker football, which began in 1962 and continues to this day. Spurred by an undefeated season and NCAA title in 2000, they responded. Sellouts continued even as the program moved in 2013 from the 4,000-capacity NU Coliseum to the much larger Bob Devaney Sports Center (7,907).
A $20 million renovation championed by former athletic director Tom Osborne turned Devaney into a cash machine, with six suites and 128 pricey courtside seats for high rollers who gladly pony up additional $2,000 donations for the privilege. The Huskers have led the NCAA in attendance every year since the move despite charging some of the highest prices in country – $16 to $18 per match for single seats, and up to $306 for season tickets. Five NCAA titles since 1995, four with Cook as head coach, keep fans coming.
Tickets for this season sold out before the first match, according to a Nebraska official, and the season ticket waiting list runs about 1,000 deep. Huskers volleyball generated $2.16 million in ticket revenue in 2019-20 per its NCAA Financial Report, more than three times as much as Minnesota ($686,558). Interest is so great all matches are broadcast on the Huskers Radio Network, with some even on Nebraska Public Television.
“We could have lost a generation of fans by staying the Coliseum, because people weren’t giving up their seats, and we have an older crowd,” Cook said at the press conference. “We didn’t have a student section. If a high school team wanted to come in, they couldn’t get into the Coliseum, There were no tickets.
“By opening Devaney, we got 4,000 more season tickets and a whole new generation of fans. A lot of those are younger families and younger kids. I see how many kids are down there in the hallway after matches. It was a great move.”
So what can the Gophers do to match Nebraska?
Start with the obvious: A major renovation and expansion of the Pav into a modern, 8,000-seat venue with suites. That’s more likely than building a new arena, though neither option will happen soon. Travis Cameron, the U’s assistant athletics director and chief revenue officer, said there’s nothing of that scope in the university’s Six Year Capital Plan for building projects through 2027. (A 2018 remodel of the Pav added air conditioning, up-to-date training facilities and a club room upstairs for boosters.)
Plan B involves moving some popular Big Ten matches to a larger venue. Cameron said the U has looked into playing at the Target Center, site of the 2018 NCAA Final Four, as well as Williams and Mariucci Arenas on campus.
McCutcheon isn’t keen on the 14,624-seat Williams Arena for two reasons. He’s reluctant to give up the Pav’s familiarity and raucous atmosphere. And he considers The Barn’s raised floor unsafe.
“It’s kind of goofy,” he said. “When I first got here (in 2012) we played in there a couple of times. But if you’re pursuing a ball, chasing or diving, and you know there’s three-foot drop at the end of it, it gets a little dicey, I think.
“The venue’s a great venue in terms of seating and the juice in the building, all that good stuff. Great. You could sell tickets and get it going. But the floor, in my opinion, is probably a limiting factor.”
Mariucci, which holds about 10,000, makes more sense, though it would mean temporarily displacing Gopher men’s hockey. (Gophs skaters could practice next door at Ridder Arena, where women’s hockey plays; a tunnel connects the venues.) Cameron said the U prefers on-campus venues to the Target Center, where building rental and related costs would eat up a big chunk of the profits.
Then there’s Plan C: Higher ticket prices paired with more aggressive fund-raising.
Gopher tickets are among the best deals in town. Season tickets top out at $250. Regular-season individual match tickets, once as cheap as $5, go for $15 and $10, the same as Gopher women’s basketball. But that top price is only $4 more than Nebraska charges for standing room ($11). Defending national champion Wisconsin, meanwhile, gets $525 for its top season ticket and up to $24 for single seats.
McCutcheon wonders whether the Gophs are charging enough for a nationally-ranked program with NCAA title aspirations.
“When you see tickets on StubHub going for $150 and we’re charging $5 a pop or whatever it is, it seems like there’s a disparity there between the actual value and the perceived value,” McCutcheon said. “We also know our fans are price sensitive. We’re not saying we’re going to gouge anyone. I’m just saying, what will the market bear? There are some indicators that maybe there’s some opportunity there.”
Ticket prices remain a touchy subject at the U, roughly 10 years removed from former athletic director Norwood Teague’s widely unpopular scholarship seating plan requiring mandatory donations on top of the cost of season tickets. Most “seats” at the Pav are still bleachers, and Gopher fans are notoriously frugal. What’s a fair price for a wooden slab at a pre-World War II venue?
There’s also the matter of McCutcheon’s departure as head coach after this season. McCutcheon took the Gophers to 10 NCAA Tournaments and three Final Fours in 11 seasons. If the U bumps prices too much and things go south under the next coach, how many season ticket holders would bail? Cameron said the U weighs all that in any discussion of pricing.
“With volleyball, the biggest revenue streams (are) ticket sales and fund-raising,” Cameron said. “If we can’t sell more tickets, the only thing we can do is charge more, and we’re always cautious when we have those conversations.
“One of the best opportunities I think Nebraska capitalized (on) is the venue they play in. Not only do they have a lot of seats in their venue, but a lot of quality seats … The number of high-quality or standard-quality seats in Maturi Pavilion is significantly less than a number of our counterparts.”
Volleyball fundraising at the U, overseen by the Golden Gopher Fund, also lags behind Nebraska and Wisconsin. In 2020 contributions at the U totaled $96,855, significantly less than the Badgers ($291,161) and Huskers ($270,532). The Gophers’ volleyball booster club disbanded several years ago.
There’s one more piece to this that longtime Gopher fans and boosters find incredulous: Despite strong ratings, volleyball programs receive no direct revenue from the Big Ten Network. Cameron says it all goes to football and men’s basketball. Carving out some TV money for volleyball would reduce deficits significantly. Gopher volleyball also has no local TV agreement, and its limited radio broadcasts essentially break even, Cameron said.
There’s certainly plenty of TV money out there. The Big Ten’s new agreement with Fox, CBS and NBC reportedly calls for $80 million to $100 million annually to each school. That’s up from the $53.4 million most received in 2019-20, according to USA Today as reported by ESPN.
“If we really want to flip the dialog, we’ve got to figure out how to monetize volleyball on TV and radio,” Cameron said. “But we also have to squeeze what we have. We have to take a look at ways to play in larger venues. We’ve got to take a look at maximizing revenue from the tickets we’re selling.
“We’re looking at new and creative stuff, but every time we look at the numbers, there’s not a silver bullet. Unfortunately, it’s going to have to be little things that add up over time that get us closer to that revenue positive piece. And every step in that direction is good. If we close that gap to $1 million or $1.5 million or $500,000, that helps the athletic department’s bottom line and the university’s bottom line. That’s ultimately what we’re trying to ensure.”