Women's volleyball is growing fast. And this may only be the beginning.
The 2023 NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship broke the all-time collegiate volleyball attendance record for an indoor venue as 19,727 fans gathered in Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, to watch Texas defeat Nebraska to win the national title Sunday. The previous record was set just three days prior, when 19,598 volleyball fans attended the semifinal matches.
The championship match between Texas and Nebraska — the first NCAA volleyball championship to be broadcast on ABC — set a TV viewership record for the sport, averaging 1.7 million viewers opposite Sunday NFL games. This represents a 115% increase from last year's championship match's viewership of 786,000. This year's semifinal matches were also the most watched ever, averaging 1.1 million viewers.
Sunday's @NCAAVolleyball National Championship was the most-watched #NCAAWVB match in HISTORY— ESPN PR (@ESPNPR) December 19, 2023
🏐 Averaged 1.7M viewers, up 115% from '22
🏐 Peaked with 2.1M viewers
🏐 Female viewership up 151% from '22 pic.twitter.com/zJ3lYAf8ST
"Having our finals on ABC for the first time ever is a massive deal," Katie George, a former volleyball student-athlete at Louisville and current ESPN broadcaster, said. "I think people are finally seeing that this is such a fun sport to watch. It's so fast paced, and the athleticism that's displayed from point to point is truly amazing."
This record-setting weekend closed out a groundbreaking season in which in-person attendance, viewership and digital fan engagement reached all-time highs. The tone for such a historic season was set early, as the Aug. 30 Nebraska vs. Omaha match drew 92,003 fans to the football team's Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska, breaking the world record for the largest attendance at a women's sporting event.
"The fact that we had a world attendance record break for the most attended female sporting event globally this year with the Nebraska match is a testament to how much people not only support Nebraska, but how people support women's volleyball and female athletics," said Jordyn Poulter, former NCAA volleyball student-athlete at Illinois, current U.S. women's national team member and 2020 Olympic gold medalist who was on-site in Tampa. "It's really cool to see."
This momentum continued throughout the season on a national scale, as more than 30 Division I schools reported setting attendance records at volleyball matches during regular-season play and the American Volleyball Coaches Association reported that more than 3.6 million fans attended college volleyball matches this season.
Increased fan engagement was not limited to in-person attendance, as this was the most-viewed regular season of women's college volleyball on ESPN. Regular-season matches averaged 116,000 viewers on ESPN platforms, a 58% increase from last year.
This record-breaking season highlights the NCAA's commitment to the growth of women's sports and sports that have historically received less promotional resources. Women's volleyball was one of six NCAA championship sports included in the NCAA's fall sports social media campaign, which focused on elevating and bringing awareness to these sports.
NCAA volleyball accounts experienced some of the most significant growth and success during the campaign, as the NCAA volleyball Instagram account drew the most impressions, engagements and video views across all sports and platforms. The NCAA volleyball Twitter/X, Facebook and Instagram accounts all experienced a significant net audience growth, with Instagram leading the way with 61,630 new followers. Content published during the campaign not only highlighted the athletic achievements of volleyball student-athletes, but also showcased student-athlete profiles and personalities. This allowed content to reach more casual sports fans on social media, which contributed to audience growth and increased fan engagement.
As women's volleyball continues to experience growth at the collegiate level, it is also gaining significant popularity at the youth and high school levels. NCAA President Charlie Baker is confident that this increased interest means that the growth of the sport will continue in the future.
"This is not the end; this is a trend," he said. "The sport has tremendous momentum with the fan community, but it also has tremendous momentum with young people. Young women are getting into this sport in a big way, and I think that means nothing but positivity and growth going forward."
Although women's volleyball has gained more fan attention nationwide in recent years, NCAA volleyball has a rich history of producing professional athletes and Olympians, many of whom credit their time spent as student-athletes with preparing them to compete at the highest level. In fact, 100% of the 2020 U.S. Olympic women's indoor volleyball team competed collegiately.
Current U.S. women's national team members Morgan Hentz and Poulter both competed at the highest level in the NCAA and were on-site at this year's historic championship. At Stanford, Hentz won three national championships and was a three-time American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American. Poulter competed for Illinois where she was a national semifinalist, AVCA All-American and a Honda Award finalist. Both Hentz and Poulter have their sights set on the 2024 Paris Olympic Games and appreciate the role that NCAA competition has played in helping them achieve success in their careers.
"Playing at Stanford definitely helped prepare me for my professional career," Hentz said. "The level of play at Stanford was incredible, and I felt like I had tons of resources to help me grow as a player and a person."
"I feel so privileged to have had such a great student-athlete experience," Poulter added. "(College volleyball) gave me realistic expectations for the challenge that I was going to face trying to make the national team and play abroad, and I'm super grateful."
Entering an Olympic year, Hentz and Poulter look forward to the possibility of representing Team USA on the biggest stage with the support of a fan base that continues to grow. After a record-setting year, the volleyball community is excited about the potential for continued growth and increased engagement at all levels of play in the future.
"I think we have so much momentum right now in terms of the growth of the sport," George said. "We have to continue to ride this wave."