Last week, the scene at the University of Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium seemed rather familiar.
As “Sirius”—the Alan Parsons Project hit popularized by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls—played, all attention was on the large stadium display screens where the Nebraska Cornhuskers could be seen exiting their locker room and walking toward the field. A closed door with a large red Nebraska logo that the team would soon emerge from and faux subtle smoke circulating around it seemed to taunt anticipating fans who understood just how close their summer-long wait was to ending.
To many, the end of summer means the return of college football, which is traditionally one of the greatest sources of school and state pride in the United States. In Nebraska, one of 13 states with no major professional sports franchises, the arrival of their collegiate team means all the more. Every fall, they flock to the stadium and electrify it with palpable excitement as they await the grand entrance of their favorite team.
But in this instance, the school and state pride that emanated from the stadium was not for men’s football—it was for Nebraska’s women’s volleyball team.
Volleyball Day in Nebraska, the groundbreaking sporting event announced at the end of last volleyball season with the goal of shattering all kinds of attendance records, had finally arrived.
By the time the first serve was put in play, the sea of red Nebraska apparel was 92,003 fans strong—strong enough to set a world record for attendance at a women’s sporting event, the record for attendance at a NCAA volleyball match and the Memorial Stadium attendance record.
The event was the ultimate celebration of the tremendous legacy of success Nebraska volleyball has enjoyed in 23 years under head coach John Cook, one that has the Cornhuskers perennially ranked among the top five programs in the country. Usually, the team plays in a facility that seats over 13,000 fans—pretty standard capacity for major college volleyball or basketball—and there is never a seat to spare.
While Nebraska has not won a national championship in football since 1997, the women’s volleyball program most recently won a national championship in 2017 and often appears in the Final Four. Volleyball Day in Nebraska made it clear that Cornhusker fans had taken notice.
Of course, the support extending to such a historic venue was to an extent expected—an athletic program cannot risk announcing such an ambitious production without knowing it will succeed to a certain level. But that should not take away from all that is special and right about nearly five percent of Nebraska’s population crowding in to enjoy a sporting event, not because of tradition or stereotype, but because a team’s sustained success merited it. The event produced peak collegiate athletics pageantry and did so for all of the right reasons.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the match was that it was not a major showdown between two powerhouses. It was a match that Nebraska won three sets to zero without conceding more than 14 points in a single set against a team that is currently winless on the season.
If Nebraska women’s volleyball was able to garner a record-breaking crowd for a game of such minor consequence, who is to say similar iterations will not be produced by others?
By putting on such a spectacle, Nebraska has put pressure on their major competitors to match them in some way. Prior to Volleyball Day in Nebraska, the University of Wisconsin’s women’s volleyball team held the record for attendance at a women’s volleyball game at 16,833. With that record now crushed, Wisconsin and other major programs like defending-champion Texas are forced to be creative in similar ways to not fall behind Nebraska. Recruiting, which is of the utmost importance in major collegiate sports, enters the picture here. For as much as the best programs in the country are so because of their coaches and training, their success also hinges on the level of talent they are able to bring in.
With all eyes now on Nebraska, the ball is now in their competitors’ court. How the next evolutions of the historic Volleyball Day take form remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, though: It will be great for all sports in the United States.