Waves of excitement rolled across the volleyball community in Colorado after a new world record attendance mark was set for a women’s sporting event Wednesday at the University of Nebraska. A total of 92,003 fans attended a match between Nebraska and The University of Omaha.
“Really cool to see the people around coach Cook dream bigger and I’m super stoked for him,” said University of Denver Women’s Volleyball coach Megan Pendergast, who played volleyball at Nebraska as a freshman and sophomore.
Pendergast texted with Nebraska coach John Cook the morning after the big game, which was won by Nebraska. “I think the most poetic part about it is Coach Cook’s theme is always dream big,” said Pendergast.
The fans at Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium cheered when the new attendance record was announced during the game. Some of the tickets were reportedly sold on the secondary market for several hundred dollars. All of it renewed discussion about the growing popularity of women’s sports. Volleyball is now the top sport for girls at the high school level. Denver hosts the Colorado Crossroads junior national volleyball tournament in March at the Convention Center attracting thousands of players and fans. It is considered one of the best college recruiting events in the country. Big crowds have also started to pack in for women’s volleyball games at the college level in Colorado. Last week CSU’s game with Kentucky attracted 7,687 fans.
“Women’s sports have never been on a bigger stage. I mean you look at the World Cup and the attention that it got,” said Pendergast, who also pointed out the popularity of women’s tennis. “When the investment is equal to men’s athletics you see what can happen.”
Women athletes have long known that the intensity and work they have done has equaled that of men’s sports.
“If you are excelling at something that’s a really cool thing for anybody to get to watch,” said Mackenzie Fidelak, who is a setter right side for the DU team. She enjoyed watching the excitement of the Nebraska game. “It’s not just like football players or basketball players that can have all that hype.”
A new professional women’s indoor volleyball league is planning to begin in February 2024. Denver however is not part of the Pro Volleyball Federation. The closest teams are to be in Omaha and Dallas. The challenge for volleyball is building a strong enough fan base.
“It costs a lot more to get a new fan than to keep a current one,” said Kelly Evans, an assistant professor of sports management at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
Fans are still learning that the intensity of competition is part of undoing past expectations of the character of female athletes as well. “In some way, they’re tougher because they have different societal standards that they have to meet… They have to approach it with a smile and good attitude,” said Pendergast, noting male athletes are celebrated for their aggressive attitudes. “I think when we’re ultra-competitive that those women need to be celebrated just as much.”
But there’s a lot of learning to do, including for college-level programs. The achievement of the attendance of the Nebraska game has the potential to ignite move television broadcast exposure that Pendergast believes is well deserved. “I think it comes down to athletic departments. I think it comes down to the networks. Show women’s sports. It’s time.”