Sport Journalism Blog

By David Song | @DeltaSigma96

Sports Capital Journalism Program

“Female sports can be revenue generators.”

On June 15, 2010, an article with that headline appeared on Coach & AD’s website. Its author, Clay Kallam, points out that many university administrators are overly fixated on men’s basketball and football in their search for revenue-generating programs with robust community support. Meanwhile, women’s sports are often underdeveloped resources at post-secondary institutions.

“I think girls basketball is at the top of the list of potential money-makers, with girls volleyball right there,” said Jerry Halpin, who at the time was the principal of Brea-Olinda High School in California.

Under Nebraska volleyball coach John Cook, the Huskers have led the nation in attendance every year since 2013.

Kallam commits most of his article to emphasizing the money-making potential of women’s basketball, and it is easy to understand why. According to Sports Business Journal, each of America’s top five female basketball programs generated more than $5 million in revenue during the 2016-17 season: Vanderbilt ($5.1 million), Florida State ($6.9 million), Baylor ($7.5 million), Connecticut ($9 million), and above all, Stanford ($21.4 million).

Female volleyball is only mentioned in passing in Kallam’s feature. Yet, it too has become a rising power on the NCAA scene.

Just ask the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

In 2017, the Huskers women’s volleyball team pulled in about $3.73 million. That number would have been good enough for 13th place on Sports Business Journal’s basketball list, ahead of women’s hoops programs at Oklahoma ($3.7 million), Duke ($3.6 million), SMU ($3.549 million) and Missouri ($3.541 million). Nebraska’s own basketball team, the second-largest earner among female sports at that school, managed just $1.5 million in comparison—less than half of the $3.2 million generated by 20th place Temple.

Even more impressive is the fact that the Huskers turned a profit (they spent just over $3 million that year). Relatively few women’s college programs are able to do so: Nebraska’s female basketball team incurred $4.1 million in expenses, operating at a deficit of over $2.6 million.

2017 was no flash in the pan for the Huskers. In 2018, their volleyball revenue jumped up to $4.23 million, before tapering off in 2019 with $4.21 million. The program continued to operate in the green, spending about $3.36 million in 2018 and just under $4 million in 2019 before COVID-19 altered the landscape of collegiate sport.

These numbers may be surprising to some, especially to those who are cynical or dismissive of what women’s sports can achieve. But to those who have been following Nebraska volleyball for years, the results are inevitable, unsurprising and well-deserved.

In 2001, second-year head coach John Cook was inspired—or perhaps challenged—by the sellout streak that his university’s football program had accomplished. From 1962 to 2021 (across a pandemic) Nebraska football sold out 376 consecutive games: the longest such streak in America. Cook dared to ask his volleyball colleagues: why shouldn’t we try to do the same?

The rest, they say, is history. From 2001 to 2019, the Huskers sold out 270 regular-season games in a row, putting together the lengthiest sellout streak in NCAA women’s athletics.

But the streak created a problem. Nebraska home games were always packed, leaving too many of the state’s dedicated fans on the outside looking in. As time went on, the aging NU Coliseum labored to host crowds of increasing size with its tight benches and insufficient number of guest amenities. A change needed to be made.

In September 2013, the Pinnacle Bank Arena experienced its grand opening in the West Haymarket District of Lincoln, Nebraska. Having cost $179 million to build, the 15,500-seat venue promptly became the new home of Huskers basketball for both men and women. This left their old arena, the Bob Devaney Sports Center, vacant.

It was a golden opportunity for the volleyball team. With just under 8,000 seats, the Devaney Center would effectively double the capacity of the NU Coliseum. Tom Osborne, Nebraska’s athletic director at the time, actively promoted the move. Yet, Cook was not satisfied.

“If the Devaney Center wasn’t good enough for basketball, why would it be good enough for volleyball?” he remembers asking. “To me, it made no sense.”

Cook and his colleagues decided to commit to a $20 million renovation for the Devaney Center in order to bring the venue up to par. The result: a modern, comfortable arena with backed seats and a generous number of bathrooms, concession stands and parking spaces. Athletes have three courts to train on, and TV cameras capture their movements from all angles.

At the same time, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Despite the Devaney Center’s spaciousness, fans are seated over top of the court, where they are immersed in an experience of elite college volleyball. Even the 400-odd fans in the standing room-only area near the top of the building find themselves close to the action. This proximity also affects the players, who compete in a veritable fish bowl of noise and energy unlike any other in the nation.

Brent Wagner, who has covered Nebraska volleyball for more than nine years with the Lincoln Journal Star, has witnessed firsthand how the Devaney Center expanded the Huskers brand. People who have been season ticket holders for decades in the NU Coliseum era are now able to take their loved ones to games more easily. Although the waiting list for tickets remains long, Wagner sees more families and young children in attendance than ever before.

No matter which way you look at it, fan support for Huskers volleyball is gargantuan. The program has over 134,000 followers on Twitter—more than Nebraska’s male basketball team, which has roughly 109,600. According to Wagner, fans regularly compare attending Huskers games with attending Los Angeles Lakers games, and audience numbers have been consistently stellar. From 2000 to 2012, Nebraska was second in the nation in average attendance every year except for 2003 (when they were third). Since moving into Devaney in 2013, the Huskers have come to lead America in attendance, averaging just over 8,100 per game. They set a new single-game record on September 18, 2019, when 8,632 home fans packed the Devaney Center to watch their team play Stanford.

Nebraska’s fan base was built by a commitment over decades. That enterprise began in 1977, when Terry Pettit became the second head coach in program history. Over the next 23 years, Pettit guided the Husker ascension, winning 21 conference titles and the 1995 National Championship. He also capitalized on public interest in Nebraska’s football team by inviting football ticket holders to watch volleyball games for free. This move, which former Huskers setter Maggie Griffin describes as “genius,” laid the foundation for future prosperity.

Pettit, who joined the Nebraska Athletic Hall of Fame last fall, entrusted Cook with the keys to the kingdom in 2000. And Cook, who coached at Wisconsin from 1992 to 1998, was never content to rest on his predecessor’s laurels. He aspired to take the Huskers to an even higher level, and began by leading them to an undefeated season—and a National Championship—in his inaugural year. That same year, Nebraska became the first college volleyball team ever to go to China, gaining publicity and attention in what Cook called “a risk-taking adventure”.

The Huskers have been a juggernaut ever since. Under Cook’s risk-taking vision and adventurous leadership, they have achieved 11 seasons of 30 or more wins and qualified for the NCAA Tournament two decades in a row. Cook’s teams won NCAA titles in 2000, 2006, 2015 and 2017, falling just one set short of a fifth National Championship in 2018. Subsequently, the Huskers advanced to the 2019 NCAA Regional Final after a 28-5 regular season.

Not even COVID-19 could hold Nebraska volleyball down. After a 13-month layoff, the Huskers returned to action on January 22, 2021, going 16-3 in an abbreviated campaign. Yet again, they made it to the Regional Final, where they lost to Texas (that season’s national championship runner-up).

Perennial success has no doubt played a major factor in the Huskers’ steady economic growth. In 2000, they raked in a modest $446,152. By 2006, that number had more than doubled to $1.16 million. At the beginning of the Devaney Center era in 2013, the Huskers made $1.8 million, and by 2019, their $4.21 million accounted for nearly 54% of total revenue generated by female athletic programs at Nebraska.

Cynics might argue that on-court achievement is the only real reason why the Huskers have enjoyed such economic success. If Nebraska were to ever experience a rough stretch in terms of performance, maybe their sellout streak (and their profit margin) would come to an end. Cook admits that expectations are sky high: after all, when a team reaches the NCAA Regional, Final Four or Championship, it is expected to repeat those feats time and again. The Huskers have definitely given their fans much to cheer about over the past 20 years.

Despite that, Nebraska supporters are hardly fair-weather fans. Nebraskans don’t have a wealth of options to begin with, given that there are no professional sports franchises in the state. Compare that to Los Angeles or New York City, which each boast 11 top-level professional teams within their greater metropolitan areas. As a result, the Nebraska Cornhuskers have truly become the team of the state, something that no one within the program takes for granted.

Furthermore, Husker fans are generally some of the most loyal and passionate in America. Just ask Kelly Hunter, a former Big Ten Setter of the Year who won the 2015 and 2017 NCAA titles as a key member of Cook’s unit. Throughout her decorated four-year varsity career, Hunter experienced the best that Nebraska’s volleyball community has to offer. She recalls signing autographs after many a home game, and even when those games ended in bitter defeat, everyone in the autograph line genuinely wanted to chat with her and her teammates.

Husker fans generally exude positivity and support, win or lose, year in and year out. For instance, Nebraska experienced what was easily its worst regular season under Cook in 2014, finishing up with a 23-10 record. That year, the team still averaged 8,083 spectators per game and pulled in $2.97 million, over a million dollars more than 2013.

“The one thing I do love about our fans is they just love good volleyball,” Hunter said with pride. “If we’re making hustle plays and we don’t even win the point, sometimes they clap and cheer anyway just because it was great volleyball.” She added that, while fans of other college sports can be scathingly critical, especially when their teams underperform, there was never anything but love and support from the volleyball fan base.

Star athletes aren’t the only ones who feel the love from Nebraskans. Griffin, who graduated in 2008, was a depth player throughout her career, backing up All-American setter Rachel Holloway in her junior and senior campaigns. Unlike Hunter, she has no AVCA All-American awards, nor was she ever named to the All-Big Ten Team. Griffin wasn’t a homegrown product either: she grew up in St. Charles, Illinois and played her freshman year at Michigan State.

In spite of all that, Husker fans familiarized themselves with her name and appearance immediately after she transferred to Nebraska. Griffin recalls being asked for autographs after many of her matches—and even sometimes at the grocery store—and wondering how her autograph had become a valued commodity. Although she took the attention for granted at times as a student-athlete, now she looks back fondly upon it.

“You feel like a celebrity,” Griffin admitted. “That’s how people treat you.”

Such a healthy fan following has helped Nebraska immeasurably in terms of recruiting. Cook and his recruiting coordinator, Jaylen Reyes, approach prospects with confidence because they know what they have to offer to those players and their families. They offer the chance to play for one of the most storied and successful programs in America. Very few other schools—perhaps Hawaii, Texas or Wisconsin on a good night—are able to emulate the game environment at Devaney. Each Husker athlete receives phenomenal support from the volleyball staff, empowering her to excel both on and off the court. These factors combined have drawn a veritable army of talent to Nebraska over the years, including some cream-of-the-crop transfers.

Enter Kelsey Robinson and Briana Holman. Robinson, a 6-foot-2 outside hitter from Bartlett, Illinois, spent her first three seasons at Tennessee before playing her senior year as a Husker. That season, she was named the 2013 Big Ten Player of the Year and helped Nebraska reach the NCAA Regional Final. Meanwhile, Holman, a 6-foot-1 middle blocker from Desoto, Texas, transferred to Nebraska after two years with LSU. A three-time AVCA All-America Honorable Mention, she helped her new squad to its most recent national titles in 2015 and 2017.

The Huskers have never been afraid to recruit nationally, and over the years they have found valuable talent in states like Illinois, Texas, Minnesota, Ohio and Indiana, among others. Nonetheless, their recruiting is based on an inside-out philosophy, starting with a 500-mile area around Lincoln. Despite Nebraska’s modest population of 1.93 million, this approach has paid off in a big way. 98 of the 205 letterwinners in Husker volleyball history were in-state recruits, including Hunter, Jordan Larson, Christina Houghtelling, Allison Weston, Kadie Rolfzen and her twin sister Amber Rolfzen. Out of this group, Weston competed at the 2000 Summer Olympics, while Larson has won three Olympic medals: silver in 2012, bronze in 2016 and gold at Tokyo 2020.

“Volleyball is in the grass roots of Nebraska,” Reyes explained. “All young girls in Nebraska pretty much grew up playing volleyball, and a lot of them want to be Cornhuskers. The sport is played and coached at a very high level. I’m talking about high schools, clubs.”

One such high school is Papillion-La Vista South, located on the eastern fringe of Nebraska. Hunter won three consecutive state championships there, along with the 6-foot-3 Rolfzen sisters. Middle blocker Amber and outside hitter Kadie both joined Hunter as Cornhuskers, where they continued to thrive together. Amber was named to the All-Big Ten Team in 2015 and 2016, while Kadie earned that honor from freshman to senior year. Both were important members of Nebraska’s 2015 title-winning squad.

Husker alumni are well-known for giving back to the state’s volleyball community. Both Griffin and Hunter have spent time on Nebraska’s coaching staff: Hunter joined as a graduate manager in August 2019 after playing professionally for one year in Turkey. After a brief stint as interim assistant, she is now a volunteer assistant coach. Hunter’s recent duties include assisting Reyes with recruiting, and Reyes speaks highly of the effect she has on younger girls.

“I’ve been through what they’ve been through, and I try and relate to them as much as possible,” Hunter said. “I know recruiting visits can be intimidating. Sometimes you just need to joke around and laugh to get through these eight-hour days of touring facilities and having serious conversations with coaches and stuff like that.”

Griffin served as a volunteer assistant in 2011, developing the setters under Cook. A year prior to that, she founded her own volleyball club in Lincoln: VCNebraska. Offering various programs for kids in grades 3 to 12, the club aims to emulate the structure and standard of training that Griffin received as a youth in Illinois. VCNebraska maintains an excellent relationship with the Huskers and often brings in Husker personnel to coach, including Reyes and defensive specialist Hayley Densberger.

In Griffin’s experience, clubs like her own play a vital role on the college recruiting scene, as club tournaments offer a larger sample size of players than high school matches. Even more importantly, clubs are a source of long-term athlete development. VCNebraska, for example, takes kids as young as eight years old and could potentially work with them for a decade, setting them up for success in all facets of life.

Griffin knows firsthand how important role models can be. In 2020, she received a photo from a younger coworker named Brittany Albin: a photo of a volleyball that Griffin had signed during her playing days at Nebraska. Years later, the same ball remains a treasured possession for Albin.

“I would kill for somebody to want my autograph now,” Griffin admitted with a laugh.

In 2014-15, the National Federation of State High School Associations discovered an unprecedented trend: for the first time, more high school girls were playing volleyball (432,176) than basketball (429,504). By 2018-19, the number of girls in volleyball had grown to 452,808, while the number playing basketball regressed to 399,067. Women bring a unique flavor to the sport: while their game has fewer aces and kills than men’s volleyball, they also have fewer errors, more rallies and an emphasis on skill over physicality. Anyone, from 6-foot-3 Jordan Larson to 5-foot-7 Courtney Thompson, can be elite. If you ask Griffin, volleyball is special because it allows girls to be tough, hardworking and respectable athletes while also expressing their feminine side.

The Nebraska Cornhuskers continue to lead the way for one of America’s fastest-growing female sports, and they are aided by a game-changing initiative. On March 10, 2020, Nebraska became the first college athletics department to launch a Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) program, partnering with marketing company Opendorse to introduce Ready Now. Over 650 Nebraska student-athletes now have access to the tools they need to maximize the value of their NIL. Such brand-building has already paid dividends: according to Opendorse’s website, Husker volleyball players averaged 22% follower growth on Twitter and 17% growth on Instagram during the first year of Ready Now. In early September, setter Nicklin Hames (along with football long snapper Cade Mueller) entered into an endorsement deal with the restaurant Muchachos by way of Opendorse’s services. The deal generated national press in Business Insider and The Athletic.

The sky’s the limit for the Huskers, who can now add “pandemic” to the list of obstacles they have overcome. As vaccines continue to make their way into American arms, the Nebraska faithful have returned with a vengeance, cheering on their heroes in red and white.