Every time a major sports league’s commissioner gets in front of a microphone these days, he is forced to address a universal problem: declining attendance. Each of the four major professional leagues saw attendance decline between 2008 and 2018. College sports are not immune to the problem and a drop in the number of fans in the stands was a significant topic among Big Ten football coaches this fall.
University of Wisconsin volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield has the opposite problem. More to the point, a fan who lives in his neighborhood had a problem scoring tickets for this weekend’s NCAA regional tournament.
“We have a neighbor that — the other day match tickets went on sale at 8:30. She had three computers open and ready to go. And at 8:31 it said she couldn't get any tickets,” Sheffield said Thursday.
Coming off decisive victories over Illinois State and UCLA in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament last weekend, Wisconsin, the fourth seed, faces 13th seeded Texas A&M at 1 p.m. Friday. The winner of that match will face, on Saturday, the winner of the 3:30 p.m. Nebraska/Hawai’i tilt for a trip to the Final Four next week in Pittsburgh. The Badgers’ match will be on ESPNU and 100.9 FM.
The rapid sellout of tickets for the weekend’s matches might surprise some. It shouldn’t. The Badgers are good and their games at the Field House are remarkable events.
How good? How remarkable?
Let’s compare them to the Wisconsin football team, which is pretty good. Finished second in the conference, but got beat handily, twice, by the top team, Ohio State.
The volleyball Badgers won the Big Ten, the toughest conference in the country. Of the country’s top 10 teams, as ranked by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, four are in the Big Ten.
The number two team in Big Ten volleyball is Nebraska (coached by former UW coach John Cook). The Badgers swept them, 3-0, in each of their two matches this year.
And despite expanding seating for volleyball matches at the Field House into the upper balcony last year, Sheffield’s volleyball squad keeps selling the place out. Wisconsin is second in the country in attendance, averaging just over 7,000 per game. That’s the venue’s current capacity. Big Ten rival Nebraska is first with over 8,000. There’s a good chance those rankings would change if the Badgers were able to seat fans in the entire Field House balcony.
“The fans are along with us. This isn’t just our journey, our ride,” Sheffield said. “We’re riding on their shoulders.”
During an open practice Thursday afternoon, players bounced around the floor during drills to an ‘80s soundtrack. Their grins and laughs belied a startling capacity for aggressive play. Wisconsin’s front line is imposing and capable of wearing down opponents with powerful strikes, often coming in the rhythm of precise passing.
But the Badgers are also capable of building in deception and exploiting spots in the opponents’ defense with off-speed shots.
“When I started volleyball, all I liked to do was hit the ball as hard as I could,” said junior hitter Molly Haggerty, second on the team with 360 kills. “And I learned once I got to college that's what I can't do, because obviously the other team will block me. So I've tried to put myself as a defender on the other side and ask where I would be if I was defending myself, and so I think putting in a lot of off-speed has helped my game.”
And Sheffield made it clear Thursday how important the team’s back line defensive players have been to this season’s success.
“I think our backcourt ... is not just the most underrated part of our team, it actually might be the best part of our team. Our offensive numbers are pretty high. And that's all started with the first touch. You know, first-touch serve receive or first-first touch defensively,” he said, pointing to senior defensive specialist Tiffany Clark.
“She gets aced three times at Ohio State and has been aced I think once since then. Well that Ohio State match was a month ago or so. That's a lot of balls, going against some gnarly servers. Balls drop and they move and they're dancing ... none of that stuff is eating her up.”
Not much of anything seems to be eating the Badgers up at this point of the season, when the pressure is at its most intense and it’s win or go home. A week ago, they turned up the pressure on UCLA by going on runs of 6-0 in the first set and 5-0 in the third set. Clark was asked Thursday if those runs feel different in a high-stakes December match than in, say, an October conference matchup.
“I think that those runs felt different than the way they do in season because, you know, you're playing against really, really talented teams,” she said. “You have the opportunity to end someone's season.”