Picture a company picnic. Everybody’s sitting around having a restful time. Somebody — an energetic, athletic type — pounds some stakes into the ground and erects two poles on a patch of lawn, between which a flimsy net is stretched that sags so much in the middle you can touch the top while standing still. This person then produces a volleyball and starts dragging people from their picnic tables out onto that lawn. The CEO, some middle-management types, worker bees, all manner of employees and their spouses, plus their kids, are dragooned onto the court and lined up in rows. A game of sorts commences in which players serve underhand and lift the ball and hit it twice and grab the net and otherwise commit every offense against it the game has ever seen.
When 19,000-plus people stream into the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh on Saturday evening to watch Wisconsin play Stanford in the NCAA Division I women’s volleyball championship game, they won’t be watching company-picnic volleyball.
They will be witnessing an action-filled, exciting, highly competitive, strategic sport played by coordinated, usually quite tall young ladies with superior athletic skills. Volleyball has been gaining steadily in popularity over the past decade: currently, more high school girls play the game than play softball and soccer and even its sister sport, basketball. The men’s game, although lagging behind the women, is growing dramatically on the college level.
Invented in 1895 by William G. Morgan as an activity for older men unable to keep up with a faster game conceived four years earlier by James Naismith in a Springfield, Massachusetts, YMCA — that would be basketball — the original iteration of volleyball was indistinguishable from the company-picnic variety. It was played on a smallish court with any number of players allowed to hit the ball any number of times to get it over a net that reached 6 feet, 6 inches above the floor.
Needless to say, it’s all different now. The indoor game — there’s a beach variety as well — is played by six players per side on a court about two-thirds the size of an NBA basketball court with a net 7 feet, 4 inches above the floor for women and 8 feet for men. A point is commenced with a serve, after which each team is allowed three hits per “possession” to get the ball over the net; these hits usually comprise a pass or dig, a set, and a spike (called a “kill”). Hitting the ball twice, lifting the ball, and touching the net are all prohibited. Partial blocks at the net do not count against the three hits. When the ball hits the floor or lands out of bounds, the point is over. Matches are best of five games. Games are up to 25, rally scoring, win by two.
With Stanford, Long Beach State, UCLA, and Hawaii leading the way, the women’s big-college championship was tantamount to a regional affair from the tournament’s inception in 1981 until the mid- to late 1990s, when schools from other parts of the country broke the West Coast’s stranglehold on the title. For the last decade or so, the Big Ten has been the sport’s hotbed, with Penn State, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Purdue regularly hanging around the top 10.
These schools attract astonishing crowds for a “minor” sport. Six of the top 10 national draws hail from the Big Ten, with Wisconsin bringing in nearly 7,000 per match and Minnesota 5,300. For the last six years, however, the national attendance leader has been a school most known for football — Nebraska. The Cornhuskers draw over 8,200 fans per match and have sold out their arena for 268 consecutive regular-season contests. The sport is “revenue-generating” for the school’s athletic department — a designation that is unheard of for women’s sports and applicable most places only to football and men’s basketball. Two-thirds of their games this past season were broadcast on TV; players and coaches are celebrities on campus; sports bars around the state regularly tune all their sets to Nebraska volleyball when the team takes the floor.
Indeed, the sport reaches more and more television sets every year. The Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Network, the SEC Network, and the ACC Network regularly schedule women’s volleyball, and the ESPN networks pick up some of the big matches.
All of this raises the question: Why has this sport taken off like it has?
First off, it’s accessible. The skills are more easily learned than those of, say, basketball; players more quickly reach entry-level ability. Little kids can more readily learn to pass and serve a volleyball than they can dribble and shoot a basketball. Also, the basic concepts, while simple to begin with, grow more complex, with rotations and front-row strategies, as one advances in the game, thus keeping players invested.
There’s also room for little people. At least one player, and possibly as many as three in some rotations, will be defense oriented, and probably shorter — possibly much shorter — than the front-row players, the outside hitters and middle blockers.
But the thing that distances this game from other sports is a piece of the playing court itself — the net that separates the two teams. Make no mistake, the game showcases aggressiveness, power, and assertiveness, but players are not in physical contact with their opponents — the net takes care of that — so the aggression, the power, and the assertiveness are all directed against the volleyball itself.
There’s no boxing out for rebounds, no elbows in the ribs, no “hard” fouls, no aggressive struggles for position, or to switch sports, no front block tackles, no slide tackles. Players do occasionally put their faces in the path of a spiked ball, but that oftentimes hurts the players’ pride more than anything else.
Those spectators whose viewing diet consists solely of football and basketball will notice a profound difference immediately when they watch volleyball. It’s the positivity. It’s the enthusiasm. It’s, dare I say it, the sportsmanship — there seems to be no, or very little, trash talking, for example.
After every single point, the six players on the floor rush together for either a short team celebration if they win a point or a pep talk and word of encouragement if they lose it. Team unity is emphasized throughout a match.
While individual players stand out, the excesses of ego on display in other team sports are refreshingly absent in volleyball. An outside hitter who slams a ball to the floor does not engage in a self-aggrandizing “kill” dance, nor does she sprint away from teammates to isolate herself for adulation or gesture toward the opponent’s bench in a taunting manner. She runs immediately to her teammates in a huddle on the court. In a look-at-me sports world, this game is look-at-us.
Indeed, the sport militates against single star players. Of the six players on the floor, three will be involved in nearly every play (a different three, most likely). The sport generates stars, certainly, but teamwork dominates and success depends mostly on sound serving and defense and distributing the ball among the various hitters instead of allowing one hitter to dominate.
There are definite reasons this sport has risen to such popularity that nearly 20,000 fans will pack big-time arenas for a championship game. And they’re all good ones.
As for the title game, Stanford in four sets.