Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Spiking interest: Volleyball’s soaring popularity, future trajectory

Unveiling what’s behind volleyball’s spectacular surge in popularity, promising path forward
Soren Goldsmith
Badger Herald archival photo of the women’s volleyball team. December 9, 2023.

Enthusiasm for volleyball is reaching new heights. With viewership records broken every year, increased numbers of televised games and a host of professional leagues starting up in America, volleyball attracts new eyes every day. The University of Wisconsin and the City of Madison are no stranger to volleyball’s growth.

The Badgers have reached the NCAA tournament every year since 2013, the first year under head coach Kelly Sheffield of Dayton, Ohio. In that time, UW has won a national championship, made it to four other Final Fours and finished as Big Ten Champions four times.

A then-record 1.19 million viewers tuned in to see the 2021 championship, only for the Badgers to co-break their own record with 1.66 million viewers during the Border Battle in October. Fans are being drawn to more than just big matches, too. The number of televised games has more than doubled since 2015, with large social media promotions helping attract fans.


The road to this point has been long, but volleyball as a whole is building a strong foundation for its players and fans. There have been a couple key points in volleyball’s growth, including having matches televised in the first place.

“TV is a really big reason as to why leagues do well and flourish,” Big Ten and ESPN broadcaster Emily Ehman said.

UW has embraced its volleyball team, but TV allows for the sport to grow nationally and globally.

That’s why Senior Coordinating Producer at BTN Sue Maryott has pushed for more of those televised games, and why ESPN Coordinating Producer Ericka Galbraith spearheaded the development of “The 5th Set,” a whip-around show that provides analysis and updates of NCAA tournament games. Volleyball isn’t done growing, with the coverage of other sports serving as examples of where to go next.

“Volleyball, and women’s sports in general, isn’t talked about enough,” Ehman said. “It’s mentioned during tournament time, but not talked about enough during the regular season.”

ESPN’s March Madness and College Gameday programming has helped generate buzz around basketball. These sorts of TV shows are a way to increase activity and viewership within the sport, but it has also helped fans recognize individual athletes. Volleyball already has the viewership, it’s just a matter of creating supplementary coverage.

Both Ehman and Badgers associate head coach Gary White agreed volleyball and the media could do a better job at highlighting athletes, something basketball has been successful with.

“You think of sports like basketball and you can rattle off names that are really big in their sport,” White said. “Like [Caitlin] Clark, [Angel] Reese, and [Paige] Bueckers in basketball. They’ve got great teams but they’ve also been able to champion individual athletes.”

It’s a two-sided connection between athletes and the media. As of now, many volleyball players must create their own personas on social media. It’s more difficult for fans to relate to or connect with their favorite volleyball players than in other sports.

The coverage can extend deeper than simply recognizing names. While athletes can promote themselves on social media, it will be important for players to gain exposure beyond their stellar play or their successful programs.

“You’re trying to continue to build your base of knowing programs but start to tug at people’s connection to individuals,” White said. “How can we tell that story better?”

Part of the issue has been the nature of volleyball. It’s easier for a basketball player to demand attention. It’s not that basketball isn’t a team sport, but individual players can garner more attention.

While this may make promoting individual athletes tougher, it’s something League One Volleyball, stylized LOVB, is trying to do. LOVB, a professional league set to debut in November, creates teams with one or more “Founding Athletes.” Madison will have its own team, along with five other “volleyball communities.”

LOVB is not the first professional volleyball league in America. The most recently created leagues include Athletes United in 2021 and the Pro Volleyball Federation in 2024, in which former Badgers Grace Loberg, Temi Thomas-Ailara, Sydney Hilley and Danielle Hart currently compete in. In fact, Loberg and Thomas-Ailara’s San Diego Mojo just squared off against Hilley and Hart’s Omaha Supernovas Feb. 3. LOVB is special for Madison, though, as it is giving the city its own professional team.

LOVB Madison’s Founding Athlete and 2013-2015 Badger superstar Lauren Carlini returns to Madison after playing at the Olympic level and internationally. As a founding athlete, Carlini is returning to a community that will embrace her in a league that will help celebrate her as a person and player.

The importance of hometown teams cannot be overstated. Many college athletes continue their careers abroad, often in European countries like Italy, Turkey and Poland. Domestic teams allow for college athletes to have a level of comfort and familiarity not found elsewhere.

There are often language barriers, where it’s likely few teammates speak English. Familiar faces can be thousands of miles away. Players must balance their profession and new adult lives in a foreign place.

“It’s very isolating for a lot of these players,” Ehman said. “It’s only volleyball all the time, but it’s hard to develop relationships when you can’t speak to teammates.”

LOVB will not only allow players to be surrounded by people that have molded them, but also fans that watched them grow up and will support them in their next stages of life. Fans themselves, particularly youth players, will be able look up to LOVB athletes the way other fans of other professional leagues can.

High school volleyball participation is the highest ever, being the most participated sport for girls in America and one of the fastest growing boys’ sports. LOVB itself is directly connected to youth clubs, with more than 12,000 athletes competing with LOVB-sponsored clubs, including Madison’s Madtown Juniors. American youths will be able to aspire to be like a LOVB player, such as Carlini.

Madison is a perfect place for volleyball to expand its reach. Players from the youth level, through high school, college and now professional will both contribute to and enjoy the sports’ growth.

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