The Pursuit of Higher Television Numbers

The 2022 Division 1 Volleyball Championship drew 786,000 viewers, significantly trailing the Collegiate Football Playoff championship game (17 million), the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship game (14 million), and the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship game (10 million) in viewership. These figures represent the average views. Viewers that leave early or watch only parts of a show are averaged into the final figure.

The viewership for the 2021 Division 1 volleyball championship that featured Nebraska and Wisconsin drew 1.1 million viewers. Similarly, the thrilling semi-final College Football Playoff (CFP) with Ohio State and Georgia drew over 22 million viewers. These numbers indicate that a game’s competitiveness and the institution’s fan support will likely impact the number of viewers. However, we can only expect Nebraska and Wisconsin volleyball fans to carry part of the weight of growing the viewing numbers for our sport.

Although the television numbers for volleyball are trending upward, the competition for television “eyeballs” is intense. Given the available viewing options, the product must be compelling, and the production must be “top-notch” to grow a loyal audience. So, how can volleyball provide a compelling product capable of attracting new viewers? Once new viewers are watching collegiate volleyball, how can this viewership be maintained?

Major League Baseball (MLB) examined how to move forward to make their game more appealing and decided to make significant changes. Although it is early in the season, the number of people attending games or watching Major League Baseball on television is up from last year. Significant rule changes in the off-season (pitch clock, pick-off restrictions, and larger bases) have reduced the game time (on average, 29 minutes shorter) and increased offensive production. Regardless of one’s opinions on the changes made by MLB, the takeaway is that baseball looked ahead and determined that changes were needed to regain the shrinking fan interest. Is volleyball content with the current level of television exposure, or should we examine our current media presence and make modifications without sacrificing the nature of the game?

I like how our game is currently constructed, so I don’t have any burning desire for rule changes in volleyball (except for reducing the number of substitutions, but that desire is unending). However, there might be some items worth considering to increase television viewership.

I’m a newly-minted fan of Major League Baseball. The most appealing aspect of the game is the expertise provided by the announcing crew. The knowledge and detail about the strategies being employed are fascinating. Every game to me is like a clinic. The announcers challenge me to be more than just a baseball spectator; they want me to be a baseball fan. The announcing crew accomplishes this by providing in-depth commentary on the techniques and positional strategies on display. I’m not hearing endless commentary of game basics like, “the game is played to nine innings,” or “the designated hitter does not play in the field.” There is little effort to “dumb down” the game for the naive spectator like myself. I am expected to learn the game as it is played by the best players and managers in the world. As I learn more about the game’s strategies, my enjoyment increases, and my interest escalates as I see strategies unfold, sometimes successfully, sometimes unsuccessful, and I rapidly become a fan.

The announcers for volleyball might take a lesson from their baseball counterparts and provide the television viewers with more strategies, techniques, game plans, and annecdotes of their own experiences related to the match. Too often, the commentary focuses on what the viewer already sees. Instead of “great dig,” focus on the why of the great dig. The block aligned correctly, the backrow adjusted their court position, etc.

Supply the “color” announcers with the updated team and individual performance statistics with corresponding trends. I’m not talking about “Suzie is hitting 25% for the season.” What I think might interest folks is “Suzie is hitting over 35% early in matches but has shown to fade as the match progresses.” That type of detailed information will interest a viewer.

Streamline the Replay Format – Have standards for camera angles and the frame rate of replay cameras. The replay setup should be the same at all venues. The cameras should be placed at specific locations to provide quality high-definition video of any play that is eligible for review. All cameras should have a mandated minimum frame rate allowing for a high-definition replay. A higher frame rate ensures a more timely and accurate judgment. There will only be a replay if facilities can meet the minimum standards. The current replay setup must be better to make our game more viewer-friendly and avoid painful delays in action.

Improved Production of Televised Matches

More cameras should be at the appropriate angles to facilitate timely replays to help the announcers underscore a specific point.

There must be an effort to improve the quality of graphics to educate the viewer on the events or trends of a match. Graphics highlighting the serve or attack speed, passing locations, set distribution, where the best hitters locate their attack, etc., will foster viewer interest.

There will be a cost increase associated with any form of improved production. From my position in the bleachers, the Power Five conferences have plenty of cash in their coffers and should be able to budget a portion to foster the visibility of women’s sports.

A Quality Product on the Floor

Putting two good teams on the floor lends towards a better match and improved ratings. Witness the Nebraska vs. Wisconsin mid-season match that drew 362,000 viewers last October on the Big Ten Network. Coaches and players have skin in the game to continually work to improve their level of play and increase the local fan base. Wisconsin and Nebraska can’t play ten times every season to jack up the television numbers.

Additional Whistles and Bells

  • Cameras and microphones in time-out huddles
  • Interviews with players between sets.
  • Show the viewer a quick analytical video between sets to underscore why a player or team is successful or unsuccessful. (Sample Video Below)

We all want our sport to continue to grow. The ideas I presented are not meant to be a finalized list. Some may prove to be a pipe dream. What I do know is that success never happens in a vacuum. A concerted effort must make our sport attractive to the new viewer. Without the continued improvement of television numbers, there is a “glass ceiling” on the continued growth of our sport.