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The Year of Volleyball: Women’s game is booming in 2022

Texas' Bella Bergmark cheers after the Longhorns clinched their spot in the NCAA semifinals. (Mikala Compton/USA TODAY NETWORK)

Women’s volleyball is booming in 2022. Teams — and investors — are taking notice.

Last year’s NCAA championship game drew 1.2 million viewers on ESPN2, making it the most-viewed women’s college volleyball match ever on ESPN’s networks. The total marked a 71 percent increase from the spring championship and a 119 percent uptick from 2019.

The championship benefited from the two contenders — Wisconsin and Nebraska, both traditionally strong programs — but momentum has continued this season.

At No. 1 Texas, which is headed to the NCAA Tournament semifinals for the 10th time in the last 15 years, senior outside hitter Logan Eggleston has noticed the change.

“I would kind of compare it to a Duke basketball game, if I’m being honest,” Eggleston told the Wall Street Journal. “The crowds are right on top of you. It’s super loud. You can’t even think when you’re in a game.”

The Longhorns will face No. 2 seed San Diego in their semifinal Thursday at 7 p.m. ET, while No. 1 seed in Louisville will go up against No. 2 seed Pittsburgh at 9:30 p.m. ET. Both matches will air on ESPN.

The national championship match is set for Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

In September, Florida took down Wisconsin on the Badgers’ home floor in front of 17,000 fans, the largest regular-season crowd in NCAA Division I history. The match broke a record that had been set just weeks earlier by Nebraska and Creighton.

The Big Ten noticed these trends and got ahead of them. In August, the conference announced new TV deals with ESPN and Big Ten Network during the first Big Ten volleyball media days. The Big Ten became the first conference to hold an in-person preseason volleyball media event.

Those investments paid off, as a rematch between Nebraska and Wisconsin on Black Friday drew 587,000 viewers on Big Ten Network. The most-watched volleyball match in the channel’s 15-year history, that total marked a 54 percent increase over the previous high.

Other schools and other conferences are getting in on the excitement as well. In April, Vanderbilt announced that it would be bringing back its volleyball program, which had been cut in 1980.

The rising popularity of college volleyball also has brought a rise in youth participation and professional leagues.

In February 2021, Athletes Unlimited launched a volleyball league that currently operates in five-week seasons each year. AU announced in November a spring tour, which will bring a roster of 15 players to compete against some of the top college programs in the country. During the 2023 regular season, at least 10 of the league’s 30 matches will air on ESPN’s networks.

The number of professional leagues in the United States is also slated to increase

Pro Volleyball Federation is scheduled to begin play in February 2024 with eight to 10 teams. They’ll aim to pay players anywhere from $60,000 to $100,000, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Then there’s League One Volleyball (LOVB), which aims to start after the 2024 Paris Olympics.

LOVB’s structure will look similar to European soccer clubs, with youth teams that will then connect to professional clubs. Right now, the league has 30 clubs across 18 states, with 769 total teams.

LOVB has brought in $24 million in investments, including from Billie Jean King and Kevin Durant. And on Tuesday, they announced their first two signings: Olympic gold medalists Kelsey Robinson and Justine Wong-Orantes.

“Kelsey and Justine are no strangers to being the face of women’s volleyball in the U.S.,” league CEO Katlyn Gao said. “They have led the US to victory in the Olympics, have been NCAA champions, and have made game-winning plays that still have fans buzzing today.

“Having them join LOVB as we build the United States’ first full-season professional league is nothing short of exhilarating and we look forward to not only putting these outstanding athletes on center court, but to giving their passionate fanbase an all new avenue in which to celebrate their love of the game.”

Robinson “jumped at the chance” to play with LOVB, she said. She league’s roots in the community made it stand out for her — and will make it more sustainable, she added.

“It’s thrilling to be part of a women-led professional volleyball league that will not only provide its players with endless opportunities, but will deliver exactly what this sport needs,” she said.

The league aims to provide competitive salaries that include marketing contracts, healthcare benefits, childcare and fertility services and more. Additionally, the league will look to help players advance in their professional careers for when they’re done playing.

“Working with a league that puts a premium on what its players want is crucial for our sport,” Wong-Orantes said. “LOVB has brought together eight of the most recognized players to meet regularly and discuss everything from our big picture needs to the most nuanced details.

“As an athlete, it’s rare to have the opportunity to shape the face of a sports league, and I’m thrilled to be getting in on the ground floor of building what is bound to be a revolutionary offering.”