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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.”

Lynn Williams Laps Kerr as NWSL’s All-Time Leading Scorer

gotham fc's lynn williams celebrates a goal against chicago red stars
Lynn Williams celebrated her record-breaking goal 79th goal in Sunday's match against Chicago. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

Gotham FC's Lynn Williams etched her name into the NWSL history books on Sunday, becoming the all-time leading goalscorer across all NWSL competitions. 

Coming in the 57th minute of Gotham's 2-1 win over Chicago, Williams's 79th goal breaks a tie with Sam Kerr for the league record. The header was her ninth-career headed goal, and her first since 2021.

"I don’t get the goals without my teammates. I have played with so many incredible people over the 10 years," Williams said after the game. "At the end of the day, I think I just owe it all to the people that are around me — all my teammates, all my family members. I just owe it all to them, and I can’t put any single one of those goals away without them."

Kerr still holds the regular season record, with 77 of her 78 goals having come in the regular season. Williams sits in second place with 66 regular season goals scored, having long been the top-scoring American in the NWSL. 

The USWNT regular has won four championships with the WNY Flash, North Carolina Courage, and reigning champions Gotham FC.

"Her commitment to make sure the team wins, even the last kick of the game is her kicking out of the box, no? She has that commitment, that passion, and that quality to be scoring goals in key moments for us, for the US, for whatever team she’s playing (for)," Gotham head coach Juan Carlos Amorós said on Sunday. "She’s wearing the armband. Having people like her in this club is what we want."

"I’m just really proud of myself. I think that I have exceeded a lot of people’s expectations," Williams added. "For a very long time, I have believed in myself, and a lot of moments along the way I’ve been told, 'No, you’re not good enough.' And I think that every single time I score a goal, every single time I’m put on the field, it’s another moment for me to continue to believe in myself."

The striker even got a shoutout from one of the greatest of all time: Serena Williams. 

"Congrats cuz," she tweeted after the Gotham victory.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

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