Nebraska volleyball is officially more popular than the football team.

As if filling out Memorial Stadium wasn’t enough, Cornhuskers volleyball’s upset over then-No. 1 ranked Wisconsin on Saturday averaged 612,000 viewers. The most-watched regular season volleyball match ever and the largest volleyball audience in Big Ten Network history, the match also beat out Nebraska football’s game against Northwestern.

The volleyball team beat the Badgers in five sets and took over the No. 1 ranking in the process. The match aired at 8 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network.

The football game, which aired at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday on Big Ten Network, averaged just 560,000 viewers for the Huskers’ 17-9 win.

“Both teams delivered on the hype of an undefeated No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup with a thrilling five-set match,” Big Ten Network executive Michael Calderon said. “It was a tremendous introduction to Big Ten volleyball for any first-time viewers, who will undoubtedly be back to watch more Big Ten volleyball during the final five weeks of the season. We believe there is still plenty of room for more growth.”

It’s the first time that a volleyball match has exceeded 600,000 viewers on Big Ten Network. The previous high came on Black Friday of 2022, when 587,000 viewers who tuned in for the Nebraska-Wisconsin rivalry match.

Earlier this year, 518,000 viewers tuned in to watch Nebraska’s outdoor volleyball match in late August, which set the all-time attendance record for women’s sports.

Volleyball viewership is on the rise this season in the Big Ten, with the 142,000 average viewers — up 13% from 2022.

Nebraska volleyball is set to shatter the record for attendance at a women’s college sporting event after selling out Memorial Stadium, a football stadium with 82,900 available seats.

The school announced Thursday that every single one of those seats had a ticket sold in the 48 hours since they went on sale. That number could climb higher, as it does not account for indoor club-level and field-level seating that will be made available for students.

Volleyball Day in Nebraska is scheduled to take place on Aug. 30 and include the historic match. The five-time NCAA champion Huskers will play Nebraska-Omaha in a regular-season opener.

The event was designed to break the attendance record for an NCAA volleyball match, previously set at 18,755 when Nebraska played Wisconsin for the national title in 2021.

Wisconsin currently owns the regular-season NCAA volleyball attendance record of 16,833 fans, set last year in a match against Florida.

“The attendance record for volleyball belongs to the state of Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said in February, when Volleyball Day in Nebraska was first announced. “And I wanna hope that the number is large enough that nobody dares even try to attack our all-time record.

“We knew the interest in this match would be extremely high, but to sell out Memorial Stadium is truly remarkable.”

The final figure could approach the record for a women’s sporting event in the United States.  That record still stands from the 1999 Women’s World Cup, when 90,185 fans attended the final between the U.S. women’s national team and China.

Barcelona set the global women’s attendance record last year, with 91,553 fans attending a Champions League quarterfinal match against Real Madrid at Camp Nou.

“To sell out more than 80,000 tickets already, it’s unreal,” said Nebraska head coach John Cook. “Our team was already pumped up about Volleyball Day in Nebraska, but now I can’t even imagine how excited they are going to be. It’s epic.”

To Katie Carter, it was almost like an unspoken rule. When she decided to start a family and become pregnant with her first child, she figured that’s when her professional volleyball career would end.

She knew women who continued to play while pregnant out of fear of losing their contracts. And for women’s volleyball players, the only professional opportunities for many years were overseas, where they were often separated from family and friends and didn’t speak the language.

“It’s like, ‘OK, she’s pregnant. She’s hiding it from everyone. We all know. What if something went wrong? We’re in a foreign country and what if something happened and she needed help?” Carter said, recalling one specific experience with a teammate in Azerbaijan.

“I know if it were me, I would be so scared. I would leave. I would not want to risk my pregnancy.”

So, when Carter signed with Athletes Unlimited in 2020 to participate in its inaugural volleyball season this past February, she was stunned to learn of the pregnancy policy they were negotiating. The AU players and executives weren’t just having a conversation about normalizing working mothers in sports; they were taking unprecedented steps to make mothers (and soon-to-be mothers) feel emotionally and financially supported.

With AU, Carter, whose daughter Noelia would soon be 1 year old, would no longer have to choose between her career and her child.

“Knowing that people are going to support you and not put a checkmark by your name like, ‘Oh my, but she had a kid,’” Carter said. “That’s what the norm is in other countries… so, it’s really motivating. And I’m just so gosh darn grateful that people are talking about it.”

Developing a pregnancy policy was on the minds of AU co-founders Jon Patricof and Jonathan Soros even before they announced the athlete-driven venture last March. In February, they called Cynthia Calvert, an expert on managing pregnancy and parenting in the workplace, to lead their efforts.

Right away, Calvert could tell this opportunity was different than others she’s been approached about as principal of Workforce 21C, which consults other companies on creating inclusive workplace environments.

“When people contact me, it’s to see, ‘What’s the least we can do? How can we avoid any disruption caused by pregnancy or parenting?’ And I find that very disheartening,” she said. “(AU) was looking at the big picture and saying, ‘What do our players need? How do we get it for them?’ And so it was an opportunity to write on a blank slate.”

(Athletes Unlimited)

Calvert was aware of the history of pregnancy discrimination in sports and of the recent examples of athletes speaking out about their experiences.

In 2019, Skylar Diggins-Smith revealed she had played the entire 2018 season with the Dallas Wings while pregnant and sat out the following season while dealing with postpartum depression. She became one of the WNBA’s leading voices in advocating for more resources for its mothers, an issue that was addressed in the latest CBA. In March, Allyson Felix called a new Nike ad celebrating mothers in sports “hard to watch” after the company tried to cut her pay during contract renewal negotiations following the birth of her daughter. Nike has since implemented a new maternity policy for sponsored athletes.

Most recently, the NCAA came under fire for making it so children counted against the 34-member travel party limit for each team participating in the NCAA Basketball Tournament, putting coaches with young children in a difficult position.

While these incidents were fresh in Calvert’s mind, she didn’t want what other leagues and organizations were doing to influence her decision-making early in the process. She hoped the AU policy would serve as an example of what’s possible when you put the athletes first.

“There’s no one right way to be pregnant. There’s no one right way to have a family. There’s no one right way to be an athlete,” Calvert said. “And you need to be able to give people the freedom to combine things the way that they see fit because that’s where you’re going to get your best performance, your greatest loyalty. It helps everybody.”

Among the notable provisions in AU’s policy, which were reached in consultation with the Player Executive Committee and will be written into all athletes’ contracts:

  • Players can decide whether or not they want to notify the league or team doctor about a pregnancy.
  • Players can take as much time off as they need with full pay to give birth or for a pregnancy-related condition.
  • Parental leave is also available to players whose spouse or partner gives birth or adopts a child.
  • Pregnancy will have no effect on a player’s ability to sign future contracts.
  • Accommodations such as private lactation rooms will be required at all competition sites.

For Carter, the financial security the policy afforded her was something she never thought possible in her profession. During AU’s volleyball season in Dallas from Feb. 27 to March 29, the league covered 100 percent of the childcare costs. That meant Carter could have a babysitter watch Noelia during the days, relieving some of the stress of balancing competition and childcare. The same will be true for the athletes participating in AU’s upcoming lacrosse and softball seasons.

Stories like Carter’s only reinforce AU’s commitment to supporting its mothers and being a leading advocate for women in the workplace.

“If we’re still an organization that’s early in its development that doesn’t have the resources necessarily of some of the larger organizations,” Patricof said, “and we’ve been able to find a way to do it, I think that’s encouraging to all organizations that there is a path.”