The challenge to grow the college men’s volleyball game

[Editor’s note: This article was written by Joe McIntyre, who agreed to have the article be published on Off the Block. McIntyre, the 2011 EIVA Reporter of the Year, is a recent Penn State graduate and a former college volleyball reporter for The Daily Collegian.]

If the entrance doors are open, the sounds echoing from the gym can be heard for what seems like miles. The smacking and walloping of a volleyball, the grunting and feet-slamming on the court when a player finally lands after reaching sometimes more than 12 feet in the air.


It’s commonplace in NCAA men’s volleyball. They’re basketball player-sized athletes punching a ball over a net instead of gently gliding one into it. It’s a physical game, a loud game when the competition it tough. In last season’s NCAA Championships in State College, Pa., a wild ball off a serve went straight from the servers hand to an EXIT sign clear across the gym and 20 feet in the air. It’s intense.

But yet, in the eyes of fans across the country, the sport of volleyball on the NCAA level is a game played by women, said Vinnie Lopes, editor-in-chief of the volleyball website Off the Block.

Its popularity fails to reach that of the women’s game. The men’s sport is rarely seen on television or in the newspaper headlines. The players and the sport often get thrown into a brief on the back page instead of a weeks-long tournament coverage event on national television network like the women’s game has.

Though for the men, the athletes are bigger and the net is higher (7’ feet 11 5/8 inches for men and 7 feet 4 1/8 inches for women), it doesn’t translate to more popularity.

Perhaps on the West Coast and East Coast, the men’s game is still viewable, Lopes said, but throughout the Midwest and southern United States, most of the volleyball seen on television and in newspapers is played by women. And Penn State head men’s volleyball coach Mark Pavlik said there’s good reason for the disparity, regardless of whether he feels it’s warranted or not.

American Volleyball hall-of-famer Jim Coleman, the man who invented the net antenna, created the volleyball statistics system, colored panels on volleyballs and the Immediate Feedback Video System, offered Pavlik a bit of wisdom years ago that he has held onto and thinks fits perfectly when comparing men’s and women’s volleyball. The men’s game is physical, but the women’s game is entertainment.

“That which causes a coach great consternation during the match, causes the crowd great anticipation.”

There’s always the thought in the back of a fan’s mind at a women’s game, Pavlik said, of whether or not an outside hitter can put a ball away, smack it to the floor for a point. Since their ball speed is not at the level of the men’s, the defense on the other side of the net has an opportunity to dig it and set up an attack of its own.

For the women, rallies can go back-and-forth many times until a player finally finds an open spot on the court. For the men, if the setter gives a hitter a solid set up, there’s often very little chance of a return.

“There’s always that doubt in the crowd’s mind for the women,” Pavlik said. “In the men’s game, there’s the expectation that the ball will be put away. And if there’s a good swing, and it’s dug, that gets the appreciation of the crowd.

“If it’s a good swing, and it’s bounced, the crowd says, ‘Yeah, that’s what we expect.’ In the women’s game, it’s like, ‘oh, oh, oh!’ So I think that plays into the crowd.”

So far this academic year, women’s volleyball has a higher overall home attendance average among Division I-II schools that have both a men’s and women’s volleyball team. Men’s volleyball has a slight majority of schools (17 of 33) having a higher home attendance average, however, compared to women’s volleyball.

Pavlik also said that with the women’s game, there’s more of a consistent emotional display that allows fans to sense what the players are feeling more so than the men.

“Yeah, the guys get excited. But sometimes the guys are like, ‘I’m too cool,’ ” Pavlik said. “But I think the women, they’re very much more socially adept and aware, and I think that comes across to the crowd, too. You can see faces. You can see expressions of joy, of pain, of anger.”

The Penn State men’s team especially, also doesn’t have the constant in-season competition factor like its women’s team does. While the women are a member of the Big Ten conference and play teams like Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, etc. on a consistent basis, the men play in the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association. Their competition includes New Jersey Institute of Technology, Harvard, George Mason, St. Francis and others.

“People say, ‘OK, they’re playing Harvard and Sacred Heart, and it’s 80 degrees out. It shouldn’t even be a match. They should beat those guys 3-0,’ ” Pavlik said. “And then history backs them up with that.”

Penn State has won every EIVA conference championship for the last 17 years, except for 1998 when Princeton captured the title. They are also the only team from the conference to win a NCAA national championship, in 1994 and 2008. No team from the EIVA has gotten an at-large bid to the tournament since Penn State has gone on its run of success.

While the women play on Friday nights in the fall, they often precede the most popular sport in the NCAA, football, one that brings in a median of $16.21 million per school, according to the NCAA revenue and expense report.

When alumni come into town for a football game and are looking for activities to do Friday night and Saturday night, Pavlik said the fact that women’s volleyball is around leads to their bigger crowds. Men’s volleyball doesn’t have this automatic home crowd of 50,000-plus waiting on campus six or seven weekends per season since its season takes place in the spring semester.

Whether it’s fair or not, the average volleyball fan equates competition with that of a university’s football team, Pavlik said. With Penn State women’s volleyball, for example, there are ingrained rivalries with Ohio State and Michigan through each school’s football teams. That doesn’t exist on the men’s side.

“It would be interesting to see if we play the Nebraska club team, how many people would show up?” Pavlik wondered. “I bet there would be a good crowd. What would happen if we would play the University of Minnesota’s club team? What would happen if we play Alabama’s club team?”

Even Edgardo Goas, a senior setter for Penn State’s men’s volleyball team says the lack of quality competition, not just the perception of it, leads to fans disinterest in the men’s game.

“There are maybe 10 or so so-called ‘good’ teams in men’s volleyball,” Goas said, “And after that, there’s such a huge drop off that fans just aren’t interested in seeing one team dominate another.”

But therein lies the problem, Kathy DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, points out.

In NCAA women’s volleyball, there are over 1,000 teams in all three divisions combined and 330 in Division I. On the men’s side, there are fewer than 100 teams in the NCAA and just 23 in Division I. The Big Ten has only Penn State and Ohio State in men’s volleyball. None come from the SEC. None come from the Big 12. And even with the popularity of beach volleyball on the West Coast, just three come from the Pac 12.

“If there was a team in every Big Ten school, I think you’d see men’s volleyball on television a lot,” De Boer said. “But with only two schools in the league that are sponsoring a program, and now that the Pac 12 is starting a network, there’s only three schools in the league with a team, you’re just not going to get as much coverage.”

Pavlik, DeBoer and Lopes all pointed out that a large factor preventing the growth of the men’s game in the Big Ten and around the country is Title IX. It’s the portion of the Education Amendments of 1972 that states no person shall be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of or be subjected to discrimination under any education program on the basis of sex.

When the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association formed in the early 1960s, two of its earliest members were Michigan State (Big Ten) and Kentucky (SEC). But both schools were forced to cut their men’s volleyball programs to allow money for women’s programs.

“In many ways Title IX has killed the growth of men’s volleyball among schools that have a football team in the [Football Bowl Subdivision],” Lopes said. “Football is the cash cow and cutting other men’s sports programs is one of the ways athletics department have balanced out the spending to give equality to women’s sports.”

Even as late as 2003, Ball State athletic director Bubba Cunningham attempted to cut his university’s men’s volleyball program, along with four other sports, so it could increase funding for its football team. Eventually, the attempt to cut all the sports failed — with the exception of men’s track and field, which no longer remains.

If a Big Ten school wanted to try to add a men’s volleyball program and interest was there, it still may have trouble, DeBoer said, because large, public institutions tend to have enrollment issues dealing with gender imbalance. They’re not going to fix them by adding 30 men on a volleyball team.

A lack of expansion isn’t widespread, however, as Conference Carolinas will add both Barton College and Erskine College to it’s men’s volleyball lineup by the beginning of the 2012-13 season. With the addition of these two, the conference will have seven teams, enough for an automatic bid into the men’s national tournament, which includes only three automatic bids and one at-large bid now.

But the main reason why large programs in the more popular conferences like the Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and Pac 12 are hesitant to add a men’s volleyball program, DeBoer said, simply stems from economics.

According to an NCAA report from the 2009-10 fiscal year, roughly 40 percent of the median FBS school’s $46.7 million athletics budget goes to fund football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.

Out of the FBS schools that have both a men’s and women’s volleyball program — Penn State, Ohio State, Ball State, USC, UCLA, BYU, Stanford and Hawai’i — women’s volleyball teams had a expense median of $927,000 while men’s volleyball teams were at $628,000 median.

All things considered, it is in expensive to fund a men’s volleyball program at an FBS school, even when compared to a women’s program. But at they always have been, DeBoer said, universities will always be reluctant to cut from their biggest money-making sports (the median of football and both basketballs generate $27 million) to fund one that generates a median of just $162,000 in revenues.

It appears men’s volleyball is stuck right where it is — behind the women’s game and still searching for that bigger audience.

“No one has the stomach to cut from those sports, particularly not unilaterally, so you can afford to have a men’s volleyball team,” DeBoer said. “It means that you’ve got to slice the bologna much thinner in terms of what you’re doing with your football teams or some of the other teams. In the major college Division I program, the standard of living for all the sports that you do sponsor is so high that there isn’t any oxygen for men’s volleyball.”

One Reply to “The challenge to grow the college men’s volleyball game”

  1. Coker College and Belmont Abbey are both starting new Men’s Programs in 2012-13 in the Conference Carolinas as well. Barton started their inaugural season 2011-12.

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