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Last week, Nebraska women’s volleyball made headlines when it drew 92,003 fans to Memorial Stadium—home of the Cornhuskers’ football team—and set a world record for attendance at a women’s sporting event. The outdoor match had been months in the making, with tickets being sold out within three days of release back in April.
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The global record Nebraska displaced belonged to a Barcelona-Wolfsburg game at Spain’s Camp Nou, which holds nearly 100k people. The last time a U.S. women’s sporting event had 90k in the crowd was way back in 1999, for the World Cup final at the Rose Bowl. But then again, how many women’s sporting events in the country have been hosted in a venue that can hold that many fans?
The Huskers’ athletic department was smart in its marketing efforts, taking advantage of their successful program and loyal fan base. Nebraska Volleyball Day became an all-day event, with the school canceling classes and adding a concert after the match. The Cornhuskers’ volleyball team is already a financial outlier among women’s NCAA programs for ticket sales revenue, and it certainly added to those coffers last week.
Nebraska isn’t the only athletic department capitalizing on the popularity of one of its women’s programs. Next month, the Caitlin Clark-led Iowa women’s basketball team will hold a similar event when it plays a charity exhibition outdoors at Kinnick Stadium, where Iowa’s football team plays. There will be no world record broken there—latest numbers have the ticket sales approaching 40,000, and Kinnick’s capacity is only 69,250—but the Hawkeyes are expected to smash the women’s basketball attendance record of 29,619, set at the 2002 national title game (unless, that is, Mother Nature intervenes and forces the game to a smaller indoor arena).
Next week, Marquette volleyball will play Wisconsin at Fiserv Forum, home of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks. It will be the first Division I volleyball event held at the venue, which has a capacity nearly five times that of the 3,700-seat Al McGuire Center, the Golden Eagles’ usual venue. Less than 900 remaining tickets were available for sale on Ticketmaster on Tuesday.
Unusual venues are not new in men’s college sports—we’ve seen football games at baseball stadiums, hockey games at baseball and football stadiums, and basketball games on aircraft carriers. It’s good to see administrators being creative on the women’s side. Events don’t have to be guaranteed successes to be worth attempting (Nebraska’s coach even told ESPN he was worried they might only sell 10k tickets). And while teams can’t always replicate the Huskers’ or Iowa’s blueprint, there’s room for smaller-scale ideas in the right situations.
Take Wisconsin women’s hockey, for example, which hosted its seventh “Fill the Bowl” game at the Kohl Center last February, attended by 14,430 people. Special events like these can create buzz around programs and draw in fans who otherwise never considered attending other games. If some of them stick around in the future, that’s a win.
Then there are select programs who regularly face attendance caps due to available seating. Oklahoma softball has won three straight national championships and regularly sells out games, but it ranked only 19th in average 2022 home attendance due to its field only holding 1,378 fans (1,900 with temporary seating added). A game against rival Texas held in nearby Oklahoma City in March drew 8,930 people, and 12,195 saw the Sooners clinch the national title there in June. The school is currently constructing a new softball stadium with a starting capacity of 3,000.
If you build it, they will come … or perhaps sometimes you just have to change the scenery for one memorable night.
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