Friday, June 21, 2013

NCAA | Volleyball rising, basketball “stagnant”

NCAA White Paper highlights women’s basketball troubles, sets up volleyball comparisons

Here’s how the New York Times put it earlier this week:
A curious thing has happened since the N.C.A.A. began sponsoring women’s basketball in 1982. It remains the most popular women’s sport, but its appeal has grown stagnant. Attendance is dropping. Television ratings are flat or in decline. Shooting percentages and scoring have reached all-time lows. -A push to invigorate women's basketball, New York Times, June 17, 2013

There’s a lot to chew on there.

Let’s start with the assertion that basketball “remains the most popular women’s sport.”
  • At the college level, women’s basketball draws more fans than volleyball, thanks in large part to basketball’s popularity throughout the South. In the Pac-12, volleyball has all but caught women’s basketball, drawing bigger average crowds at Washington, Oregon, UCLA and USC, and virtually the same average attendance at Oregon State and Utah.
  • Volleyball and basketball are essentially tied now for the number of Division 1 athletes: 4,876 play volleyball and 4,886 play basketball. 30 years ago, basketball had 1,300 more D1 athletes than volleyball.

The real eye-opener is at the high school level. In 30 states, including most of the West, more girls play high school volleyball than basketball.
In 30 states, more high school girls participate in high school volleyball than in basketball
[graphic by Volleyblog Seattle]
-Source: 2011-12 Participation Report, National Federation of State High School Associations 

In fact, volleyball is the #1 girls’ high school participation sport in more states than any other sport:

In 19 states, volleyball ranks #1 in high school girls' participation. In 6 states, volleyball is #2, in 9 states, #3 and in 6 states, #4. (note: Vermont does not offer girls high school volleyball)

Nationally, 17,000 more girls play high school basketball than volleyball, but that disparity is due almost entirely to just one state: Texas (25,000 more basketball than volleyball.)

Volleyball is number one in Washington (10,398); basketball is fourth (8,940), trailing volleyball, track & field (9,900) and soccer (9,514). In the past year, both volleyball (+115) and soccer (+93) gained participants in Washington; basketball (-69) and track (-131) both lost participants.

[for additional interesting numbers, see: Volleyball is tops in 19 states.]

The New York Times article referred to above was reporting the release of an exhaustive NCAA Division 1 Women’s Basketball White Paper. The NCAA report was authored by Val Ackerman, the well-respected former WNBA Commissioner.

Among Ackerman’s observations was this nugget from her conversations with basketball coaches, administrators and media:
Volleyball seen as a “growing threat” for young players and athletic department dollars; may be prospering “because not laboring under comparisons with men.”

March 3, 1946 clipping from the Seattle Times
Volleyball, of course, has long set its net height so that both men and women play relatively the same distance above the net. Ackerman suggests basketball overcome its long resistance to doing the same, perhaps by lowering the women’s hoop. [Interesting note: a small group of vocal basketball crusaders have been arguing since the 1940s that the men’s basketball hoop should be raised. Cal basketball legend Pete Newell pushed for it in the 1960s; his son, Tom Newell, staged a higher-hoop exhibition at the University of Washington in 2007].

Ackerman’s exhaustive report lists numerous other ideas to reinvigorate women’s basketball, including a move away from the sport’s baggy uniforms and rule changes to discourage the elbow-thrashing and arm-wrestling that has taken over basketball at all levels. The report also mentions the utter lack of D1 collegiate parity—half of all women’s basketball championships have been won by just two schools: Tennessee and Connecticut.

In May, we interviewed USA Women’s National Team coach Karch Kiraly for our upcoming documentary, Court & Spark. Kiraly pointed out that many top women athletes choose volleyball because basketball permits too much opponent-to-opponent contact. “A good portion of the female athletes who really run fast and jump high—kind of the NBA-style athlete—are playing volleyball,” he said.

USC head coach Mick Haley, also featured in Court & Spark, agrees. "The real elite athletes, which basketball WAS getting, are now starting to come to volleyball."

Around the world, volleyball is more popular than basketball (though both are dwarfed by soccer.) While the USA has the WNBA, America’s top volleyball players also play pro—for pretty good money—in countries like Poland, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, France, Switzerland and even volleyball-mad Brazil.

Ask 100 sportswriters, and 99 would probably say what the New York Times said, that basketball “remains the most popular women’s sport.” the question is whether the facts still support that claim.

What do you think? We'd love your comments ... [and please remember to hit the Facebook "share" button]


  1. We "discovered" UW Women's Volleyball almost ten years ago. We attend at least one match every year, and it is a great spectator event.

    Of course the team is well coached, very athletic, and PAC 12 matches are competitive contests. The recent move to have more out of conference matches to boost the win-loss records of PAC 12 teams is misguided. The best way to develop a solid fan base is to play "the best" and hopefully the PAC 12 will agree, and keep playing the best teams in order to grow the fan base.

    1. Thanks, Richard. We're working on a report that addresses the Pac-12's unbalanced 2013 schedule. Stay tuned ...


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