Women’s volleyball had a top year in 2021. From a professional competition debut in February to a gold medal in the Summer Olympics and a record-breaking NCAA Championship in December, this year was filled with highlights that gave the sport tremendous momentum as it moves into 2022.
Athletes Unlimited Volleyball
Playing volleyball with masks in an empty stadium may not have been what Team USA captain Jordan Larson had in mind when she signed up as the roster for Athletes Unlimited, but Larson held on under the circumstances to become the league’s inaugural champion . While the outside hitter excelled in all facets of the game, she wasn’t the only one using the league to showcase their skills.
Many unknown veterans, including Aury Cruz and Lindsay Stalzer were finally able to play domestically after a long career abroad. The league made huge gains in sponsorship with Nike
and Gatorade, while their social media following grew significantly over the five-week season. The league announced it would start a second season in March 2022this time in the presence of fans.
A golden summer
As the pandemic pushed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics a year ahead, Team USA athletes had to adapt to the uncertainties of a fifth year of training for competition. For many, including beach volleyball star April Ross, that meant relying on their bodies to hold out for another year as they approached 40.
Claiming she was in “the best shape of her life,” 39-year-old Ross proved the charm the third time around when she convincingly took the gold medal with partner Alix Klineman. After winning silver in 2012 and bronze in 2016, Ross finally managed to make it through the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to become the oldest woman to win a gold medal in beach volleyball.
In a sport dominated by international tournaments where a low finish may not cover travel costs, sponsorship becomes a critical part of the journey. Speaking to the gold medalists shortly after their Olympic victory, they explained how important their sponsors were for them to win in Japan.
“It takes a lot of pressure off us and it supports this profession and our lifestyle,” Klineman said. “I’m so grateful to all the sponsors, and it’s really what makes this possible.”
With the picking up of Bally, the AVP rules this seasonfans and athletes look forward to an expanded tour in 2022. Ross hoped that the increased visibility of the Olympics, plus the national cable network, will give the AVP beach volleyball tour a platform for further growth.
“The bigger the TV stations we can be, the more we can promote and market it,” Ross said. “[It is important] to somehow catch our eye on our domestic tour and spread the word that the AVP is a thing and is world class beach volleyball.”
A record-breaking NCAA championship
A rabid volleyball community descended on Columbus, Ohio in December to feast on the action between the University of Nebraska and the University of Wisconsin in the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. Starved after being forced to televise the 2020 championship in April due to COVID-19 restrictions, a record-breaking crowd showed up for a highly controversial five-set thriller.
A sold-out crowd of 18,755 people showed up to see Wisconsin’s best Nebraska, leading to Wisconsin’s Anna Smrek winning the Most Outstanding Player award. While the arena was packed with fans, the match also set an ESPN record with 1.19 million viewers tuned into ESPN2 before the match.
The most recent data for schools like Wisconsin showed a sixfold increase in ticket revenue over the past decade ($571,939 in ticket revenue for 2019-20). With 340 Division I schools sponsoring women’s volleyball, many schools could see positive growth of this type of revenue in the near future.
Advertisers are also paying attention. According to Opendorse, women’s volleyball ranks third in total NIL activity by sport and fourth in total compensation. As NIL deals get bigger, women’s volleyball will be able to further leverage the sport’s national attention in the coming year.
Whether indoors or on the beach, volleyball continues to grow with growing interest from fans, athletes and sponsors. After witnessing an exceptionally positive 2021 season, all signs point to women’s volleyball becoming a bigger part of the sports landscape in 2022.