How Nebraska volleyball plans to pack Memorial Stadium

How Nebraska volleyball plans to pack Memorial Stadium

When they secured tickets last spring for Volleyball Day in Nebraska, Jan Merrill and her daughter embarked on an exciting road trip plan. They charted a 2½-hour drive from Elgin, Nebraska, winding through quaint towns to reach Lincoln. The highlight awaited: savoring crab legs at a local restaurant, relishing the volleyball match, and enjoying an overnight stay in a comfortable hotel. Perhaps a leisurely pedicure might follow the next day.

A Tradition of Fandom From 1995 onwards, Jan Merrill and Melissa Borer’s unwavering devotion to Nebraska volleyball games has formed an unbreakable bond.

Merrill and her daughter, Melissa Borer, had been avid attendees of Nebraska volleyball games since 1995, when Melissa was just 11. The journey from Elgin held its allure as Merrill and Melissa joined the throngs, packing into a bustling arena to cheer for their beloved team. The anticipation for the August 30 event was electrifying; the Huskers’ volleyball team was about to play an extraordinary match under the night sky at a packed Memorial Stadium, a venue traditionally filled with over 90,000 fans who were more accustomed to attending football games.

Their designated seats for the Wednesday night spectacle were in Section 28, where they would be accompanied by eight family members, including Borer’s sprightly 91-year-old grandmother. Regrettably, Merrill’s presence would be absent. Lung cancer had relentlessly advanced to her brain, clavicle, and kidney, confining her to hospice care at home. In the face of illness and sorrow, the idea that a volleyball match could offer solace might seem peculiar to outsiders. However, for Borer, it was a temporary respite. It’s a familiar tale to state that the triumphant Nebraska volleyball team has become a guiding light in a region that had long yearned for a significant sports identity over the past decade.

And indeed, it had.

During her visits, Borer would sit by her mother’s side, playing old Nebraska matches on YouTube, holding her mother’s hand. Occasionally, Merrill would stir from her slumber and steal a glance at the television.

“Good job, girls,” she’d whisper.

FOR GENERATIONS, NEBRASKANS have proudly declared that on Saturdays when football takes center stage, Memorial Stadium burgeons into the third-largest city in the state.

However, on this Wednesday, the stadium would transform into a vibrant volleyball haven. The venue was poised to accommodate over 91,000 spectators, witnessing two riveting matches, potentially etching a record as the most-attended women’s sporting event globally. The standing record, set at 91,648 attendees, had been established in March 2022 during a UEFA Women’s Champions League match in Barcelona.

This monumental event prompted Nebraska’s chancellor to declare a school holiday for the day, with the board of regents granting permission for beer sales. (Traditionally, alcoholic beverages were prohibited at football games.)

Attempting to capture the magnitude of this occasion, Nebraska’s athletic director, Trev Alberts, remarked last week, “It’s challenging to encapsulate just how monumental this is. Unless our football team maintains an undefeated record leading up to the Michigan game in Week 5, I can’t envision anything surpassing this.”

Seven months of rigorous planning have led up to this moment, encompassing daily meetings ranging from coordinating with law enforcement, fire and rescue teams, traffic management, concessions, the marching band, and marketing efforts. Lindsay Peterson, Nebraska’s director of volleyball operations, noted that weather monitoring began around 10 days prior due to the unpredictable Midwest climate—particularly the heat index, which soared to 115 degrees in Lincoln the previous week. Unspoken concerns arose about the potential impact of light rain on the Taraflex court erected on a stage near the north end zone. The most recent weather forecast promised clear skies, a high of 82 degrees, and gentle 10 mph winds.

A Historic Gathering Discover the monumental scale of the event with an expected attendance of over 91,000 spectators, potentially breaking global records.

The driving force behind this elaborate spectacle? A spirited rivalry, naturally. The Badgers, Nebraska’s formidable opponents and conquerors of the Huskers in the 2021 national championship, shifted a match to the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisconsin, last September. The Badgers successfully drew a crowd of 16,833 attendees, thereby surpassing Nebraska’s attendance record for a regular-season match.

Among the myriad attractions captivating Nebraska’s sports enthusiasts, attendance records reign supreme. A few years ago, when the football team’s enduring streak of sold-out games was threatened, dedicated supporters and corporate sponsors purchased unsold tickets to preserve the streak. Notably, Nebraska volleyball never faced this predicament; eight of the top nine record-breaking crowds in NCAA volleyball history featured the Huskers.

Rapid Ticket Sales and Unwavering Enthusiasm Uncover the astonishing ticket sales within days of release, driven by the passionate Nebraska fanbase.

Yet, the Badgers’ audacious record-breaking feat gnawed at Nebraska fans, propelling them to implore coach John Cook through a flurry of emails. They urged him to steer his team towards a setting that would recapture their attendance record. Following the season’s conclusion, Cook meticulously planned the next steps. Initially contemplating Pinnacle Bank Arena, Nebraska’s basketball venue, he soon realized its capacity fell short.

After several deliberations, Alberts presented Cook with a solution: Memorial Stadium.

Cook hesitated, worried that a mere 10,000 tickets might be sold. Eventually, he consented, setting forth a condition: to arrange for a musical performance after the match, thereby enhancing the allure and drawing an even larger crowd. Ticket sales commenced in late April, offering rates of $25 for adults and $5 for children. Astonishingly, over 82,000 seats were claimed within a mere three days, all before any announcement regarding the musical act had been made.

The upcoming evening will showcase the prowess of four local teams, coming together to celebrate the deep-rooted love for volleyball within the state. The Huskers are set to compete against Omaha at 7 p.m. CT on Wednesday, and the event will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Additionally, Nebraska-Kearney will engage in an exhibition match against Wayne State at 4:30 p.m. Following the matches, attendees will be treated to a live performance by country singer Scotty McCreery. Recognizing the significance of this gathering, each of the participating in-state teams, despite operating with relatively modest profiles and budgets, will receive a substantial travel grant of $50,000 for their journey to Lincoln.

Kelly Sheffield, the coach of Wisconsin’s volleyball team, expressed his excitement during a previous press conference, highlighting his enthusiasm not only for the Huskers but for everyone present in the stadium who shares a passion for the sport.

Alberts, in charge of orchestrating the event, emphasized that the overall presentation will surpass the grandeur of even their home football games. He underlined the intention to convey the comprehensive narrative of volleyball within the state of Nebraska, extending beyond just the Huskers’ accomplishments.

While the inspiration for this event might have stemmed from a volleyball rivalry, the origins of Volleyball Day in Nebraska can be traced back to the distant past. Its existence owes itself to a cherished football program that cultivated a tradition of victory, nurturing a fan base that came to expect nothing less. The narrative wouldn’t be complete without the contributions of a couple of determined and unconventional coaches. These coaches harnessed the prevailing culture to build a volleyball program that has produced numerous All-Americans, propelled eight athletes to the Olympics, and established a storied tradition reaching back to the 1970s. When combined with a fan base yearning for a reason to cheer, especially when other major sports like football and men’s basketball faced challenges, the result is a program that has garnered admiration and envy within the realm of women’s sports nationwide.

Laney Choboy, a libero hailing from Raleigh, North Carolina, was profoundly impacted by the experience of witnessing Nebraska volleyball firsthand. She remarked on the palpable support that accompanies every step taken outside onto the court.

In the early 2000s, after spending a couple of years covering Nebraska volleyball for the Omaha World-Herald, I informed Coach Cook that I would be transitioning to exclusively cover Cornhusker football. This decision meant I would no longer be writing about his team.

Coach Cook’s response was a contemplative silence, followed by a question: “Is that a demotion?”

Coach Cook holds a deep respect for football and even attends football practices occasionally. However, he steadfastly rejected the notion that his team should play second fiddle to any other sport.

During his inaugural year as head coach at Nebraska in 2000, Cook addressed the Beef Club—a gathering of Cornhusker football boosters. In that interaction, someone in the crowd inquired about funding for an upcoming trip to China. The person casually remarked, “Well, you know it’s coming from the Beef Club. We’re the ones paying for your trip, just so you know that.”

Cook internalized this moment, resolving that his team would eventually prove their autonomy and become self-sustaining. According to Nebraska’s financial report to the NCAA, the volleyball program generated a net revenue of $233,454 last year. Cook himself disclosed that the actual net revenue for volleyball was closer to $1 million. This figure encompasses seat premiums and donations specifically allocated to volleyball.

In the realm of ticket sales, Nebraska’s women’s volleyball outperformed every other women’s team within the Power 5 conference from 2021 to ’22. According to data provided by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics at Syracuse University, the margin was substantial—$2.1 million. Following closely was Louisville women’s basketball at $1.2 million. (UConn women’s basketball, part of a non-Power 5 conference, sold $2.4 million in tickets. However, considering expenses such as travel and coaching, the net revenue was negative $5.4 million, as indicated by UConn’s financial disclosure to the NCAA.)

The inception of Nebraska’s volleyball program in 1975 marked a footnote within a state consumed by football. At that time, figures like Bob Devaney and Johnny Rodgers had already etched their names in Cornhusker history with national championships and a Heisman Trophy. While the volleyball team started as a minor presence, it has now achieved a remarkable milestone of selling out 306 consecutive regular-season matches. Much like the football program, it boasts five national championships.

However, the journey to this success wasn’t undertaken in isolation, as both Coach Cook and former coach Terry Pettit acknowledge. Pettit, who arrived at Nebraska in 1977, asserted that the state’s ascent in volleyball was closely linked to the prosperity of its football program. He recognized that the resources necessary for success were made available due to the accomplishments of football, coupled with strategic conference affiliations.

Pettit took the initial steps to elevate Nebraska’s volleyball standing by scheduling matches on the same day as football games. He encouraged departing football spectators to stay and watch his team compete. In a bid to further promote matches, he even displayed volleyball signage within stadium bathrooms.

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