Growing the game of collegiate volleyball

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MADISON, Wis. (CBS 58) -- On Aug. 1 and 2, the Big Ten conference put volleyball center stage with the first ever media days for the sport, bringing all 14 teams together with national and local media reporters at the BTN studios in Chicago.

"I thought they did a great job with it," said UW volleyball coach Kelly Sheffield. "It was really important for them to get it right. And I think they hit it out of the park. I thought it was a great experience for the players that were there."

The Big Ten is the first conference to hold that type of event for volleyball.

"Hopefully this time next year we're not sitting there it's still only one conference," said Sheffield.

Right before the event, with help of one of his assistant coaches, Sheffield sent out two tweets criticizing the "ESPNW" and "Just Women Sports" Twitter accounts for a lack of extended tweets about the sport of volleyball.

"This is the most played game for female team sports in the country for high school aged kids," said Sheffield. "It's frustrating when they're not covering the sport that has the most women participants in it at the high school age. "Volleyball doesn't exist. It's hard to understand why."

At Big Ten media days, Mac Podraza, a senior setter from Ohio state, mentioned Sheffield by name as someone trying to grow the game.

"I think Kelly Sheffield is doing a good job and exposing a lot of people. Like trying to push that boundary a lot," said Podraza during her team's media session on Aug. 1.

"It's not like I'm saying something outrageous. Everybody in this sport agrees with that. Our players are really passionate about it as well," said Sheffield. "You play in front of sellout crowds every single night. Then all of a sudden you have some national organizations that kinda ignore it. It kind of leaves you scratching your head."

Last winter, after the Badgers beat Nebraska 3-2 to win its first National Championship, ESPN announced it was the most watched college volleyball match in the network's history with nearly 1.2 million viewers.

This season, 55 total Big Ten volleyball matches will be on The Big Ten Network, ESPN2, ESPNU and FS1. An additional 70+ will be on a new subscription service, VolleyballWorld.tv as well.

UW Communication Arts professor Jason Kido Lopez, who has a focus in sports media, sees this as a shift in some of the national networks.

"These media companies can create interest. If they want to, they push things and advertise things to make them more available," said Lopez.

The rest of the volleyball schedule is set to be on Big Ten Plus, the conference's streaming service. Access that can expand the game but also limit it.

"On the one hand, streaming allows them to kind of circumvent the major channels and the major broadcasts and be a little more targeted," said Lopez. "It’s also a way sometimes to get the credit of broadcasting these things without putting them on forefront."

Sheffield says he has warmed up to streaming over the years and knows it is growing. But still thinks the best way to grow the game is on linear for people to "stumble" onto a game. The Big Ten is in a multi-year partnership with Volleyball World, with streaming outside of North America.

"I'm still trying to get my head wrapped around what that means. But I really think that's probably a big deal," said Sheffield.

For Sheffield, there is still more to be done. Whether it is reformatting the NCAA Tournament, more seeding or permanent locations, one change is how it is covered.

In the COVID-19 adjusted spring season of 2021, the first two rounds were set to be broadcasts without commentators -- something, the NCAA eventually had to address.

"First weekend, it is really hard for people to follow. There wasn't a single game on linear. The amount of people that I heard from that said 'we thought your season was over'. Turn on the TV, you can find a game every week, there's multiple games for months. Then all of a sudden there's nothing on," said Sheffield. "We got to find a way to have that, continue to build momentum into our championships. "I think there is progress being made but there's still areas we can go, right."

Wisconsin opens the regular season on Friday, Aug. 26 against Texas Christian at 7pm.

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