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What’s next for Big Ten and its women’s sports teams?

CHICAGO — Midway through his weekly media availability, Nebraska women’s volleyball coach John Cook was asked about Fox’s viewership for a Minnesota-Wisconsin matchup.
It was 1.66 million, more than any Sunday sporting event shy of the NFL and barely less than the NASCAR race. The volleyball match’s TV numbers dwarfed the NBA, NHL, Formula 1 and multiple soccer matches that day.
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Cook was stunned.
“Wow, that’s awesome for the Big Ten and awesome for volleyball,” Cook said. “I did not know that. We’ve got another record to go after.”
Women’s volleyball and basketball have grown steadily in viewership and took a major ratings jump last winter. From the regular season and NCAA women’s basketball tournament shattering records to now the most-viewed women’s volleyball match in history, the Big Ten sees the environment as ripe for major investment. It’s a moment when strategy meets the phenomenon.
“It’s a viewer-friendly sport to watch in the sense that whether you’re there in person or you’re watching on TV, it’s a fast-paced game,” Big Ten chief operating officer Kerry Kenny said. “It’s also a sport that over time we’ve identified where it seems to trend younger and more female in terms of the demographic audience of who’s actually watching the sport. So you have a built-in, kind of, ‘quote unquote,’ next generation of fans who play the sport, are interested in the sport and are attracted to the sport.
“In addition to the fact that in certain states like Nebraska, like Pennsylvania and others, it’s a sport that is part of the culture from a very young age. So you have all these built-in audiences that just needed to be tapped into in a meaningful way.”
Caitlin Clark (22) led Iowa to the Women’s NCAA Tournament championship game last season. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)
Strategic intentions
For years, BTN often aired women’s volleyball in direct conflict with college football. Although women’s volleyball attracted a loyal following, it often was considered a niche audience. But that changed two years ago when BTN stacked the Nebraska-Wisconsin volleyball showdown right after the Iowa-Nebraska football game on Black Friday.
GO DEEPER Nebraska volleyball beats top-ranked Wisconsin in five-set thriller
The doubleheader netted the most-watched football and women’s volleyball contests in BTN history. It alerted the Big Ten office, the volleyball coaches and television executives that strategy and collaboration could work jointly to elevate women’s volleyball to the national consciousness.
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“I go back to the point about not competing with football but working and understanding football as the viewership monster in the fall that it is,” Kenny said. “Volleyball has really been a sport where we could identify those pockets of the openings in the schedule from a TV programming perspective to understand where is the best place to place these matchups that are going to move the needle from not just a Big Ten perspective, but a national perspective.”
Top-ranked Nebraska has led the charge in both ratings and attendance, especially after setting a world record with 92,003 fans attending a match against Omaha on Aug. 30 at Memorial Stadium. On Oct. 21, Nebraska and Northwestern were scheduled to play football at Memorial Stadium, while the Huskers’ women’s volleyball team was to meet Wisconsin at the Devaney Center that night.
GO DEEPER Nebraska volleyball breaks women’s sports attendance record
There was potential for the football game to line up that evening against the volleyball match, but Big Ten and BTN officials discussed all options well in advance to ensure that didn’t happen.
“It’s never a perfect science where you can’t guarantee anything’s going to land in a certain spot,” Kenny said. “I think they felt very confident about that Nebraska-Northwestern game being a game that BTN would air and that they would work strategically to have that at 3:30 (ET) so that we could lead into that Nebraska-Wisconsin game.
“You talk about a perfect storm for that game to be a 1 versus 2 matchup and two undefeated teams in the Devaney Center, just all the rivalry that’s been built up between those two teams over the last couple of years because of their success. You couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
The Big Ten has created a similar situation on Black Friday this year. Nebraska football hosts Iowa at 11 a.m. CT on CBS, and the Huskers’ volleyball team travels to Wisconsin at 3 p.m. in a rematch of their five-set classic. That match airs on BTN.
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Fox on board
It’s one thing for the Big Ten to work with its media partners to massage volleyball start times for sports under its umbrella. It’s quite another to deal with the NFL.
Fox Sports president Mark Silverman led BTN from its debut in 2007 until 2018. Fox owns 61 percent of BTN, and the networks work hand-in-hand on matchups and cross-promotional ventures. Silverman saw volleyball’s growth on television and how it had performed, not only on BTN, but on FS1. He was interested in airing a volleyball match on Fox either before or after an NFL broadcast window.
When the NFL unveiled its schedule in May, Silverman and Mike Mulvihill, who oversees research, analysis and strategic planning, told Kenny there were potential windows for Fox to air women’s volleyball. One of them was Oct. 29.
Kenny and scheduling guru Kevin Pauga tried to figure out a couple of matches that might fit in that pocket. They came up with Wisconsin-Minnesota and Ohio State-Michigan and requested those schools play on a Sunday afternoon. The Badgers-Gophers match was scheduled nationally following the Minnesota-Green Bay NFL game. The Buckeyes-Wolverines match aired in a regional window before the Cleveland-Seattle late NFL afternoon game.
“It played out better than we could have imagined with the number that it delivered on Sunday,” Kenny said. “It’s definitely just one of those perfect storms of Fox had a great idea, we were able to factor that into our scheduled building process on the front end, and then got the support from the schools to make it happen.”
Next phase
With women’s basketball setting viewership records seemingly by the day last season and the volleyball TV numbers soaring, Kenny and Big Ten senior director of television administration Grace McNamara will continue to explore new methods of capitalizing on those sports along with others. Women’s lacrosse, gymnastics and softball are flagged by the league’s media partners as potential growth sports, especially with newcomers UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington entering the league next summer.
The Big Ten’s relationships with NBC have led to 22 women’s basketball games — including eight by Iowa — airing on the Peacock streaming service. Six Big Ten women’s basketball games will appear on NBC, Fox or CBS this winter. It comes in response to last spring’s NCAA women’s basketball championship, which included Iowa and was the most-watched game in the sport’s history with 9.9 million viewers. Iowa has played in five of the top six BTN women’s basketball audiences, including four last season. The Hawkeyes, who are led by returning national player of the year Caitlin Clark, parlayed their season into a women’s basketball record crowd of 55,646 for an exhibition at Kinnick Stadium last month.
GO DEEPER For Caitlin Clark and Iowa women’s basketball, record popularity comes with high expectations
“Women’s sports are at a different level right now,” Iowa women’s basketball coach Lisa Bluder said. “I think we’re seeing the effects of the Title IX babies who now are moms and grandmas, and they understand the value of sport. They want their kids to embrace that and to celebrate it; not only the little girls, the little boys, too.”
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This winter, there will be more coordination between men’s and women’s basketball to maintain television audiences. Next fall, the league office will look for more ways to showcase volleyball in conjunction with college football and the NFL.
“You look at what happened last year with the women’s basketball national championship game and the number that delivered on a broadcast platform,” Kenny said. “Our championship game for women’s basketball this year will be on CBS for the first time, which will reach as broad an audience as you possibly could for the pinnacle moment of our women’s basketball season. The women’s Final Four championship game again this year will be on a broadcast platform.
“It was great to see ESPN make the decision to put the NCAA women’s volleyball championship game on ABC this year for the first time. I think all of those different things combined, it’s a really healthy TV environment for women’s sports right now. At the Big Ten, we’re very proud to be at the forefront of that.”
(Top photo: Dylan Widger / USA Today)

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