Inside the Big Ten's strategic approach to scheduling an 18-team volleyball season


Oregon women’s volleyball coach Matt Ulmer admits he was nervous but hopeful when the Big Ten announced the upcoming volleyball schedule.

“I had no idea what it was going to look like for the four West schools,” Ulmer said. “But at least at the end of the day, I think they did a really good job of keeping in mind not missing class.”

With Oregon, Washington, USC and UCLA entering the Big Ten in August, the 18-team Big Ten stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans and across four time zones. Strategic scheduling and travel were more imperative this year than ever before for the Big Ten staff, especially for Olympic sports like women’s volleyball, of which each school has 20 conference matches.

To ensure the West Coast members avoid hardships beyond on-floor competition, the Big Ten office solicited feedback from its coaches on double-play opponents. In collaboration across the athletic departments, there was a goal to bunch together as many trips as possible and limit missed class time.

The West Coast schools all face one another home-and-home and split matches with the other 14 schools home or away. Those seven road trips east are more like four to save on travel expenses. Oregon, for instance, travels to Michigan State and then Michigan over three days. The Ducks do the same with Wisconsin and Iowa. It requires only a short bus trip between those two campuses. The other one is more difficult at Ohio State and Penn State in consecutive days, which might require a charter flight to avoid a six-hour bus ride.

Even the solo trip east was strategic for the West Coast schools to face the closest schools to their campus. Oregon and Washington will play Minnesota, while USC and UCLA travel to Nebraska. Only the Washington-Minnesota match is on a weeknight.

“The sequencing of those trips was very intentional and heavily leans into what we call geographically relevant opponents,” said Grace McNamara, the Big Ten’s senior director of television administration. “I want to emphasize that that’s really been part of our DNA for scheduling in the Big Ten is to maximize those trips.

“Adding the West Coast was just an added element to what we’re already doing from a maximizing travel standpoint.”

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By removing logistical hurdles, the Big Ten can focus on the sport itself. Women’s volleyball has surged in popularity, both in attendance and on television. Last year, Minnesota-Wisconsin generated 1.66 million viewers on Fox, setting a ratings record. The NCAA championship featuring Nebraska and Texas broke that mark at 1.7 million, a 115 percent increase from the 2022 final.

Spurred by Nebraska’s world record attendance for a women’s sporting event (92,003) at Memorial Stadium, Big Ten women’s volleyball drew more than 830,000 fans last year. According to the NCAA, female viewership was up 151 percent for women’s volleyball last fall.

“There’s a really strong female and youth audience in women’s volleyball that we are looking to capitalize, which will only be strengthened as the depth of our league grows in adding these four new schools,” McNamara said. “Now we have six institutions in the Big Ten that have won national championships.

“That’s where we really see the strength of our league is in the interest in the younger demographics, in the female demographics, and the growth opportunities there.”

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The new additions further enhance Big Ten volleyball’s reputation. Nebraska, which totaled more than 264,000 fans at its home matches in 2023, finished as the national runner-up. Wisconsin advanced to the Final Four by knocking off Oregon in the Elite Eight. Purdue and Penn State were in the Sweet 16, while Minnesota and USC advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“Our fans are excited,” Ulmer said. “I think we can have 12 teams in the tournament from our conference. That’s crazy but that’s legitimately true.

“It’s so deep and the coaching is so good and the athletes are amazing. The brands are strong, so I don’t know how you could not like seeing so many of these matches on their schedule.”

The league won’t announce its television lineup until its August media days event, but there are plenty of scheduling opportunities to leverage those volleyball brands into ratings winners. Wisconsin and Nebraska face off twice, and both matches have potential for high visibility. The first takes place Nov. 1 in Madison. It’s the only Friday without a Big Ten football game over the season’s final two months.

The Nebraska-Wisconsin rematch takes place on Nov. 23 in Lincoln, the same day and location where their football teams collide. On Black Friday, Nebraska travels to Penn State and Ohio State plays at Minnesota in volleyball. Those matches are held on the same day as the Wisconsin-Minnesota and Nebraska-Iowa football games.

“Volleyball is a part of the conference’s strategic scheduling initiative, which has demonstrated to pay dividends in viewership and also significantly contribute to the growth of the sport,” McNamara said. “As an example, volleyball matches with a Saturday football lead-in on Big Ten Network average 110,000 more viewers than matches without a football lead-in. That’s a 93 percent increase. So creating the schedule with volleyball and football together has really allowed us to take advantage of unique opportunities.”

In addition, the league’s programs are participating in multiple stand-alone events. On Aug. 27, Wisconsin and Nebraska will compete against Kentucky and Louisville in the AVCA First Serve Showcase in Louisville, Ky., which is the site of the 2024 Final Four. On Labor Day Sunday and Monday, Wisconsin and Minnesota each will play both Texas and Stanford in the inaugural Women’s College Volleyball Showcase at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum. Fox and FS1 will televise those matches.

The surge in Big Ten women’s basketball also has helped shape thoughts in relation to women’s volleyball, McNamara said.

“Some of the learnings from last year’s women’s basketball can certainly be applied to volleyball,” she said. “Obviously with the Caitlin Clark effect, volleyball is looking to create more of those individual storylines for players and promoting a couple of really strong athletes, more than even just the team presence that we’ve seen in the media so far.”

It’s just the first year for the 18-team schedule and tweaks are likely to come in future years. The league chose double-play opponents based on geography, historic competitive balance and competitive equality. Annual double-play opponents could change after every season, including for the West Coast schools. It’s possible they could be eliminated, too.

“Looking at women’s basketball and seeing the popularity of our sport growth, to not have a conference tournament feels like a miss,” Ulmer said. “I don’t know what that looks like but I think something like that we probably need to have happen. A lot of the coaches think a single match with everybody and not do the double plays to keep more competitive equity and then maybe we do a conference tournament with something like that could be the way we go.”

(Photo: Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard / USA Today)





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