Column | Volleyball deserves a national spotlight


Image courtesy of Alex Mowrey/Pitt Athletics

Leketor Member-Meneh (13) jumps to spike the ball during the Pitt vs. Purdue matchup in the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament in Dec.

By Richie Smiechowski, Senior Staff Writer

The University of Pittsburgh — to most onlookers outside of the city — is a football school. Last season’s success only further drove home that distinction, adding a well-documented ACC championship title to more than a century of both individual and team accolades.

Up until the late 2010s, many probably considered Pitt to be a men’s basketball school — one that dominated the Big East and national landscapes for years before transitioning into the ACC. More recently, men’s soccer garnered national notoriety, going as far as the NCAA semi-finals in 2020. Historically, Pitt has also won championships in Track & Field, Wrestling and Swim and Dive across decades of athletic success.

Yet, those who follow Pitt athletics closest would consider Pitt as a volleyball school, especially over the past decade.

Since head coach Dan Fisher took the reins of the program in 2013, the team has achieved exponentially more success than any other sport within the athletics department over that time frame. Three ACC championships, six consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and more wins than any other Division I women’s volleyball program in the country since 2018, just scratch the surface of what Pitt volleyball has accomplished in recent years.

As Fisher’s team continues to win and improve every year, local support and involvement outside of the program are exploding. The fans have created a formidable atmosphere to back the players at Fitzgerald Field House — forming their own dedicated student section called “The Volley Pitt.” 

Perhaps the best indication of their loyalty came on the day before Thanksgiving last season when the Panthers took on Louisville in their last regular season game. Despite most students being back home for the holiday and the men’s basketball team playing just down the street at the Petersen Events Center against Vanderbilt, volleyball once again drew a sold-out crowd.

The demand for volleyball in Pittsburgh is clearly strong, thanks to the successful local team — but nationally, it’s a different story.

While media coverage for Division I volleyball has improved with the addition of subscription-based channels dedicated to one conference, such as the ACC Network, the sport is still relatively inaccessible. Despite being one of the top-ranked teams in the nation for almost the entirety of their 2021 campaign, most of Pitt’s games weren’t broadcasted, but instead streamed on ACCNX.

It makes sense that games involving lower-ranked teams are put on streaming services, and obviously there are only so many spots on ESPN and ESPN2 — but a match between No. 1 Louisville and No. 3 Pitt should not be relegated to the ACC Network, especially if networks are advocating for women’s sports to grow.

Obviously, the problems stem deeper than just volleyball — women’s sports as a whole are viewed by vocal majorities as being inferior to men’s sports. One look at the misogynistic comments underneath Instagram posts showcasing a woman doing something spectacular tells the whole story. Public opinion seems to hinder major sports media outlets from taking strides in the right direction when it comes to gender equality in sports — but volleyball could be their key to advancement.

On the rare occasion that the ESPN or SportsCenter Instagram accounts do post about volleyball, commenters have an overwhelmingly positive reaction. The top comments are usually centered around people who just stumbled on a broadcast and found it wildly entertaining. Others marvel at how much skill the players have, diving on hardwood to come up with a heroic last-ditch dig.

It’s clear that sports fans are open to learning about volleyball — but there are still obstacles that stand in the way of that.

For one, there is no upper-tier professional volleyball league in the United States — the best collegiate players either have the option to play abroad or find a job off the court. Two of Pitt’s best graduates from the 2021 season, outside hitters Kayla Lund and Leketor Member-Meneh, both recently made announcements that they would be continuing their professional volleyball careers abroad. Lund will play for the Swiss champions Vietos NUC, and Member-Meneh for the Italian Futura Volley Giovani.

While there is a route to professional volleyball for collegiate players, it’s not one that sets an example for younger players, because it sends their role models halfway across the globe before they even get the chance to idolize them. 

Young football, baseball and basketball players have an endless array of pro athletes to choose to idolize from before they even enter their teens. In order for volleyball to continue its upward trajectory, young American players must be afforded the same opportunities to watch their idols.

Of course, to start that professional league, a number of factors come into play. Television time, fan interaction and stadium locations, just to name a few. Still, there is clearly interest — the NCAA Volleyball National Championship game broadcasted on ESPN2 brought in nearly 1.2 million viewers, a 119% increase in viewership from just two years ago.

Volleyball will thrive and take women’s sports to center stage if the media gives it the chance. There are certainly investors who are looking to establish the next big thing in sports — just look at how someone deemed it necessary to start a second football league that fails to surpass the volleyball national championship in viewership despite playing primetime games on NBC. 

There may not be a sport on earth that is as exciting on a point-to-point basis as volleyball is, and it’s time for mainstream sports media and investors to realize that.