Dec 7, 2022 - Sports

Women's volleyball is booming in the U.S.

Illustration of a volleyball net in the shape of an upward arrow

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Women's volleyball, which has grown steadily stateside for years, is now experiencing a full-blown domestic boom.

State of play: The NCAA tournament is currently underway and the college game's growing popularity are a couple of the reasons for fans — and investors — to be excited right now.

  • Youth participation: Girls high school volleyball participation has increased 15% since 2002 and 8.4% since 2012, pushing it ahead of basketball as the second-most popular sport, per the Wall Street Journal. It even gained athletes during the pandemic, when most sports saw a drop.
  • College viewership: Last year's NCAA final drew an ESPN record 1.2 million viewers, and the single-game, regular-season attendance record was set twice back in September.
  • Pro leagues: There were no U.S. women's pro leagues in 2020. By 2024, there could be four: Athletes Unlimited (launched in 2021), League One Volleyball (begins in 2024), Pro Volleyball Federation (begins in 2024) and Volleyball League of America (begins in 2023).
  • Olympic success: The U.S. won its first-ever women's indoor volleyball Olympic gold last summer in Tokyo.

What they're saying: Volleyball's fast pace and athleticism "is really well-suited to social and digital, where it connects with younger audiences," Athletes Unlimited CEO and co-founder Jon Patricof tells Axios.

The big picture: With more kids playing volleyball, the college game has become more talent-rich and exciting at a time when media companies are expanding their coverage of women's sports.

  • The ensuing viewership increase has fueled investor interest in building out the professional landscape.
  • The cycle should continue as pro leagues like Athletes Unlimited, which struck an exclusive deal with ESPN last month to carry its 2023 fall season, expanding their coverage.

Zoom out: The domestic landscape still pales in comparison to what the sport looks like abroad, where hundreds of Americans play in established leagues with huge events.

Yes, but: Perhaps in time the pro options stateside will provide the right mix to keep the best players at home.

  • They could supplement Athletes Unlimited's fall season ($20,000 salary) with PVF in the spring ($60,000), or go with League One Volleyball's youth-to-pro developmental system.

The bottom line: Volleyball's boom happened slowly and then all at once. It's also only just beginning.

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