LINCOLN, Neb. — The largest crowd to witness a women’s sports event filled Memorial Stadium on Wednesday, as 92,003 fans watched the five-time NCAA champion Nebraska volleyball team beat Omaha 3-0.
After the Huskers won the first two sets, the attendance record was announced to the red-clad Nebraska faithful, who cheered wildly.
On what was dubbed “Volleyball Day in Nebraska,” the match was the culmination of months of planning for a program and state that have long led the way in enthusiasm for the sport. The crowd, at what is usually the home of Nebraska football, broke the previous world record for women’s sports attendance — 91,648 — set on April 22, 2022, in Barcelona, Spain, for a Champions League match between FC Barcelona and Wolfsburg.
This was paid attendance too. Tickets for the doubleheader — Wayne State beat Nebraska-Kearney in a Division II exhibition before the Huskers and Mavericks played — were originally priced at $25 for adults and $5 for high school students and younger. But ticket prices reached as much as $400 on the secondary market.
“It’s incredible. I don’t have enough words to describe it,” Nebraska middle blocker Andi Jackson said. “We were walking out of the tunnel after the second set, and we heard on the speaker we had just broken the world record. Everyone was trying to stay locked in, but we were also so excited. I can’t describe how grateful I am to be a part of it.”
The previous record for a women’s sports event in the United States was the 90,185 who attended the Women’s World Cup soccer final between Team USA and China at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on July 10, 1999. That was a landmark event for women’s athletics in general and women’s soccer in particular, won by the Americans on penalty kicks with the winning kick coming from Brandi Chastain.
“I remember that like it was yesterday,” Nebraska coach John Cook said of that World Cup match. “It was so impactful seeing those women compete and their celebration afterward. It made a mark on women’s sports in this country. They showed what could be done.”
The competition stakes Wednesday weren’t comparable to a World Cup final, as the 2023 college volleyball season is just getting underway and No. 5-ranked Nebraska is 4-0. But the Nebraska program, the university and the state took the attendance competition seriously. Nebraska is known for its sellout streaks in football (389) and volleyball (306).
Nebraska was also involved in the previous biggest crowd to see an NCAA women’s volleyball match: 18,755 for the national championship match between the Huskers and winner Wisconsin on Dec. 18, 2021, at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
The Badgers also had set the NCAA attendance record for a regular-season women’s volleyball match in September: 16,833 in Madison, Wisconsin. The Huskers wanted to go bigger than that, and they did.
“There’s a great business case and strategy around women’s athletics long term that maybe college athletics hasn’t embraced,” Nebraska athletic director and former Huskers football star Trev Alberts said. “And we think here in Nebraska, long before I became the athletic director, we’ve significantly invested in women’s athletics, and you’re seeing the result of that by seeing the success of the volleyball program and the fan base surrounding it.”
The NCAA does not track attendance across all sports, but associate director of media coordination and statistics Jeff Williams told The Associated Press a crowd of 90,000-plus was easily among the largest for a non-football game. A 2010 outdoor hockey game between Michigan and Michigan State at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor drew more than 113,000 fans.
Thousands of fans were already milling around outside the stadium Wednesday afternoon, and many streamed in for the opening match, which started at 4:30 p.m. local time and initially had the sun directly on the court and the temperature in the mid-80s.
By the time the Huskers were ready to make their entrance for a 7 p.m. start, the court was shaded, the temps had cooled, the stadium was packed, jets flew in formation overhead, and the fans went high-decibel.
Then the Nebraska volleyball squad ran out onto the field and the court that had been built on the northern side of the legendary stadium, which opened in 1923.
Cook laughed and said going through the tunnel and into the sea of red made him feel like a football coach. Cook, who has been the Huskers’ volleyball coach since 2000 and led them to four of their NCAA titles, said he shed tears at least five times Wednesday, overcome with the emotion of such a monumental event and seeing so many of Nebraska’s former players.
Nebraska junior Lexi Rodriguez said that the wind at times played tricks on the ball, which of course doesn’t happen indoors, and that the depth perception was different playing in the stadium. But none of that bothered her or any of the other players. She was asked about the effect the nationally televised match could have.
“I’ve been saying it’s so huge for little girls to get to see a women’s sport and volleyball being played on this big of a stage and having so many people invest in it,” Rodriguez said. “When you’re little, you have big dreams and big goals. Having this to look up to is something that a lot of little girls will keep in the back of their mind when they’re pursuing the sport of volleyball.”
Nebraska football is celebrating a century of memories at Memorial Stadium this fall, and Wednesday’s match added another unforgettable event here. It also gave Nebraska football something to aim for, because 92,003 fans is a stadium record. The biggest previous crowd was 91,585 for Nebraska’s football victory over Miami in September 2014.
Cook thanked the university administration, state government and fans after the match, while a drone presentation lit up “92,003” next to the stadium’s giant video screen in the north end zone. University of Nebraska students had gotten the day off from classes for the event, and Cook said there were only three things that ever shut down school here.