Editor’s note: BadgerExtra will count down the 10 biggest Badgers sports stories from the University of Wisconsin’s academic year that ended in May. Stories will appear Tuesdays and Thursdays on BadgerExtra. This is No. 7.
The University of Wisconsin volleyball team may have fallen short of its lofty goal of repeating as NCAA champions during the 2022 season, but the Badgers turned in plenty of thrilling performances, and there was no shortage of fans eager to catch the reigning champs in action.
The demand to see coach Kelly Sheffield’s squad live helped the program earn a spot in collegiate volleyball history at the Kohl Center Classic, where the Badgers broke the NCAA regular-season attendance record Sept. 16, 2022, in Madison.
Then No. 4-ranked UW hosted No. 16 Florida down the road from its home court at the UW Field House, and a record crowd of 16,833 fans turned out for the match. Not only were the Badgers able to set a new high-water mark for volleyball attendance, they took the record from a Big Ten rival. The attendance record UW broke to take the top spot was set nine days earlier by Nebraska and Creighton in Omaha, with 15,797 turning out to see the Cornhuskers host the Bluejays.
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The packed house stayed engaged throughout the match, with students behind both baselines from court level to the 300 level only sitting during breaks in the action and singing UW classics such as “Build Me Up Buttercup.”
Florida won the first two games to jump ahead, but the energy in the arena increased when UW tied the game 22-22 in the third set, and it was a goosebump-inducing noise as the Badgers started to settle into the match.
It only got louder when UW took the lead and eventually won the third set then the fourth.
After Florida rallied to close out the match 15-13 in the fifth set, UW fans hung around to give the Badgers a standing ovation and sing “Varsity.”
UW likely won’t hold the attendance record long because the Huskers, who’ve led the nation in attendance every season since moving into the Devaney Sports Center in 2013, will play a match Aug. 30 at Memorial Stadium, the school’s football facility with a capacity of 85,458.
The Badgers will have a chance to beat their mark when they take on the rival Marquette Golden Eagles on Sept. 13, 2023, at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee. The arena, home to the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks the Marquette men’s basketball team, holds 17,385 fans for basketball games and 15,178 for hockey and indoor football.
Why it was important
The competition between UW and Nebraska for the attendance record has proven to be a win-win for the sport.
It was also part of a larger trend for UW that saw the Badgers cap a decade of attendance growth in 2022 with their highest average for tickets scanned at nearly 6,000 per home match.
The average of 5,986 tickets scanned was a 20% increase from 2021, according to records provided by UW through an open records request. With all but one of UW’s 17 matches at the Field House in 2022 announced as sellouts, the average — which included the record-setting match at the Kohl Center — was 344% higher than the 1,348 from the 2012 season.
Even though the Badgers have dominated the Huskers on the court in recent years by winning their past 10 meetings, Nebraska held the upper hand in the attendance battle until the 2022 season.
Thirteen of the 14 largest crowds for a regular-season volleyball match have been played in the state of Nebraska — the lone exception was UW’s match against Florida — so the Huskers are pulling out all the stops to regain supremacy in the attendance battle.
Not only will Nebraska’s upcoming match at Memorial Stadium feature the Huskers hosting Nebraska-Omaha, it will be a doubleheader “celebrating the impact of volleyball on the state” that also will feature an exhibition match between Nebraska-Kearney and Wayne State (Nebraska). The matches will be followed by a concert by country singer Scotty McCreery.
What they were saying
Sheffield talked in February about how he sees his team following last year’s Kohl Center match with one against Marquette at Fiserv Forum as a sign of the increased popularity of women’s sports.
“There’s been an explosion that is happening in women’s sports, with volleyball in particular,” he said. “Administrators and television and sponsors are thinking at a different level because they’re seeing the possibilities a lot more in volleyball. And then along the way there’s some fun competition, and that’s always cool.”
Badgers players also recognized the importance of reaching a wider audience. Middle blocker Danielle Hart, who was drafted into the Athletes Unlimited Professional Volleyball league in March after a decorated UW career, compared the crowd against Florida to one that would be at a Final Four.
“It was absolutely electric out there throughout the whole match,” Hart said. “The Field House regulars taught the rest really quickly our traditions over at the Field House. It was so cool to see those transferred over into the Kohl Center. The energy was absolutely awesome. Everyone was on their feet and loud and really got into the game, and it was really cool to feel that as players.”
Outside hitter Julia Orzol, then a sophomore, credited the fans for staying engaged and showing their support throughout the battle with the Gators.
“I feel like especially when you’re losing by a few points, it’s frequent to hear, to feel the nervousness in the gym,” Orzol said. “Playing here in the Kohl Center, you couldn’t feel it at any point. Fans were staying with us the whole time, supporting us. People did an incredible job showing up.”
Sheffield was especially pleased with the way Badgers fans showed their support even after his squad came up short on the record-setting night.
“This was great,” he said. “Whether that’s a one-time shot or we do it again, and I don’t know. I’m sure at some point when the time is right, we’ll huddle up. We’re not doing it this year. I don’t know, man. That was pretty cool, right? It was pretty cool.”
Sheffield also is embracing Nebraska’s move to recapture its attendance supremacy, seeing it as good for all those involved.
“It speaks to the seriousness of how they take things like that, I guess,” Sheffield said. “What I love right now and I think is really cool is that coaches and administrators are thinking outside the box. And by doing that are helping grow the sport, helping give exciting opportunities for student-athletes and for fans. It’s thinking bigger and it’s awesome. I love it.”
Sheffield isn’t concerned with Nebraska blowing the current attendance record out of the water. He instead is focusing on what’s best for the sport.
“I hope they get 80,000 people there,” he said. “I hope the weather is perfect. I hope that it shows really well for the people that are there and there’s an awesome environment. At the end of the day, this is really good for the sport.”
BadgerExtra’s original coverage
For more information on UW volleyball’s attendance record and its rivalry with Nebraska, explore BadgerExtra’s original coverage of the story.
Wisconsin volleyball takes down NCAA attendance record
Wisconsin volleyball targets attendance record at Milwaukee Bucks’ home
Why Wisconsin volleyball’s coach is enthusiastic about attendance record duel
Crowds at Wisconsin volleyball home games set another record in 2022
Here are links to the rest of the series.
No. 10: How The Varsity Collective kicked Wisconsin’s NIL era into high gear
No. 9: Wisconsin volleyball’s leaked locker room video, photos helped draw team closer
No. 8: What Wisconsin volleyball accomplished while failing to defend NCAA title
Photos: UW hosts Florida before a record crowd at the Kohl Center