In an AVCA convention 15 years ago, Nebraska volleyball head coach John Cook proposed a radical change to college volleyball due to struggling TV ratings at the time. That proposal was to move the season from fall to spring.
That idea never came to fruition back then, but Cook continued to speak for a spring volleyball season. Now, the Big Ten is moving towards a January 22 start to the season due to the spread of COVID-19.
A reason for Cook’s proposal from 15 years ago was getting more eyeballs on the sport. The fall season competed with football, and Cook wanted to shift the dates of the championships.
“We get away from having the Final Four on December 22, three days before Christmas,” Cook said in a press conference on Friday. “Just look at the sports going around that time, the spring gives us a much lighter load.”
In 2021, the shortened NCAA volleyball tournament will be in April. That means it will happen right after March Madness, putting the volleyball tournament in a potential ratings sweetspot.
Despite the season being moved to late January, the majority of the volleyball season runs along with the same schedule as men’s basketball. That’s where Cook wished the volleyball season was pushed back just a bit further so that there isn’t as much heavy competition.
“In the Big Ten right now, as soon as basketball starts, volleyball goes to the back burner,” Cook said. “We’re watching Ohio State play some school we’ve never heard of in prime time instead of volleyball.”
The scheduling conflicts still don’t outweigh the potential growth of volleyball. Women’s volleyball also has beach volleyball, a duo-led sport played on sand. That’s volleyball in two different formats that can be organized into a much better format from Cook’s view point.
New potential volleyball programs can be created if there’s a scheduling shift. Nebraska is the only Big Ten school with beach volleyball and beach volleyball is predominantly on the West Coast during the spring. Spring in the Midwest does not provide the ideal conditions for sand volleyball.
“If we move volleyball to the spring, everybody can do beach because you can have beach volleyball in the fall,” Cook said. “It would open up more opportunities for female-athletes.”
From Cook’s perspective, volleyball now has two distinct seasons. One beach season in the fall and an indoor season in the spring with men’s and women’s volleyball playing on similar schedules.
That also isn’t the only way athletes would get more opportunities through Cook’s spring season.
When the 2020 season starts, Nebraska will have extra players due to early enrollment but none will be eligible to play. That doesn’t matter for Cook because it gives those new players more practice opportunities.
For Cook, his volleyball players don’t have as grand a summer program as the men’s basketball or football team. According to him, the volleyball players have two-and-a-half weeks before the season starts to get back into the volleyball season.
“We don’t have access to [Returning volleyball players] over the summer like basketball and football,” Cook said. “They’re basically on their own all summer to get ready.”
Now, the season is four months away. That means more conditioning for the players already at Nebraska but when practice starts, the practices will be much more complete due to developing the new freshman and not focus right away on upcoming matches.
That’s significant for Cook because the volleyball roster size is limited with 12 scholarship players.
“To even scrimmage, you need more than 12 players,” Cook said. “What that means is you’re playing freshman every year...By moving volleyball to spring, we get an entire semester to develop our players.”
The scrimmages are just a part of practice but with the lack of access to players over the summer, developing players become much harder. Cook said that Nebraska only has two-and-a-half weeks before kicking off the fall season and likely playing top-10 teams the first weekend.
The move to spring means that Nebraska can develop its players much more effectively. A longer time period of development doesn’t force Nebraska or any school to have to rush in players that aren’t ready, unlike a fall start.
The pitch from 15 years ago is now beginning to unfold but there will be several hurdles lying ahead for a successful 2020 spring season. The coronavirus testing, a shorter NCAA Tournament and a different schedule format are some of the factors that each program must consider.
For Cook, the indoor spring season opens up many volleyball opportunities for both men and women. Men’s and women’s volleyball finally get a partnership seen in other college sports like basketball, tennis and soccer.
On TV, the benefits are more viewers and a better product for the people to watch due to more training. Cook echoed those thoughts of volleyball growth instead of putting a focus on surviving the spring season before jumping back into a 2021 fall season.
“I don’t know for sure if this [spring season] is the complete answer but this gives us a great look at it,” Cook said. “I think it’ll open up a lot of doors.”