Guest Post: How did Volleyball Day at Nebraska actually happen?
We went behind the scenes.
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Last Wednesday, the good folks in Lincoln, Nebraska pulled off something truly exceptional. The University of Nebraska hosted a volleyball game between the Cornhuskers and Nebraska-Omaha, drawing a world record 92,003 fans to Memorial Stadium. I watched it on TV here in Chicago, and the entire operation, from the crow shots to the pageantry to the game itself, was awesome.
Friend of the newsletter Erin Sorensen, a longtime Nebraska writer who just helped co-found the Counter Read newsletter, was at the game. I asked her to poke around and share the behind-the-scenes story of this whole operation…how did Nebraska pull this off? What went into it?
Below is her account.
By the time Nebraska announced it had set the world record for attendance at a women’s sporting event, the hard work was done. Well, mostly.
We’re also only talking about the logistical hard work and not the game itself — in which Nebraska swept Omaha 0-3 — because Volleyball Day in Nebraska was a significant production from planning to setup and teardown.
What Nebraska managed to pull off in front of a crowd of 92,003 people is nothing short of impressive. But what did it take to make a volleyball match inside a football stadium happen?
Here’s a look behind the curtain.
It takes an army of people
While formal preparations for Volleyball Day in Nebraska didn’t begin until last winter, the seed was planted in September of 2022. Wisconsin and Florida at the Kohl Center defeated the NCAA regular season attendance record for a women’s volleyball game with 16,833 fans, topping the record set by Nebraska and Creighton (15,797) just ten days prior.
Nebraska wanted to top the record, but how? Pinnacle Bank Arena — home of the Husker basketball programs — holds 15,500 people. That wouldn’t work. CHI Health Center in Omaha — home of the Creighton Bluejays — can hold somewhere near 17,000. That had potential, but Wisconsin was already scheduled to play Marquette at Fiserv Forum in 2023. That arena holds 17,500.
If Nebraska was going to top the record, it would have to go big. The only option was Memorial Stadium.
“You can convince yourself that it’s a bad idea,” Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts said. “You can ask a million questions. ‘Well, what about this? What about that?’
“But there’s an answer and a solution to every problem.”
Led by Matt Davidson, associate athletic director for event management and operations, Nebraska got to work making Volleyball Day possible. There were more than 100 meetings, starting with a small group and building to 50 in attendance as the day got closer. Staff from nearly every aspect of Nebraska’s athletic department was involved — like ticketing and HuskerVision — to community partners like the Lincoln Police Department.
In the end, more than 3,300 event staff members were on hand for Volleyball Day — representing 35 different agencies and departments — which mirrored the support needed for a football game day at Memorial Stadium. It was a massive feat, but for more than just the event itself. Nebraska’s staff had to still manage other athletic events, like a road football game just one night later.
“The same people that are responsible for other events are also responsible for this Herculean task of putting (Volleyball Day) on,” Alberts said. “We didn’t just stroll in and go, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for being here’ and call it a day. We decided to do a full — if not an advanced — football production for this.”
The president and parking
Nebraska made the decision to cancel in-person classes for Volleyball Day on July 26, over a month before the event itself was set to take place. The primary reason to do so? Parking.
Nebraska students may have president Barack Obama to thank for that too.
Alberts — who served as Omaha’s athletic director from 2009-2021 — experienced the visit from Obama to Omaha’s campus in 2016. Obama spoke at Baxter Arena — home to the Maverick hockey team — but parking proved to be a challenge. While some were familiar with the setup surrounding Baxter Arena, the event with Obama was a different experience altogether.
“A lot of people who had never been to Baxter Arena came to Baxter Arena and it was a disaster,” Alberts said. “They didn't know what roads to take to get in and out of the area and how to get to certain parking.”
Nebraska thought Volleyball Day might be similar, especially with a high contingency of out-of-town visitors expected. For example, more than 40 buses brought high school and club volleyball teams to Lincoln for the day. That included out-of-state visitors like the Harrisburg volleyball team from South Dakota.
Fans traveled from all over to Lincoln — Nebraska was looking for fans from Mississippi, Rhode Island and Vermont the day prior to check off all 50 states — which presented a unique situation. While many schools tackle non-Saturday game days every fall, Nebraska’s was faced with more than just a large game day crowd on campus. It was also faced with a crowd that was potentially unfamiliar with the city and stadium entirely.
That meant limiting extra people on campus would help manage the traffic. In many ways, canceling in-person classes allowed Volleyball Day to function like a Saturday game day in Lincoln.
Yet, it also wasn’t a Saturday game day…
On a typical Saturday game day, Lincoln runs a shuttle service using the city bus system to move fans around the city. Being a Wednesday — and a normal work day — Nebraska’s staff had to come up with a solution for Volleyball Day and its fans.
Enter the Big Red Volleyball Express.
Nebraska’s athletic department contracted Arrow Stage Line buses to fill the gap for fans looking for a shuttle and to limit the number of vehicles right around the stadium. The free service ran on Volleyball Day from 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., as well as from 8:15 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., shuttling fans to and from a shopping center 15 minutes south of Memorial Stadium.
It isn’t easy to make a football field work for volleyball
Once fans arrived at Memorial Stadium for Volleyball Day, they were likely none the wiser as to what it took to make what stood in front of them possible. Former Nebraska volleyball coach Terry Pettit shared that Nebraska spent over $1 million just to prepare the field.
It was more than just placing a court and stage on the field. It began with needing an extended period of time for setup and tear down, which Nebraska had to its advantage with the football team on the road for the first two weeks of the season.
Nebraska started by covering the field with decking, which was needed to protect the FieldTurf and to provide an even base for the buildout. Seventeen trucks brought in the decking, two stages and everything needed for Scotty McCreery, who performed a post-match concert.
Memorial Stadium — like all football stadiums — has a slope for drainage. That meant the stage had to be leveled, and the legs ranged in various heights to meet that need. The stage for the volleyball match was 140 feet long, and had approximately 20-30 feet surrounding the TeraFlex court to protect the athletes.
Nebraska held a test run last May, utilizing the graduation setup in Memorial Stadium to test the TeraFlex court on a stage. That trial run helped Nebraska realize what was going to work and what needed adjustment, like placing plywood under the court for extra stability.
There were plenty of unknowns though, like what the weather would bring to Lincoln, Nebraska, on Aug. 31. Once certain it wouldn’t rain, the biggest concern was the humidity (which Nebraska is no stranger to in late August) and more perspiration on the court than what you’d see at an indoor match.
A group of youth — who help move volleyballs and keep the court dry during matches at the Bob Devaney Sports Center — were tasked with a much bigger challenge at Memorial Stadium. They received additional support from student workers in the Nebraska athletic department and practice assistants, who utilized mops to keep the court dry throughout the match.
It all paid off. Once on the stage at Volleyball Day, you might as well have been standing on the court in the Devaney Center. Until you looked up into the crowd, that is.
Also, a random fun fact: Nebraska placed 204 seats courtside. That mirrored the exact number of courtside seats at the Bob Devaney Sports Center (not counting the standing room only sections for students).
What it means for Nebraska (and beyond)
Weeks before Volleyball Day took place, Alberts had hopes for what it could be. As long as rain held off and the temperatures were reasonable, he felt confident that Nebraska would deliver on incredible experience.
“One thing that I'm passionate about is that nobody's going to outwork us,” Alberts said. “You might be better than us, you might be smarter than us, but you won’t outwork us.
“With that kind of mindset, we've got a pretty reasonable chance of being successful.”
Nebraska was successful for all of the reasons listed above, but also for one very specific (and very important) reason: what Volleyball Day meant for women’s athletics everywhere.
The Big Ten Network reported 518,000 viewers for the match, ranking No. 2 all-time for a regular-season volleyball match across all networks.
“I think it’s huge for little girls to see a women’s sports and volleyball played on this big of a stage and having so many people invested in it,” Nebraska libero Lexi Rodriguez said. “When you’re little, you have so many dreams and big goals and I think having something to look up to like this to is something a lot of little girls will keep in the back of their mind when pursuing volleyball.”
A group of young girls leaned on the standing room only railings behind the media seating, screaming with glee as Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings walked by. Another group of girls clasped their hands to their mouths as the Huskers emerged from the Tunnel Walk. Nebraska volleyball players tried hard to absorb the gravity of the moment and take it all in.
“I don’t think really any of us are able to grasp what’s really happening and going down tomorrow,” Nebraska junior Merritt Beason said the Tuesday before Volleyball Day. “I think it will hit us all once we are walking out of the tunnel. Ninety-three thousand people is kind of hard to wrap your head around and the fact that they’re here for us and here supporting us is kinda crazy to think about.
“It’s hard to put it into perspective and prepare for it honestly.”
Nebraska tried to be as prepared as possible, measuring the stage over and over to ensure its accuracy and practicing inside the stadium to adjust to the open sky above. Depth perception was the concern — not having a roof overhead is a challenge for any team as players use what’s above and the sightlines to calibrate serves, hits and more — but beach volleyball experience eased some of those worries. By the time first serve came, all there was left to do was focus on the matchup against Omaha.
In the end, itt was an exciting and emotional evening inside Memorial Stadium. Nebraska coach John Cook held back tears multiple times throughout the evening before finally breaking down during a post-match interview with Big Ten Network.
For everything that will be said and written about Volleyball Day in Nebraska — and for all of the planning that took place to make it possible — it was what it meant that transcended all else.
“If you're not careful, you can get very comfortable and you can just get on this treadmill of nothingness where you feel like you're actually doing something, but you're not really doing anything tangible and meaningful,” Alberts said. “I’d rather be busy making this place better.
“I hope (Volleyball Day) is a step in doing that.”
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