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Harper Murray #27 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers serves against the Omaha Mavericks at Memorial Stadium on August 30, 2023 in Lincoln, Nebraska.
C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Nebraska’s volleyball team is used to packed venues and used to winning. The program holds an NCAA women's record for sellout streaks, 306 consecutive regular-season matches, and has never been unranked in the coaches' poll. They packed another venue and won another match Wednesday night with a three-set sweep of Omaha. This time they did those things bigger: A crowd of 92,003 filled Memorial Stadium in Lincoln for Volleyball Day in Nebraska, breaking the world record for confirmed attendance at a women's sporting event. “That is the first game that I’ve lost where I still left with a smile on my face,” Omaha setter Olivia Curry said afterward.

Logistics nerds will enjoy this Lincoln Journal Star story on the 17-truck production and “carefully crafted” stage designed to fit the sloping football field. The match commanded the attention it did because everything about it—the stadium, the setup, the attendance, the statement—was big. It absolutely ruled to watch, as any sporting event in a big stadium with a raucous crowd and high production values tends to be.

But Volleyball Day in Nebraska also made an argument for the small. It challenged the belief held by every decision-maker in college sports these days, that the only thing distinct about a school is the number of people who watch its football games on television. That belief can’t account for what happened last night. It insists that college sports have no worth beyond football. It insists they have no culture without men. It flattens the local, the particular, the peculiar. As clips of the event went around online last night, I saw that belief in some comments and replies, which treated the whole thing like a mystery to solve: Was everyone just there for the concert afterward? Were the tickets free? Well, what else is there to do in Nebraska, LOL? Those people are annoying and mostly not well-meaning, but they did remind me why I love college fandom. The experience isn’t universal. It shouldn't be. There’s a language you speak with your friends, and your family, and your neighbors, and everyone else is just some anthropologist who will never know the half of it. What's foreign to an outsider makes total sense when you were raised on Sarah Pavan and Jordan Larson and prep tournaments in Grand Island. It makes sense to the people who know a match at Devaney is the toughest ticket in town. Schools are in places, and places are special. It is so special to be from a place. 

When I was a high schooler visiting college campuses, my family made a running joke of the pitches we’d get from chipper tour guides, all of whom loved Whatever U because “the professors have office hours!” and “on any night, you can find someone to study with or go out with!” I’m more sympathetic now; of course there was something real they couldn't convey. “No other school could do this,” star freshman outside hitter Harper Murray told The Athletic in a story about the event. She didn’t grow up in Nebraska. She’s 18 years old and has never been to any other school. And still, she’s exactly right. Other equipment crews could carefully craft a volleyball stage in a football stadium, and maybe some other school could scrounge up 92,000 fans. But last night, when Murray recorded her first of six kills and 92,003 people went nuts, no other school could make her feel the way she felt.

Some anti-realignment takes blame the death of college sports on unchecked ambition—ambition of the "drain the world's oceans so we can find and kill god" variety. Maybe it's the other way around. The university presidents and conference execs doing the schmoozing and poaching suffer from small imaginations. They can't see what's right in front of them, all the beauty and potential and culture in what they cast aside as women's sports or "non-revenue" sports. (Not that it matters or that there's any trustworthy accounting in college athletics, but at Nebraska, volleyball officially turns a profit.)

In setting the women's sporting event attendance record, thousands of Nebraskans were competing against the crowd at a recent Champions League quarterfinal between Barcelona and Real Madrid at Camp Nou, where 91,553 people set the record last spring. But the Huskers weren't eyeing El Clásico when they put Wednesday's event together. Nor were they looking to parlay the enthusiasm of the locals into a TV contract, or entry into a new conference that could secure them even more eyeballs and money. They did it because they wanted to stick it to rival Wisconsin, who had snatched the regular-season women's volleyball attendance record away from Nebraska last September when they drew a crowd of 16,883 at match against Florida in Madison. Going through all the effort of turning a gigantic football stadium into a volleyball court for one night, just for the sake of earning some bragging rights over a rival, is the best kind of ambition. You might not understand, but why would you? You're not from there.

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