Why is women’s volleyball so much more popular than men’s?


Two attractive women beach volleyball players

Maybe this is part of the reason?

You ever really think about that? It bucks a pretty considerable trend. It seems charmingly quaint to even have to come out and say it, but sporting events with male athletes are much more popular than those with female athletes. There are plenty of ideas why (each of those words links to a different article on the topic). It seems it boils down to plain old sexism — men are the fierce warrior types that thrive on competition, while the girls just want to play fair and make sure everyone has a good time (which is not spectator-friendly). I'm not saying anyone consciously thinks that, but that mindset's pretty pervasive, and I certainly understand it. Remember when Homer Simpson said "I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals FUH-LAMING!" Same idea. Certain things just are the way they are until we get lots of proof that they're not. We have all gone through this learning process about various things in our day.

Discounting sports where men don't compete at all (such as synchronized swimming), two of the relatively few sports where women enjoy greater popularity than men are sports that are seen as 'dainty' and, well…feminine. It's also only by a small to moderate margin that they're more popular for the ladies. I speak of figure skating and gymnastics. Think about it — a male figure skater is pretty much doomed to gay jokes the rest of his life. I'm sure Scott Hamilton's heard them all. I suppose it's because the sport is all about artistry and lines and choreography and don't you feel all frilly and limp-wristed just talking about it. (Just describing popular perception here) For reasons I very much don't understand, men's gymnastics has much the same reputation in some circles (two different links there, click carefully!), despite it being a pretty brutally physically intensive sport that requires built athletes just as much as football or basketball or any other "manlier" sports. There's also the thought that women competing in these sports play to feminine characteristics, so even though the male equivalents don't, men are still lumped in.

But somehow volleyball got lumped in here. Some people think of men's volleyball as "gay" just the same as men's figure skating or gymnastics, when aside from some minor differences in the playing area to account for the fact that men are physically larger than women, the two games are indistinguishable. But indeed, youth volleyball in the US is only slightly less female-dominated than youth gymnastics. So what gives? Even proponents of other women's sports seem to think that volleyball is all frilly and feminine and 'non-contact,' when anyone who's ever played or watched for more than five minutes knows that's a load.

There are over 320 NCAA institutions that sponsor women's volleyball. The complete list of schools that offer men's volleyball (above the club level) can comfortably fit on a single Wikipedia page. It's only since this past season that there are even any Divisional distinctions at all in NCAA men's volleyball, as prior to 2012 there simply weren't enough schools in the sport for it to matter. And the inaugural Division III championship field (Division II schools still compete with Division I) had a whopping nine teams in it.

Somehow, we got the idea in our schools systems that volleyball is a game for girls, even though that makes about as much sense as saying basketball is a game for girls (very little differences in the men's and women's games in either sport). It starts at the lower levels, to be sure — over 15,000 high schools in America have girls' volleyball teams, but I'd be shocked if even 1 percent of that number had boys' volleyball. There actually are rules and guidelines for boys' volleyball at the high school level (and even younger), but I never would have known that until I specifically looked.

NCAA men's volleyball is dominated by teams on the West coast, and in particular California. Of the 43-year history of the sport, only 8 times has the championship been won by a team not from California (and three of those were BYU and Hawaii, so that's pretty close to West coast, anyway). One of the other oddball winners was Ohio State two seasons ago. They and renowned women's volleyball powerhouse Penn State are the only two teams in the NCAA Big Ten conference (one of the most important conferences for big-dollar sports like football and basketball) to offer men's volleyball. So there's also geographic reasons why men's volleyball is of limited popularity in the United States.

Internationally, men's indoor is still generally more popular than women's, for reasons that go back to why men's sports are more popular than women's overall. The styles of play between the two do tend to be somewhat different (and that's not me talking, it's science). There's the thought that men's volleyball is more offensive-minded, while the girls focus more on defense, digs, and longer rallies. Hmm, I may have just identified a(nother) reason why I like women's volleyball better than men's.

The primary reason why? Well, talk about the elephant in the room — sex appeal.

I'm not too proud to admit it. Volleyball is an awesome sport filled with great competitors who play with tremendous passion and have some downright epic athletic encounters at times. They're also pretty nice to look at. Two separate, independently true statements that are both…well, just terrific.

Some might think that demeaning, but I balk at the notion. I don't watch women's volleyball solely for sex appeal, and you can't tell me that women who take such good care of their bodies (like models would) to participate in a sport with tight, form-fitting uniforms don't like being looked at. I think we can safely say that Logan Tom doesn't shun the spotlight, at the very least. She's far from the only one, but she is, um….the first one I thought of. I may be a rare case in appreciating athletic ability in addition to sex appeal, and if so that's unfortunate, but I don't think sex appeal is a bad thing. Ladies, if you got it, flaunt it!

And of course this is even more prominent in beach than in indoor. Until a rule change this year, female beach volleyball players were actually prohibited from wearing anything less revealing than the skimpy bikinis you commonly associate with the game. Prominent beach volleyballers like Kerri Walsh Jennings and Elaine Youngs have said that such attire is appropriate for the setting and physical demands of the game, well, you know what gals, it also makes you hot to trot. Beach volleyball is perhaps the only sport in the world where men and women have an equal history in terms of how long they've been playing and in worldwide exposure, where the women's form is more popular. Maybe the guys should be forced to go shirtless (some do anyway) or wear speedos…or maybe that would drive the crowds away!

I never really hear about men's volleyball, either beach or indoor, being eye candy, though in fairness I don't go looking for conversations about men's looks. But there's a classic notion of straight women being dragged by their husbands or boyfriends to a football game, so they spend the whole time looking at the players' butts, and swimming and diving are kind of eye candy for everyone, so sex appeal for those who are into guys isn't unheard of. Seems like it doesn't relate to volleyball, though.

At the end of the day, volleyball enjoys a somewhat greater gender parity than most other sports. Only basketball seems obviously better (and even there, does anyone really care about Tennessee or Connecticut or this year Baylor having yet another undefeated season?). It's just that it's flip-flopped from the norm. Volleyball is a great sport that everyone should play, watch, and love, so here's hoping the boys make the same sort of strides in our game that the girls will be looking to make elsewhere in the sports world.