By Matthew Soderberg | Sports Writer
No. 1 Baylor volleyball traveled to Austin to play No. 4 Texas on Oct. 23, and the crowd was louder and livelier than anything I’ve experienced. Over 4,000 fans packed the gym as music pumped in to engage the roaring crowd. The band was wild, and the crowd knew how to unnerve their opponent.
LSU football games, an environment considered to be one of the best in college sports, don’t compare to what UT was able to do. Baylor football games definitely don’t. So if Austin can make that happen, why can’t Waco?
Baylor volleyball is now ranked No. 3 in the country, but, according to the Baylor volleyball website, only about 1,500 fans show up to each home match. The single loss squad’s fans can’t muster a low grumble in the Ferrell Center, let alone the raucous roar of Gregory Gymnasium.
As the Longhorns took the lead, the crowd went into a frenzy. Normally, the fans would then quell their spirits so their player could serve without distractions, but the opposite happened at Gregory Gymnasium — the fans chanted and screamed louder in hopes of distracting the Bears. I’d never seen a coach encourage fans to cheer during his own team’s serve, and it stunned the Bears.
Over 40,000 fans turn out for Baylor football games according to Baylor’s football website, and, until maybe this season, that team hasn’t been nearly as dominant as the volleyball team has been this fall. The Bears set records for consecutive wins (16) and consecutive set wins (31) this season, as well as a new high in the rankings (No. 1).
Another reason that a volleyball match can be more engaging and inspiring for fans is the players get to show emotion on the court, unlike on the football field. There aren’t any helmets covering how they feel, and there isn’t a massive gap between fans and the action.
Marieke van der Mark shows more jubilation after she or one of her teammates gets a kill than I’ve shown in my entire life. Shelly Stafford pumps up her team so well after a point that I feel like even I could go up and earn a kill envigored by her motivation. It’s an environment that is more intimate and connected with the sport, allowing more attachment to the players.
Head coach Ryan McGuyre has praised the crowds this season, as apparently they’ve gotten stronger in comparison with previous seasons. But hosting a couple thousand people for playoff matchups will seem paltry in comparison with other high-caliber programs, as Nebraska and Wisconsin each boast over 5,000 fans per match. The first four rounds of volleyball playoffs are hosted by the colleges, and if the Bears host anything, there will be little advantage.
The Bears need to take cues from their neighbors down south. Baylor players were noticeably bothered by the crowd in Austin. They gave up 10 service aces to the Longhorns, five more than they’ve given in any other three-set match. The Green and Gold also just couldn’t get any momentum with the crowd screaming in their faces.
The advantage of playing at home lies in the crowd. LSU is called the “place where dreams come to die,” not because the team is so good, but because the crowd makes you not able to hear someone 3 feet away. The fans at Gregory Gymnasium made noise levels akin to that, something I didn’t expect from a volleyball match.
It’s not just the noise in the stadium that matters, though: It’s the commitment to the brand. There were close to 1,000 fans lined up outside the venue in Austin an hour before the match started. An ESPN reporter interviewed the students at the front of the line, and they had been waiting for over two hours just to get in an hour beforehand.
People don’t line up for Baylor sports. They don’t fill the seats for Baylor matches. Baylor isn’t necessarily a place known for their sports heritage, and for smaller sports like volleyball and soccer, it shows. Football has only been an event since Art Briles and RG3 reinvented college offense at the turn of the decade, and the crowds have slowly been creeping into other sports ever since — emphasis on “slowly.”
All Baylor sports deserve attention. Equestrian deserves attention. Acro and tumbling deserves attention. No. 3 volleyball definitely deserves attention.
Matthew is a junior journalism major from Spring.