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92,003 fans at a Nebraska volleyball game was a triumph. But it wasn't a world record.
We can't forget what happened in 1971.
On Wednesday night in Lincoln, Nebraska, 92,003 people packed into Memorial Stadium to watch Nebraska defeat Omaha.
Let me be more specific: On Wednesday night in Lincoln, Nebraska, 92,003 people packed into Memorial Stadium to watch Nebraska defeat Omaha in straight sets in women’s volleyball.
The scenes? They were absolutely, positively, spine tingling.
The moment? It was historic.
But … it wasn’t *quite* as historic as you might think.
It was reported that the crowd of 92,003 made the Nebraska vs. Omaha volleyball game the most-attended women’s sporting event in the history of the world, surpassing the 91,648 fans that watched a UEFA Women's Champions League match in Barcelona last March. I even believed that the record was broken, and tweeted as such.
But yesterday, as I was writing about the what happened in Lincoln, I remembered an article that I published in this here newsletter back in 2020, about the crowd that attended the final of the 1971 Women’s World Cup. According to Dr. Brenda Elsey and Dr. Josh Nadel, co-authors of “Futbolera: A History of Women and Sports in Latin America,” over 110,000 people attended that final at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Now, look: I want to be very clear. I am not writing this to diminish what happened in Nebraska this week. It was absolutely, positively incredible, and everyone involved with the event should be ridiculously proud. That stadium was FILLED TO THE BRIM with die-hard fans, and it brought me to tears, multiple times.
But I do think it’s important to talk about why the 1971 championship has been left out of the discussion, how Nebraska pulled off the *national* attendance record for women’s sports on Wednesday night, why records like this are so valued in women’s sports (and whether they should be), and why we must keep working to raise the bar.
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The first women’s football world championship took place in Italy in 1970. About 30,000 people attended those games, which saw Denmark beat Italy in the final, and Mexico take third place. The Italian delegation visited Mexico after that tournament and realized that because Mexico hosted the 1968 Olympics and the 1968 men’s World Cup, it had the infrastructure to host the 1971 championships. Women’s football was on the rise in Mexico, and despite FIFA actively trying to squelch the event, women’s leagues from across Mexico met and formed the Mexican Federation of Women’s Football (FMFF) and made it happen.
(NOTE: Usually the Power Plays archives are behind a paywall and available only for paid subscribers, but I’ve removed the paywall from my article about the 1971 final, so you can read it in full below. Also, please buy and read “Futbolera.”)
The tournament was a massive success, and Estadio Azteca, which had a capacity of 110,000 at the time, was sold out for the final game. Photos and video footage show the stadium was absolutely packed for the final between Denmark and Mexico.
On Thursday, I asked Dr. Elsey why she thinks that this event has been left out of the conversation of most-attended women’s sporting events.
“My first suspicion is that most of the information around sports history is focused on the U.S. and what is in English — what is available to journalists is limited based on the language it is written in,” Elsey said.
“The second problem is FIFA didn’t recognize the tournament because FIFA didn’t put it on. It was organized independently, and in fact, FIFA threatened to sanction their members for assisting in the tournament. FIFA actively suppresses and does not recognize that tournament. So getting information isn’t that easy.”
It’s also worth noting that since the 1970s, Estadio Azteca has been renovated and its seating capacity has gone down; today it only seats 87,000, which might cause some confusion. Plus, we’re not used to seeing very round attendance numbers; Elsey and Nadel said that there aren’t gate receipts for the match, but that it was widely reported that the game was sold out well in advance of the final, and photos and video of the event show people standing all around the seats.
But no matter the reason why this record is overlooked left out of the “official” tally for women’s sporting events, it’s clear it shouldn’t be — because forgetting history only serves to stall progress.
“It’s important to recognize what happened in Mexico in 1971 because many of the existing inequalities in soccer are justified by claiming that women’s soccer and it’s popularity are new,” Elsey said.
How the volleyball record was broken
I want to stress, again, that I don’t want to put a wet blanket on the excitement over 92,003 people packing Memorial Stadium to watch a women’s NCAA volleyball game on Wednesday night. It did set a national record, surpassing the previous record of 90,185 people at the Rose Bowl to watch the final of the 1999 Women’s World Cup between the United States and China.
Elizabeth Merrill at ESPN wrote a phenomenal piece diving into how the record-setting night came about. It took decades of work to get to this point.
It started with Terry Pettit, who became head coach of Nebraska women’s volleyball in 1977. Pettit turned the program into a national powerhouse, winning 21 conference championships and the 1995 national championship. He leaned heavily on the successful football program to increase attendance at volleyball games, scheduling volleyball games on football Saturday and recruiting fans as they exited the stadium. He also searched the state high and low for talent. John Cook took over as head coach in 2000, and took the program to even greater heights, making seven national championship games and winning four national titles.
But what exactly ignited the idea of playing volleyball in a football stadium? Here’s Merrill (emphasis mine):
The impetus for this whole production? A rivalry, of course. Last September, nearly 500 miles away in Madison, Wisconsin, the Badgers -- Nebraska's biggest nemesis and the team that beat it in the 2021 national championship -- moved a match to the Kohl Center and drew a crowd of 16,833, breaking Nebraska's attendance record for a regular-season match.
Of all the things that captivate Nebraska sports fans, it's their attendance records. A few years ago, when the football team's six-decades-long sellout streak was in jeopardy, boosters and corporate sponsors bought unsold tickets to keep the record going. Nebraska volleyball hasn't had to worry about that; eight of the top nine crowds in NCAA volleyball history are matches that have involved the Huskers.
But the Badgers' one-upping the record nagged at Nebraska fans, who sent a flurry of emails to coach John Cook urging him to take his team somewhere to reclaim their record.
It was Nebraska athletic director Trev Alberts that suggested Memorial Stadium. Cook was apprehensive at first, worried that the program would be embarrassed if they only partially filled up the stadium. But he was worried for naught. Within three days of tickets going on sale in the spring, 82,000 tickets were sold.
So much work into making sure the event went off seamlessly. According to Merrill, “Seven months of planning, every day, has gone into this, with staging meetings from police, fire, rescue and traffic to concessions, the band and marketing.” And it paid off.
Whether it set a world record or not, Wednesday night in Lincoln was a night that mattered, not just for the Nebraska volleyball program or the state of Nebraska, but for the past, present, and future of women’s sports.
Here’s Aimee Just of the Lincoln Journal Star, whose coverage of the game was phenomenal, on the significance of the day:
This event was for the women who came before — the ones who laid the foundation so that this could happen at all.
This match was for the women who played Wednesday — the ones who currently carry the torch and feel the pressures of playing for a team of this caliber on a stage of this magnitude.
This was also for those yet to come — the next generation of Huskers who will sign with the program in eight-plus years.
For the little Nevaehs and Lauryns and Baylees and Keeleys. For the Kansases and the Peytons and the Nataleys and the Rosies and everyone in between.
Those in charge of women’s sports must keep thinking big
Sometimes I worry about the obsession with records and attendance numbers and viewership numbers in women’s sports. It can often feel like emphasizing them is opting into a demeaning conversation that demands that women’s sports prove their worth with hard data on a daily basis. It’s a bad-faith discussion, one that can feel like groundhog day.
But, at the same time, I look at what happened in Mexico City in 1971 and what happened in Lincoln in 2023 and realize that these numbers do matter; not because they’ll silence the haters — there are some who will find any excuse, forever, to dismiss women’s sports. These numbers are important because they inspire those who care about women’s sports to think outside the box, to expand their imaginations and raise the bar.
Back in 2019, just days before the pandemic shut the world down, the ICC Women's T20 World Cup final broke the world record attendance for a women’s cricket match, when 86,714 fans watched Australia beat India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. The match took place on International Women’s Day, and actually, 86,714 fans was a bit of a disappointment; the MCG can hold about 100,000, and the organizers of the event were very open about their desire to break what was then believed to be the attendance record for a women’s sporting event: 90,185 people at the Rose Bowl in 1999.
So by the most technical of definitions, the #FilltheMCG campaign was a failure. But in reality, it was a massive success — 86,714 people came to watch women’s cricket that day, surpassing the previous record of 26,500 set at the 2017 ICC Women’s World Cup in England.
There’s a quote from Nick Hockley, the CEO of the T20 World Cup, that I’ve been thinking about for years. He was asked why Cricket Australia set such an ambitious goal to #FilltheMCG in the final, when they could easily have picked a smaller setting and sold that out.
“So really, since the beginning of the planning, the overriding philosophy is that we’ve got this opportunity, we’ve got this moment in time and we’re absolutely going to make the most of it and that means not waking up in 2021 and thinking, ‘if only we’d played in a bigger stadium,’” Hockley said.
And ultimately, that’s how everyone in charge of women’s sports should approach their jobs — not afraid of failure caused by dreaming too big, but afraid of regret because they’ve dreamed far too small.