ESPN’s Attempt to Honor HS Volleyball All-Americans Falls Short

The AVCA Under Armour All-American team was highlighted this weekend on ESPN… with a mere nine minutes of a two-hour show dedicated to the volleyball athletes.

Last week, we reported that the 24 AVCA Under Armour (UA) First Team All-Americans would be honored on ESPN last Sunday. The All-America match had previously been cancelled due to COVID-19, and the special was an attempt to find another way to honor the athletes in a public manner. However, after Sunday’s two-hour special that dedicated approximately nine minutes to volleyball, many turned away feeling disappointed.

We know volleyball is not a sport that athletes play and later reach fame or fortune. People who have never even played football or know someone who has played football are fans, which is not something we can say the same about volleyball.

ESPN didn’t have to include volleyball in the program at all, but we visually witnessed the disparity on national television. The best girls volleyball players in the country received a fraction-of-a-fraction of the notoriety that their football counterparts had. That’s the narrative we heard as the special ended and our hopes of more volleyball also left with it.

Amid the incredible footage and impact stories allotted to the high school football players, the volleyball athletes’ names were simply listed on a screen in front of a football field as the backdrop. The host read off the names, though some were mispronounced. No positions or colleges were named. No statistics or honors were announced.

Holly Rowe and Kerri Walsh-Jennings volunteered their time to surprise two athletes, Kami Miner and Sami Francis. Both are headed to Stanford, where Walsh-Jennings was a standout player. This isn’t to take anything away from their extraordinary moment, but half of the nine minutes set aside for all 24 players became narrowed to a feature on the Stanford Volleyball program.

It’s easy to imagine that these athletes and their families, as well as the rest of the volleyball community, could become somewhat embarrassed. Their expectations were not met. But there is another perspective we can adopt.

You are an AVCA UA All-American.

Your experience was different this year, but you will always get to tell your collegiate teammates, your grandmother, and your future children, that you were chosen out of all of the senior girls volleyball players as one of the best. It’s not, “I’m an All-American, but…”. No. You have achieved what thousands have not in this special year.

It’s estimated that around 50-percent of HS All-Americans also become NCAA All-Americans. When that time comes, we will not say, “Yeah, but her name was only on TV for a minute.”

We will say, “Wow, she is incredible!”

This is not the fault of the AVCA or UA, who have each invested a great deal of time and money into the AVCA UA All-America program for the 13 years it has been in existence. Volleyball is UA’s number-one-selling women’s sport, so their mission was far from looking to slight the talented players.

“I’ve worked with Under Armour on this All-America program for 13 years,” said AVCA Executive Director Kathy DeBoer. “I know their intentions, I’ve seen their hard work, and I’ve experienced the authenticity in their effort. Covid changed this year, Under Armour didn’t. The Under Armour All-American Volleyball players know how much they are respected by this company.”

Up until the air time on the ESPN special, everything was fair between the athletes in the two sports. Everything the athletes received this year was distributed equally – the gear, the framed jerseys, and even the rings that were made for the All-Americans this year. Each volleyball athlete was honored at her high school (COVID-19 restrictions permitting), just as the football players were.

Last year, the UA All-America Football game was aired on ESPN; volleyball was on the FloVolley platform. Two hours of ESPN prime-time on a Sunday afternoon is certainly not cheap.

In 2018 and 2019, the Big Ten Network (BTN) reported that volleyball was its third-watched televised sport, behind football and men’s basketball. But that’s the thing – it’s still behind two wildly popular men’s sports. After the 2017 season, the BTN televised even more of the conference’s volleyball matches and saw an 88-percent rise in viewership from the 2017-18 seasons (per a 2019 report in the Star Tribune). Volleyball viewership is increasing… but it’s not there yet.

The ESPN show last weekend ended up not living up to our expectations, of course. But we are looking at the athletes that have risen to become great. Regardless of what you will or will not achieve in the future, we are happy to remind you that you will always have this special honor. You will always be an AVCA UA All-American. And there will always be people fighting to make sure that you are seen.

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