MSR: Volleyball Final Four ‘virtually sold out’ even without Gophers

Minneapolis this week will be the national magnet for women’s college volleyball. For the first time since 1988, the city will be the host for the 2018 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship. The two semifinal matches are scheduled for Thursday and the title match on Saturday.

This year’s Final Four will be at the Minnesota Lynx-Timberwolves basketball arena in downtown Minneapolis. Host Minnesota defeated Wisconsin there in three sets Sept. 26 in a test run, hoping to return later as one of the four finalists, but they fell last Friday to Oregon at Maturi Pavilion, finishing their season at 27-4.

Despite last weekend’s disappointing loss, the team’s first at home this season, Minnesota completed one of the program’s best in its history, clinching its second Big Ten title (19-1) since 2015 and coming in third overall, as well as earning an NCAA second-seed position. However, the Gophers were placed in the Minneapolis Region, perhaps the toughest of the four regionals, as all of its seeded teams advanced to the Sweet 16.

It is uncertain how much their absence will impact the overall attendance at this week’s final matches. “Clearly we are disappointed that the Gophers women were not successful in reaching the Final Four,” Sports Minneapolis Executive Director Melvin Tennant told the MSR earlier this week. “But they clearly had a very successful season. I want to commend Coach Hugh McCutcheon on a very successful campaign.”

Tennant’s organization estimated two weeks ago in a press release that over 11,000 Volleyball Final Four tickets have been sold to out-of-towners. Along with the games, the American Volleyball Coaches Association will hold its annual convention at the Minneapolis Convention Center, and an All-American high school all-star volleyball game will be held on Friday.

The Final Four is “virtually sold out,” Tennant declared. An estimated $11 million economic impact is projected for the area, says Sports Minneapolis.

Volleyball on the court, however, remains virtually all-White. Minnesota this season seems the rare exception with three Black starters and six Blacks overall, but among the four finalists, Nebraska and Stanford have the most Black players (two each). Illinois and BYU have none.

Furthermore, attendance at volleyball games is always mostly White. The Gopher home crowds are rarely diverse.

“I feel blessed as a parent of a child who plays [volleyball] to see that [diversity] on her home state team,” Angela Mansfield of Minneapolis told the MSR before last Friday’s Gophers-Oregon match. “The [Black] girls are very relevant to that team.”

She and her daughter Atiya, a sophomore volleyball player at Alveno (Wisc.) College, were among the few faces of color at last weekend’s regionals. “I love competing and playing against people across the net that have the same body type and hairstyle as me,” Atiya reported.

Earlier this season her school played Macalester College, a squad with several Blacks and the MIAC’s only Black head volleyball coach.  “When you see that in a sport that you are playing, it makes you feel good about yourself,” she added. “I think it’s important.”

Both mother and daughter hope that more Blacks attend volleyball games as well as play the sport. “Volleyball is the quickest growing women’s sport in this state,” Angela noted. “My hope is that it will translate and we’ll start to see more [Blacks playing].”

This week’s Final Four “is the first of a series of five major NCAA events over the next five years,” Tennant said. The men’s basketball Final Four will be at the Vikings Stadium next April. The other major events are wrestling (March 2020), men’s gymnastics and men’s basketball regionals (2021) and the 2022 Women’s Basketball Final Four.

“Our city is primed to host these types of events,” Tennant said.