Why volleyball - not basketball- is winning the popular vote
ESPN Magazine By Vicki L. Friedman
Basketball figured to be the game for Micaya White. Her dad,
Randy White, played in the NBA. Her brother, R.J., is the
starting center for UNC Greensboro. Micaya joined her first team
when she was 6.
“Everybody assumed I was going to play too,” the 6-foot-1 White
There was just one problem. She didn’t love it.
“When I tried to show aggression, I’d end up hurting another
player or fouling out of the game.” More than that, White
cringed, “I hated being touched. I’m a germ freak, so a sweaty
person touching me freaked me out.”
A conversation with the volleyball coach at her middle school
opened up an avenue she never considered. Urged to try out for
the school’s team, White hesitated.
“I didn’t want to suck at it, and I knew nothing about it,” she
But within a week, White fell in love with the game in which the
block party never ends. Volleyball fired up her competitive
juices just as much as basketball, if not more.
“Only there was a net in between,” she said. “You can put in all
this aggression toward one object and let it out.”
Basketball’s loss became volleyball’s gain. White was the Big 12
Freshman of the Year at Texas, which reached the NCAA title game
Her decision to pick volleyball over basketball follows a
national trend. Two years ago, for the first time, more high
school girls played volleyball (432,176) than basketball
(429,504), according to the National Federation of State High
School Associations. In 2015-16, volleyball added another 4,133
girls to those numbers, while basketball lost 276 participants.
Examine the past decade, and the numbers are more striking.
Statistics compiled by the NFHS show an increase of more than
40,000 volleyball players in that span and a decrease of 23,000
“There’s been a huge African-American crossover into our sport,
and it’s become the social norm now to play volleyball, whereas
10 or 15 years ago, it was basketball,” Texas coach Jerritt
Elliott said. “It appeals not just to the super tall but the
super small. The super small has a niche with the libero and the
[defensive specialist] position where they can find success at a
very high level.”
Volleyball, which had its national semifinals showcased on ESPN
in December, has evolved way past the days of a picnic pastime.
“There’s a whole lot of girls out there who like to be powerful,
who like to be strong and assertive and aggressive, but they
also like having a net between them,” said Kathy DeBoer,
executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches
Association. “They don’t enjoy checking each other or boxing
each other out or slide tackles.”
Mike Flynn, editor of the national recruiting newsletter Blue
Star Report and a longtime authority on girls’ basketball,
points to all the choices girls have today and the challenges
specific to basketball.
“You go where you see success and where you have access to
success,” he said. “Basketball is a hard sport to master. Unless
you’re willing to put in the time and effort and have a certain
level of athleticism and hand-eye skills, you will not be
successful. You will be pushed out of the sport because of what
it demands. In volleyball and lacrosse, those barriers are
Jasmyn Martin set aside basketball recruiting letters from
Tennessee in favor of a stack of mail from volleyball coaches.
Martin, who graduated from Hopkins High in Minnetonka,
Minnesota, a semester early to train with the Gophers this
spring, prefers the energy of volleyball to hoops.
“The relationships you build, how together you are, set it apart
from basketball,” she said. “You come together after every
Hayley McCorkle, who finished her career on North Carolina’s
volleyball team last fall, was born two hours away from
basketball-crazed Tobacco Road. Once rated a three-star recruit
by ESPNW HoopGurlz, she chose volleyball over hoops.
“I wanted to compete against someone, but I didn’t want that
physical contact,” she said. “Volleyball allows you to be a
little more of a girl. You get to wear the ribbons, wear pink,
wear your hair however you want and still be dainty when you
play the sport. That draws a lot of young athletes to the
Washington’s Kara Bajema was one of many volleyball players who
echoed that sentiment. The 6-foot-2 freshman middle blocker
twice earned state MVP honors after leading Lynden Christian
High, about two hours north of the Huskies’ campus, to a pair of
championships in basketball.
But she gravitated toward her other love, volleyball, and
committed to Washington at the end of her sophomore year.
“Honestly, I just like the volleyball environment better. It’s a
little more chill,” she said.
“Basketball is definitely more hard-core, and I like being a
girly girl sometimes.”
But Bajema encourages girls not to decide on one sport too
“Play as many sports as you can in high school, and have fun
with them,” she said. “Some people feel the pressure to choose
so early. I would encourage people to play as many sports as
they can in high school.”
Although it’s rare, not everyone makes a choice, even in
That’s the case with Abby Cole, who played volleyball for four
years at Michigan and joined the basketball team for the first
time this winter. Cole said both sports offer a unique set of
challenges but complement each other.
“I would never say basketball’s more of a masculine sport than
volleyball. You’re not playing men’s basketball; you’re playing
women’s basketball,” she said. “The bows and the hair and the
way the uniforms fit don’t affect the way the sport is played.
Playing volleyball, you’re not told to play like a lady. You’re
told to play tough and play hard and be aggressive. Whether it’s
basketball or volleyball, you hear the same things from
Likewise, Kathryn Plummer, a key freshman in Stanford’s run to
the 2016 NCAA volleyball championship, was drawn to its
“For some girls, the bows and uniforms matter when they’re
younger, but at the higher levels, you don’t necessarily want to
wear spandex,” she said. “You might wear sweats when you’re
practicing. At the higher level, athletes are athletes. It’s all
about the sport.”
At 6-foot-6, Plummer would be a godsend to Tara VanDerveer,
whose Cardinal basketball team lacks significant size. Plummer
played basketball as a youngster but decided against pursuing it
in high school.
“I love basketball — to watch,” she said. “I love to play
volleyball. In basketball, I could post up and score. In
volleyball, you have to be good at everything. You have to work
together more. [In basketball, you can own the court. It can be
your show. For volleyball, you need everybody.”
Bryon Larson, whose Dynasty Volleyball Club in Kansas City,
Kansas is one of the most elite in the nation, points out that
the skill sets for the two sports are similar.
“We’re competing for the same athlete: lean, long, fast-twitch
kids,” he said. “That’s the dream prototype player.”
A decade ago, volleyball youth programs were scarce. Larson
started his club in 2009 as a feeder system for the high school
team he was coaching. Eight years later, the club fields 25
“We can’t field enough teams,” he said. “I could add six or
seven more, but for me, it’s a matter of trying to be Macy’s —
When Troy Tanner started Tstreet Volleyball Club a decade ago in
Irvine, California, it was largely due to his daughter Bailey’s
interest in the sport. Now he has expanded to a second location
in Laguna Beach. He runs programs for tots, tweens and teens,
and the words “Tstreet Club” are found on many NCAA volleyball
bios. That includes the University of Washington’s roster, on
which Bailey plays alongside Tstreet alums Crissy Jones and Tia
Tanner attributes much of the sport’s success to the simple fact
that volleyball is fun, and college opportunities are plentiful.
The NCAA recognizes 334 volleyball teams; beach volleyball,
fully sanctioned in 2015-16, is the NCAA’s fastest-growing
Added exposure has come with the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12
“I have a little cousin who watched the tournament,” McCorkle
said. “She didn’t know anything about volleyball until she saw
it on TV. Having it out there for more young girls to watch
allows them to be more drawn into the game.”
High-performance training can be expensive — elite volleyball
players can spend upward of $7,000 annually. But that’s an
amount plenty of parents with means fork over to see their
As healthy as volleyball numbers are, DeBoer offers a cautious
“I don’t want girls’ or women’s basketball to fail because that
would be horrible for women’s sports,” she said. “Us becoming
the top team sport was a combination of growth in volleyball and
contraction in girls’ basketball. When the sport that is your
bell cow — and basketball is our football — when participation
decreases, that is cause for concern.”
In volleyball hotbeds such as Texas and California, the growth
continues, but where volleyball is the top sport by 15 to 20
percent, including in Nebraska, Iowa and Michigan, “we’re
starting to see a decline,” DeBoer said.
Part of that is due to budget cuts and merging school systems.
The boom in what she calls “pay-to-play” youth volleyball makes
it less and less likely that a girl with minimal experience will
be able to play at her high school.
“And that’s what happened in basketball,” she said.
Later this year, Flynn plans to introduce a new version of
basketball — a seven-on-seven game with a focus on participation
and development — at the club level to entice more young girls.
“Players quit when they don’t play,” he said. “We’re going to
change the game with this.”
Predicting how the numbers will evolve is among those murky
areas that keep DeBoer awake at night. But volleyball club
coaches aren’t overly concerned, nor are the girls who continue
to discover the sport’s appeal.
Redan High School (Georgia) freshman Takaira Flemons discovered
the game at a summer camp at Georgia State. Her high school
coach wanted her to try out; now she’s working toward a
“Volleyball is a game of the mind,” the 5-foot-11 Flemons said.
“It takes strategy. It’s not easy, but it’s not hard. I don’t
like basketball. Basketball seems like the same thing every
time. I don’t like to stand under the goal. I don’t like running
at all. It’s the same repetitive thing. In volleyball, it’s
something new, every set, every game.”