ALTOBELLA: The NCAA men’s volleyball tournament must expand for the sport’s sake

Ball State men's volleyball gathers to talk after their loss to Lindenwood April 18 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals lost 3-2 against the Lions. Mya Cataline, DN
Ball State men's volleyball gathers to talk after their loss to Lindenwood April 18 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals lost 3-2 against the Lions. Mya Cataline, DN

On April 18, Ball State men’s volleyball lost to Lindenwood in the semifinals of the Midwestern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association (MIVA) tournament. The loss marked the second-consecutive campaign in which the Cardinals captured the MIVA regular season title, but were unable to capitalize on their top seed in the league tournament.

The team was shaken in the wake of the setback. Members of the red and white’s roster lingered around Worthen Arena long after Lindenwood secured match point, with players exchanging hugs and emotional words.

Though the mood on the court was somber, one onlooker in the stands did not share that attitude. The next day, I spoke with a family member who was in attendance for Ball State’s loss to Lindenwood. She said that while she was disappointed the red and white were unable to secure the conference title, she was still optimistic their season would continue in the NCAA tournament.

After all, it is reasonable to assume the champion of a conference with six of the country’s top 20 programs would be in the conversation for a trip to the national tournament. My explanation of Ball State’s grim postseason outlook, in spite of its success, shocked the avid supporter of the Cardinals. 

The tournament field for National Collegiate men’s volleyball — a class comprising both Division I and Division II programs — is limited to just eight spots (only two of which are open for at-large teams), making the Cardinals’ path to the sport’s premier event almost nonexistent in 2024.

The NCAA National Collegiate men’s volleyball championship took place last week in Long Beach, California. As I predicted, Ball State did not compete in the event, and the Cardinals were not the only highly ranked team to not receive an invite to the unnecessarily exclusive club.

UCLA and UC Irvine earned the two coveted at-large bids, leaving the likes of No. 5 Hawaii (a team that appeared in the previous four national title matches), No. 6 Stanford, No. 7 BYU and many other historic programs to sit at home while other teams battled for the championship.

In its current form, the NCAA National Collegiate men’s volleyball tournament is far too limiting and does not reward nearly the number of teams that earn the right to compete for a national title. No other collegiate sport excludes such a high percentage of nationally ranked programs, and unlike the men’s basketball tournament — which college sports’ top decision makers have unfortunately focused expansion talks on — the men’s volleyball bracket needs to see growth.

Before delving further into my logic, the reason for the miniscule size of the tournament field must be acknowledged. Due to the regionality of boys’ volleyball in the United States, there have historically been few men’s volleyball programs at the college level, and the sport has long held some of the lowest membership numbers of any competitions the NCAA oversees. 

Just 62 teams competed at the National Collegiate level in 2024, a number that pales in comparison to the 334 Division I programs that hit the court in women’s volleyball last fall. Though 62 seems like a small total when it stands against more popularly sponsored sports, it is a figure that is on the rise.

Five programs made their debut in the National Collegiate ranks in 2024, and 10 more schools plan to develop men’s volleyball teams at this level over the next two years — according to the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA). The AVCA expanded its national poll from a 15-team to a 20-team ranking this season to presumably account for this growth; it is only reasonable for the NCAA to do the same with the national tournament.

The influx of new teams into the men’s volleyball space likely stems from a wider trend of boys’ volleyball growth across the country. In late April, the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) approved boys’ volleyball as a fully sponsored sport, showing that volleyball is growing in areas where it has scantily been played by young men in the past.

MVB v Lindenwood MIVA 2.JPG
Ball State men's volleyball gathers to talk after their loss to Lindenwood April 18 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals lost 3-2 against the Lions. Mya Cataline, DN

The regionality factor that has long hindered men’s volleyball’s growth is becoming less relevant. Consequently, the NCAA can support this positive development by expanding the tournament to inspire the sport’s future generations in growing boys’ volleyball regions, like Ball State’s home state.

A greater number of teams in the national tournament means more exposure for the sport, but it would also slip more dollars in the NCAA’s wallet. The inclusion of well-supported brands, like Hawaii or BYU, for example, would generate immense revenue for the governing organization.

Hawaii’s men’s volleyball program drew an average of nearly 6,300 spectators for its home matches this season and more than 2,700 fans on the road (according to the university’s report). The exclusion of the Rainbow Warriors from the national tournament was certainly to the NCAA’s financial detriment.

Beyond dollars and exposure, the nature of the sport also justifies change. Upsets and inconsistency are commonplace in collegiate men’s volleyball, a component which must be considered when determining the number of teams in the national tournament. 

This phenomenon was seen up and down the national rankings this season. Thirteen of the top 20 teams in the final 2024 poll held double-digit loss totals, and three of those squads owned losing records (In what other sport do losing seasons earn national attention?). It’s simple: An accomplished team’s season should not be defined by — and often ended by — a singular postseason tournament loss, as flukes and parity rule men’s volleyball.

Ultimately, as I consider Ball State’s 2024 season in retrospect, it is not the Cardinals’ MIVA regular season title or resume of wins against ranked teams (six, to be exact) that guide my disagreement with their exclusion from the NCAA tournament. Rather, it was the scene at their last match of the year that most fuels my advocacy for tournament expansion.

I was on the court as the Cardinals attempted to grapple with the reality that their season was over; I saw the raw emotion and disbelief. It is disappointing that teams like Ball State, Hawaii and others had to manage these crushing emotions because — in a perfect world — this heartbreak would be delayed. 

In an ideal men’s volleyball landscape, deserving teams would get to experience the thrill of competing for a national title and would not see their accomplished seasons end in a sudden, screeching halt.

The NCAA has the power to amend the structure of the sport for the better, and it should use its position to its advantage. A 10-, 12- or 16-team field would all be more suitable than what is currently in play and would greatly benefit the future of boys’ and men’s volleyball.

Contact Adam Altobella with comments on X @AltobellaAdam or via email at aaltobella@bsu.edu.

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