– Five years ago, when the Big Ten Network began to receive national viewership data, Michael Calderon saw a number that surprised him. Calderon, BTN’s senior vice president of programming, noted that women’s volleyball was drawing a bigger audience than he expected.

Armed with that information, the Big Ten and the network decided to give viewers more — and the fans responded. BTN officials said this week that in 2018 and 2019, women’s volleyball was the network’s third most-watched sport, behind football and men’s basketball. Those seasons produced nine of the top 10 most viewed matches in BTN history, including two Gophers-Nebraska contests at Maturi Pavilion.

The Gophers’ 3-1 victory on Oct. 20, 2018, ranks third (213,483 viewers), and this season’s 3-2 loss on Nov. 22 ranks fourth (210,431). The two most watched matches in network history both happened this year: Wisconsin-Penn State on Nov. 29 (265,309) and Stanford-Nebraska on Sept. 18 (226,765).

After the 2017 season, network and league officials discussed how to showcase one of the Big Ten’s most popular and prominent sports. They decided to televise more matches, add more programming and work together to get the best matches on TV. The result: an 88% increase in total viewership from 2017 to 2018.

“We saw pretty early on that women’s volleyball was more heavily viewed than we thought it was,” Calderon said. “We’ve seen it grow every year over the last five years, since we’ve been tracking it nationally.

“And we’ve just begun to invest in volleyball programming other than live events. Between the additional content above and beyond the live matches, the additional matches we’re televising and exposing the game to new audiences, I think there’s definitely room for growth.”

Calderon said BTN has shown more matches in each of the past five years, ramping up from 23 to 42. It also is televising condensed replays and launched “Big Ten Volleyball Report,” which airs with Wednesday doubleheaders. This season, BTN had its first live volleyball pregame show, before the Penn State-Nebraska match in Lincoln.

Nielsen ratings data also showed BTN’s volleyball audience was evenly split between men and women — making it the most female-skewing sport on the network — and the average age of its viewers is the youngest of any BTN sport.

The number of televised matches is probably at the “sweet spot,” Calderon said. But BTN is getting savvier about its scheduling, which he thinks will fuel more growth. In 2018, the network began airing more Saturday matches, following afternoon football games with volleyball matches featuring the same schools.

Big Ten Associate Commissioner Wendy Fallen, who oversees league scheduling, said the conference now is coordinating with the network. Rather than setting sport schedules years in advance — and then moving event times to get them into prime viewing windows — the league and BTN are working together to create schedules that are optimized for TV.

“Our Saturday viewership spiked tremendously, just from selecting the right matches,” Calderon said. “We took that a step further in 2019, trying to schedule the right matches on Saturdays by working with the conference based on what we expected our football schedule to look like.

“We’re going to get better with that over time, and really try to take advantage of the opportunity to lead a Wisconsin football game into a Wisconsin volleyball match. I think that will go a long way toward driving new fans to the sport.”