Dani Busboom Kelly has laid a foundation that looks like a fortress. She has lifted Louisville volleyball to an elite level, following back-to-back Final Four appearances with a 9-0 start, a No. 2 national ranking, and the kind of problems coaches crave.
She has built a fan base that has rendered her cozy on-campus arena virtually obsolete. She took her team to the KFC Yum! Center for a cameo appearance Wednesday night and toppled the program’s home attendance record. She is forcing the university administration to contemplate the costs of maintaining momentum and the growing revenue potential of a sport that has long been heavily subsidized.
UofL’s 25-19, 25-23, 25-18 sweep of rival Kentucky attracted an announced crowd of 12,760. This was more people than attended all but four of the school’s men’s basketball games last season, more than attended any of its women’s basketball games in 2022-23, and on a school night. The volleyball boom that resulted in record television ratings during last year’s NCAA Tournament and reached new resonance last month when 92,003 souls showed up for a match in Lincoln, Neb., appears to have sturdy legs on the local level.
This is not a trend to trifle with. This is an opportunity to embrace. Though UofL’s men’s soccer and field hockey teams also currently rank among the nation’s top five programs, volleyball likely represents the school’s best short-term shot at an NCAA championship, some of its greatest growth potential and exceptional entertainment value.
“It was so amazing,” UCLA transfer Charitie Luper said of Wednesday night’s spectacle. “It was jumping. It was super good. I can’t even describe my emotions. It was just so surreal. It was amazing seeing everything: the smoke, the fans, the red lights. It was everything I could have ever dreamed.
“The fans were super into it. I could hear them behind me the whole game. They were into every point. So it wasn’t just a win for us, but a win for them.”
With two more matches scheduled for the Yum! Center this season – Sunday afternoon against Stanford; Oct. 13 against Pitt – the Cardinals will have more chances to showcase themselves for far larger audiences than can be squeezed into their 1,331-capacity campus home, the L&N Arena. Because Yum Center management remains reluctant to commit additional dates to volleyball that could conflict with concerts, UofL’s need for an alternative venue grows increasingly acute.
“I think an arena is pretty important long-term,” Busboom Kelly said. “Just because if the sport is continuing to grow like this, then we’re going to be left in the dust. ‘Cause players want to play on the big stages.”
Busboom Kelly concedes the on-campus arena Tom Jurich once envisioned is still “a long ways down the road,” but says “serious discussions” have recently been held on that subject.
“I don’t know how serious,” she said, “but it’s serious enough that I’ve been brought into it.”
Finding the dollars could be difficult, but Busboom Kelly has the leverage to make people listen. She is pursuing a third straight Final Four berth on a contract that would allow her to return to Nebraska, her alma mater, without paying an exit fee. Though there’s a lot to be said for creating your own legacy instead of building on another’s success, as Denny Crum memorably demonstrated, no one could fault Busboom Kelly for reuniting with her family and friends at a place where college volleyball can fill a football stadium.
Since Nebraska coach John Cook is 67 years old, contractually committed only until 2025, and enraptured with his Wyoming ranch, Busboom Kelly should be expected/encouraged to push an aggressive agenda.
“We’re going to do everything we can possibly do [to keep her],” U of L athletic director Josh Heird said. “We want her to be the coach here for as long as she wants to be here.”
“What we have at L&N, It’s nice. It’s not that big, but it’s nice. Obviously, [the Yum! Center] is big and nice. We’re going to see if there are opportunities out there. Can we do something to accommodate five or six thousand people? I don’t know what that looks like, but this program deserves for us to at least look at those opportunities. I think we’re at least to the point where we’ve got to have those discussions.”
Heird said preliminary discussions have already taken place “to elevate the program on a national stage” at Churchill Downs. He is aiming to please a prized coach.
“If Dani wants to look at something,” he said, “we’re going to look at it.”