Volleyball awareness helps Wichita as World League host city

It was a Shocker thing, at least at first.

When Wichita State began having success under coach Chris Lamb in the early 2000s, the attraction for fans who started attending games more frequently wasn’t necessarily volleyball, but another high-profile WSU team to cheer.

As the Shockers have maintained a high level in Lamb’s 13 years, some of the interest in WSU has carried over to volleyball as a whole. The sport has become so popular in Wichita that the FIVB World League is making its third trip to Wichita in the last five years.

The United States plays Argentina in two matches featuring internationally-ranked top 10 teams Friday and Saturday at Koch Arena.

"It’s because of Wichita State, there’s no doubt about it," Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission president Bob Hanson said. "There are just a lot of people that understand volleyball, and that’s helped the club level here and everything. I think it’s all related."

Lamb has noticed the evolution of fans who once attended WSU volleyball matches solely as Shocker supporters and have now become students of the game.

After watching 13 years of WSU’s national prominence that has included five NCAA Tournament appearances, fans who were once casual followers of volleyball are now confident enough to approach Lamb with compliments and criticism.

"I still answer some very rudimentary questions from people about what’s going on," Lamb said. "They sit and enjoy it as much as they do, and they don’t even know some of the more basic things that are going on.

"But I also know that as I’ve been here talking volleyball with local people and talking about our opponents, they are more in tune with what teams are doing and what players are doing. I get more feedback, like people are telling me what to expect. I never would have gotten that early on, and I never did."

WSU’s success under Lamb has sent fans on the pursuit of learning more about volleyball, but it’s unlikely those fans would have made the effort, or stayed with Lamb and the Shockers for more than a decade, if they also didn’t come to genuinely enjoy the game.

Lamb is a tireless promoter of volleyball because he thinks people can be hooked on the game the way he was after being introduced to it growing up in northern California.

"I think volleyball is fun to watch," Lamb said. "It got me. I didn’t come out of the womb a volleyball person, I did every other sport before volleyball. When you see fast, fun volleyball I think you immediately appreciate the athleticism. You see any number of highlight reel-type of plays any minute in a volleyball game, where you might wait a long time to catch that in other sports.

"We’re constantly doing crazy, random things that keep people interested. As we improve, the product is more fun to watch. Regardless of whether the Shockers are winning or losing, it’s just a fun thing to watch."

The passion for volleyball has translated into interest from kids, especially young girls who have experienced most if not all of Wichita’s volleyball renaissance.

The result is more athletes from the area playing volleyball, especially exclusively, and more earning scholarships to play at WSU. That has allowed Lamb to expand, and centralize, his recruiting base that was once largely located on the West Coast.

"I don’t think you can go to a Wichita State match and not see all the young girls there," Valley Center volleyball coach Bryan Otte said. "You see them along the rail, and you see them sitting there watching and they just absorb it.... You can’t plant those seeds early enough."

High school coaches and young athletes aren’t the only ones taking notice of and contributing to the incremental growth in popularity volleyball in Wichita seems to achieve annually.

Outsiders have noticed, too, which is why the World League keeps Wichita on its short list of cities to bring the product and why the Sports Commission is reaching out to other organizations to bring more national- and international-level volleyball to Wichita in the future.

"They like the support we get here," Hanson said of the World League. "They like the organization. They like the staff that’s here. They like Koch Arena, they think it’s a great situation. We’ve had great crowds — we’ve had the best crowds that they’ve had in the country."