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Athletes Unlimited promoting volleyball growth with new ESPN partnership, exhibition tour

Athletes Unlimited Volleyball will exclusively partner with ESPN for all five weeks of its upcoming third volleyball season. The league will also embark on a new exhibition tour, it announced Tuesday.

Instead of its usual spring start, the AU women's volleyball season will be aired in October and November to coincide with the massively popular NCAA volleyball season that set records for ESPN last year.

“None of us growing up had the opportunity to see professional volleyball,” former player and now AU Director of Sport Cassidy Lichtman told Yahoo Sports. “Giving young players now those role models and that path to look to ... what they can aspire to, is a dream we never really got to have.”

The aforementioned role models will travel all over the country from March 23 through April 21. The exhibition tour roster of 15 top professional players will visit eight top college programs, including University of Louisville, Ohio State University, University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin, University of Texas, Baylor University, Howard University and Penn State University.

Howard University, a championship-winning program, is an exciting stop on the tour as a focus on advancement of HBCU sports has continued to grow.

“The opportunity to go to the HBCUs to bring Black women and our professional athletes into those spaces, again, as role models is also really critical,” Lichtman told Yahoo Sports.

On the tour, athletes will also visit local clubs, schools, community events, and even host clinics to promote the growth of the game.

A series of wins for the growth of AU and volleyball

At the beginning of 2020 there were no indoor professional volleyball leagues in the U.S., a year later came Athletes Unlimited.

Former University of Kentucky All-American Kaz Brown played professionally overseas for four years. As part of the AUVB Exhibition Tour and Championship season roster, she will have the opportunity to play at home for the first time in her professional career.

“Getting the opportunity to play professional volleyball in front of family and friends is quite literally a dream come true,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “It just is a testament to the growth of the sport and how many fans and supporters there are for this to be able to happen.”

While Brown won’t visit her alma mater during AU’s tour, Kentucky has a special role in the story of volleyball’s growth.

In April 2021, ESPN2 aired the NCAA Division I women's volleyball championship match between Texas and Kentucky during prime time. The title match, won by Kentucky, reportedly drew 696,000 viewers, causing some to question when investors would catch up to volleyball’s popularity.

That month, AU announced a two-year deal with ESPN to air its softball and lacrosse leagues in April. Jon Patricof, CEO and co-founder of AU, told Yahoo Sports at the time they were "exploring all of our options and [having] discussions with a number of parties" about broadcast deals for its basketball and volleyball leagues.

Then, the 2021 NCAA women’s finals drew a record 1.19 million viewers in September. That same month, AU had a $30 million funding round, which included investments from Kevin Durant, Rich Kleiman’s 35 Ventures and softball star Angela Ruggiero.

That funding round was likely key in making AU’s new tour possible, evidence of growth that will now be broadcast to millions of televisions across the country.

Athletes Unlimited Volleyball will go on an exhibition tour in 2022. (Image via Athletes Unlimited)
Athletes Unlimited Volleyball will go on an exhibition tour in 2022. (Image via Athletes Unlimited)