A League of Their Own Reloaded

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet
12/01/14

Sometime in 1992, a movie titled “A league of Their Own” hit the silver screen. The action was set in 1943 when, according to the script major league baseball was in trouble due to WWII and, in order to save the game (and keep putting money in their pockets), the enterprising owner of the Chicago Cubs convinces other owners to bankroll a women’s league. The rest of the plot unfolds along typical Hollywood lines, with some drama, controversy and a little illicit romance. There are no Rambo-style gun fights, no Terminator-like special effects and the acting is rather unconvincing, particularly Madonna’s performance. But despites a weak plot and kitschy countenance, the movie does capture some of the difficulties people face when trying to start a new sports league, even when money is not a major problem.

 

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On November 24, 2014, USAWP announced the creation of a National League, to commence operations in January 2015. Although this already was a secret known to many, the announcement came a few weeks earlier than originally expected. The timing however may be related to the lack of other meaningful news from USAWP. While in Europe there are a number of major tournaments underway, including the LEN Champions League Cup with 12 teams participating, USAWP has none.

Surprisingly however, this event generated practically no excitement on WPP and elsewhere. Except for fanofpolo’s singular post about the announcement there were no other comments, no jaunty arguments pro or con, not a single reaction, not even from the Californians who stand to benefit most from this development. It seems that HS water polo and the MPSF are more important. USAWP’s most important announcement since the hiring of Dejan Udovicic as NMT head coach became a non-event.

It may be for a reason that the enthusiasm was low. A few of us may still remember the short-lived Premier League. That was a long time ago, before the iPhone was invented. What lead to the agonizing demise of the Premier League was primarily opposition from Eastern collegiate coaches, who argued that it would unfairly advantage the already powerful Californian teams. Then there were the strict but somewhat arbitrary NCAA rules against player participation in professional sports clubs. Lastly, the league was dominated by two teams, and there was no money available for development. With that, the Premier League was doomed.

That the USA needs a national league in order to be competitive is a certainty to some. With the exception of very few fortunate cases, the playing careers of most American water polo players ends abruptly after graduation, just as they start to reach their potential. There are practically no high-level playing opportunities beyond that. All one has to do is look at the Fisher Cup roster to understand that. The largest water polo program in the world simply sent its players home at the age of 22. This was due in part to the restrictions imposed on student athletes by the NCAA. However, it seems that the NCAA now understands that the restrictions were not conducive to high-level performance, and has agreed to revise some of them.

What is most interesting however, is that one of the strongest supporters of this new American league is not an American. I am referring of course to the current NMT head coach, Dejan Udovicic. From his very first days as head coach Udovicic made it clear where he stands on this issue, and that a national league is not only desirable but essential to high performance. After all, every water polo country in Europe has one, as do Australia and our neighbor to the North.

Of course, there are those who will point to Australia or Canada and ask: what has a national league done for them? The answer, correctly, is really not that much. One has to keep in mind however that Australia is very far away, and Canada is only is medium-level opponent, so there is little incentive on the part of European power houses to foot the bill for travel, particularly since both those countries are vast and the teams spread far and wide. By contrast, in Europe nearly 70% of high-level teams are located within 300 km of each other. An American high-level league would provide that incentive, since it is centrally located between Europe, the Far East and Australia, and would likely attract teams from both American Continents. Here California, once again, has a distinct advantage: currently all the top US teams are located about 200 miles from Orange County (these days NYAC is a New York team in name only; all the A-team players are in California).

But let’s leave all that aside for now. The National League was not organized overnight; it took months of preparation. It seems that USAWP really did their homework this time and approached the problem in business-like fashion, with uncharacteristic transparency. A number of top coaches and players were consulted. Top referees from all over the country were asked for their suggestions and buy-in, not only with respect to the league but also about the need for future development. The NCAA was kept in the loop for the reasons mentioned earlier. A tentative tournament calendar was put together, with the first games scheduled for early January. From the bird’s eye view, it looks like USAWP dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s.

There is however, a major problem with the National League: it is not truly national. Not yet, anyway. The inaugural tournament schedule includes a total of six teams, with Olympic and NYAC anchoring the league. A number of players will be invited to participate in assigned teams and, if there aren’t enough, there will also be opportunity for open try-outs. And all the games will take place in California. Under the circumstances, it is not a far-fetched conclusion that almost all the players will be from California. There probably are several players from other regions who will be either invited or will qualify in the open try-outs, but with a tournament schedule spread over several calendar months it is unlikely that they will be able to participate consistently.

Nevertheless, in spite of these initial shortcomings, it appears that the new water polo National League is off to a good start. At this point it is too early to tell what will happen, but personally I hope that, unlike the defunct Premier League, it will gain wide acceptance and grow, ultimately becoming a truly national league and a growth engine for the sport. However, in order for it to become a league of our own, it will need the support of entire community, particularly in the early stages. I’m sure that all in favor of the National League will do what they can to see it through. As to the nay-sayers: you may be proven right in the end, but for now your help in overcoming the very obstacles you see is what’s really needed.