Growing the Sport
Part 2 - Where Does the College Game Stand
Updated 06/12/2016

Doru Roll
Water Polo Planet
06/01/2016

In Part I [1] of this article, we looked at how does the collegiate water polo game compare with other sports. We found out, quite surprisingly, that water polo is far from being a “niche” sport. As a matter of fact, water polo is pretty much middle-of-the-road in just about every category, except for one. That category, perhaps even more surprisingly, is the number of available scholarships per player, where water polo ranks 4th for men, 7th for women and 7th overall, ahead of all the mainstream sports except for ice hockey but behind truly “niche” sports like fencing and equestrian. Another unexpected result is the number of high school water polo players who participate in college varsity: in both DI/DII and overall varsity, water polo is comparable to soccer, football and cross-country, to name only a few.

 

These results fly in the face of the “common wisdom” and the accepted view regarding the position of water polo in collegiate sports. I have to confess that, being a long-time ardent supporter of our sport, I too shared the same erroneous views, and often challenged what I perceived to be a hostile attitude towards water polo on the part of some ADs and school administrators. Although the data doesn’t support my original convictions, I still believe that water polo has few advocates amongst collegiate administrators.

 

One question which the data doesn’t answer is the undeniable disparity in the number and level of varsity programs. Water polo is the only collegiate sport where the top four teams in both the men’s and women’s divisions always come not just from one state, but also from the same area of the state. The same is essentially true for about 17 out of the top 20 teams. This is puzzling, since the high school participation ratio for water polo is comparable to that of other mainstream sports, one would reasonably expect to see a wider distribution of competitive teams. While it is true that California has plenty of good facilities, and good climate and conditions to support top-level programs, the same is also true of Florida, Hawaii, Texas and a few more states, yet none outside California have developed programs of the same caliber. One factor may be that there are nearly as many age group and high school water polo programs in and around Orange County as there are in the rest of the country, so it is comparatively easy for local colleges and universities to attract the top players. But perhaps there is another factor, which most people – especially in California – would rather not talk about, that may play a role in the lack of parity.

 

Let’s take a look at the table below. There are a total of 104 women’s varsity programs, 85 of which are in California. The average team size is about 18, which for water polo makes perfect sense. One would expect the 43 DI/DII programs to have a slightly number of players, due to their more competitive nature. On the men’s side however, there are about 4 more players per team (5 for DI), even though in general the men’s division is less competitive due to its much smaller size. Again, the vast majority of teams are in California.

 

 

 

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The table above suggests a potential problem. There are about as many male and female high school water polo players, of which only a certain percentage will go on to play varsity in college. We saw in Part I that the participation ratio for water polo is comparable to the other mainstream sports, which suggests that there is sufficient collegiate demand to absorb the available high-level players. We also saw that, despite the accepted “common wisdom”, in reality there is no lack of available scholarships. However, since in the men’s division there fewer teams, there also are more players per team than in the women’s. This is all logical, yes? Well, not quite.

 

There is another metric which so far nobody seems to have discussed in detail, namely: freshman retention. It is a known fact that a lot of college freshmen (no offense to the ladies) will start out participating in a sport of their choice but eventually either get dropped or quit. To some the academic effort may have been too much, others simply don’t measure up to the standards of their team, especially at top-level programs such as Stanford, UCLA and USC. This is a decided problem for the sport, particularly in the case of players who don’t measure up to the demands of their chosen school. “Common wisdom” would like us to believe that high-schoolers don’t select a university based just on water polo, but the reality is that most that can, do. There are other factors in that decision to be sure, such as family legacy or the desire to attend the same school as other teammates and friends, but ultimately the sport plays a much bigger role in an 18-year olds’ decision than most are willing to admit. No matter the reason however, unfortunately the vast majority of freshmen who drop off the team will not compete in varsity again. Players that could otherwise have developed and played successfully elsewhere are out after their freshman year.

 

The table below illustrates the problem. The data used was collected from the “Big Four” websites. It spans the past four seasons, and it is typical for the top 20 programs excluding the service academies and Ivy League schools. Players who are on the National Teams are included since they would probably roster on their team, if available. Red shirts are counted with their freshman class [2].

CALIFORNIA UNIVERSITY

Cal

Cal

STANDFORD UNIVERSITY

Cal

Cal

UNIVERSITY of CALIFORNIA, LOS ANGELES

Cal

Cal

UNIVERSITY of SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Cal

Cal

 

The tables above answer the by-line this of the article. It also point out what in this author’s opinion is a major issue with the sport. We notice right away that there’s a strong disparity between the men’s and women’s programs. With the notable exception of USC, the women’s average roster size is very near the D-I average. There is a roughly 30% freshman intake and over 50% overall freshmen retention. Over the course of the four seasons each of these teams dropped a little more than 3 freshmen each year. Extrapolating to the top 20 teams, this totals about 40 players or two whole 20 player teams.

 

On the men’s side the situation is quite different: the men’s programs have much larger rosters. They also have higher freshman intakes but lower retention rates. The most glaring example is USC men’s program, with an average men’s roster size of 35 (9 over the D-I average), a 35.5% average annual freshman intake but only 40% overall retention. UCLA is a close second, while Stanford more closely tracks the D-I averages. Cal did not have any usable data on their website. As to freshmen retention: Stanford, UCLA and USC each dropped  a little over 5 freshmen each year, which at the top 20 translates into about 85 players or nearly three teams! That’s for an average 26 player roster size. If the roster size were limited to 20, as many as five more teams could be provisioned.

 

The fact that nearly half of the freshmen intake ends up dropped off the roster is the major issue mentioned above. These players never get the chance to develop and reach their true potential, yet at the same are unavailable for recruitment to other teams. Essentially all the years of effort and sacrifice to develop a high-level player are wasted, all because some teams choose to pad their roster with players they fully know will never play a game of consequence. To be sure, part of this is due to the players’ own hopes and aspirations, but the fact it is allowed to happen does not help the growth of the sport. Other sports have strict roster limits to prevent this very thing; why not water polo?

 

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In Part III we will look at the effect the lack of balance in roster size, freshmen intake and retention have on the growth of the sport.

 

 

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[1] Growing the Sport: Part 1
[2] Jon Walters is not included in the USC stats