Interview with the USAWP Board of Director’s Chairperson, Michael Graff

Richard Hunkler and Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet
09/01/06

It appears that the USAWP is in such dire financial straights that what we need on the USAWP Board of Directors is a group of “ethical robber barons”. We know that some will say that an “ethical robber baron” is an oxymoron but we believe you can find someone with good character who can make money for our national water polo organization. In our opinion, the current Chairperson of the Board of Directors, Michael Graff fits the bill. He has financial experiences, political savvy, and more importantly the ethics to get the USAWP started in the right fiscal and organizational direction. Again we sent a dozen questions and told Mike he could answer any ten of them. Well, he answered all twelve questions. I doubt very seriously if John D Rockefeller, a notorious “robber baron”, would have answered all twelve if he only had to answer ten.

John D Rockefeller, once stated with complete candor the following:

I believe the power to make money is a gift of God . . . to be developed and used to the best of our ability for the good of mankind. Having been endowed with the gift I possess, I believe it is my duty to make money and still more money, and to use the money I make for good of my fellow man according to the dictates of my conscience.”

If you don’t trust us when we say that Mike can do this then read his replies to our questions and draw your own conclusions. In the following discussion the initials WPP are for Water Polo Planet and the initials MG are for Michael Graff, Chairperson of the USAWP Board of Directors.

WPP Question 1: USA Water Polo has been plagued with a myriad of problems in the past few years and will clearly benefit from the professional management and objectives of the new BOD. What does the new Board of Directors consider to be their primary targets of change as we move forward?

MG's Response : Our initial focus since May 1 has been on four principal activities:

  1. Finding a CEO to lead the organization in the next stage of its development
  2. Executing the summer’s events to a high standard so that our members could have a great summer playing polo
  3. Insuring that our finances are in order
  4. Listening to our members so that we could prioritize the critical areas for attention once we find our new CEO

WPP Question 2: The development of age group programs throughout the country is important to the success and growth of the sport. How important is age group program development and what role will USA Water Polo play in this?

MG's Response: The primary goal of the new board is to dramatically grow our sport over the next five to ten years. We have done a thorough analysis of our membership trends over the past few years, and feel we have tremendous opportunity for improvement in all areas of the country. We will be making investments in our sport, concentrating on coaching, referee, and geographic development. Age group programs are vital because they build the base of our organization, and attract new athletes and families to water polo. USA water polo will be very focused on age group development.

WPP Question 3: Over the years USA Soccer has done an outstanding job developing, growing, and sustaining that sport, and in the past few years USA Lacrosse has done the same thing. Can our BOD talk to their BOD and find out what they have been doing to effect this phenomenal growth, so we can learn from what they have been doing and cause water polo to benefit from it?

MG's Response: As part of our search for a new CEO, we have already spoken with the heads of the amateur and professional athletic organizations who we believe have performed the best over the past decade. Soccer and lacrosse have both achieved phenomenal growth and development. We have talked to the leaders of both of those sports both for suggestions for people that we should consider hiring, and to get a sense of what they did to prosper. It is not surprising that both organizations have focused on the fundamentals of building good organizations. They have given good value to their members, have clear goals and objectives, have solid development plans in place for targeted areas of the country, and measure their progress. No real magic in their success, just sticking to fundamentals consistently over an extended period. We intend to maintain these relationships and benchmark ourselves on a regular basis against other sports.

WPP Question 4: NCAA water polo is the umbrella under which the largest and best developed water polo programs in the USA are being developed. Currently it is also rapidly losing programs, particularly programs on the men’s side. Do you feel that USA Water Polo has a role in saving and creating programs playing in the NCAA?

MG's Response: Growing the sport at all levels is very important to us. Having more NCAA programs will make it more attractive for high schools to have programs, as parents and athletes look for ways to gain admission to colleges, and even have some of the costs covered by financial aid. We will work with the NCAA to try to regain momentum on the men’s side, and we will also work college by college to entice them to convert clubs to varsity programs. Our club numbers continue to grow, which is very encouraging. The women’s programs have been growing nicely, and we hope to continue that trend as well.

WPP Question 5: Players in the NCAA usually end their water polo careers at age 22 when they graduate from college but athletes do not reach their peak athletic performance until sometime later. This abrupt end of training and development means that several players, especially late bloomers, have not been available for the Senior National teams. Do you think this issue has been a major factor of late in the lack of success of the Men’s National Team internationally? If so, what can be done to cause players, both male and female, to keep playing until they reach their peak athletic performance years?

MG's Response: When we looked at our membership trends, we realized we have a very “leaky membership bucket”. By that I mean that each year we lose about 5000 members. Those losses are in two primary groups: the high school seniors who do not go on to play in college, and graduating college players. The high school group is by far the bigger area of loss and this is consistent across the country. The good news is that we are able to keep growing as a sport by adding slightly more new players every year. However, if we could keep these young athletes playing, or at least involved in the sport in some way as assistant coaches, or young referees, we would retain more members, and give people a chance to keep playing beyond the few players on the senior national teams. Of course, people develop at different rates, and keeping more people playing at a high level longer in their development would be great for the sport and might help our national teams. Creating opportunities for high school and college grads to continue playing is very important to us. We also look at these ‘lost members’ as an opportunity. Over a ten to fifteen year period, we have more than 50,000 ex-members we would love to get reinvolved through masters or other programs.

WPP Question 6: Many of the countries winning Olympic medals have players playing in either professional or semi-professional water polo leagues. How important is it for us to develop a professional or semi professional water polo league in the US? If it is important then what should USA Water Polo’s role be in trying to establish such leagues in this country?

MG's Response: One of our major challenges for our national teams is retaining our best athletes until they have peaked in their early thirties. We are developing a number of potential solutions for this challenge, and they largely come down to providing more financial support. Right now, a number of the men and women on the national teams are going to Europe to be able to both play at a high level of competition and earn sufficient money to stay in water polo. However, this is only a partial solution to the problem.

Many of our national team athletes in their twenties want to get on with their professional careers and want to get married and start their families. This makes going to Europe to play a less practical option. Ideally, we can find ways for those athletes who want to stay in the US, a path to begin their careers, start families, and continue to play at a high level of competition. A professional league might be part of the solution, but that will be something to address after we deal with more pressing issues. Job internship programs and building our financial resources to provide more support will also be part of the solution.

There is no doubt that an athlete can play water polo well into their thirties. There is also no doubt that playing in two or three Olympics and 5 or 6 world championships, will prepare our national teams as well as any in the world. We need to be able to help our national team athletes earn an acceptable living so that they can continue to play. Otherwise, we will continue to have a younger and less experienced team than the leading teams in the world.

WPP Question 7: We have asked you about the importance of age group development and the importance of having our players play in a professional or semi-professional league. Do you feel that we should spend more time and money on age group development or on having a professional or semi-professional league or should the two be treated the same?

MG's Response: We would like to build a sufficient revenue base to do both. These initiatives are not mutually exclusive. The better our national teams, the more parents and young athletes will be interested in our sport. The more age group players we have, the stronger our pipeline of national athletes will become. This will take time to accomplish, however.

WPP Question 8: We have heard that the previous Executive Director of USAWP, Tom Seitz, was given a 3 year contract renewal in 2005 and although he is no longer employed by the organization he is still being paid his full salary through 2008. If true, has this placed the USAWP in a difficult position financially? How does the BOD plan to deal with this issue?

MG's Response: Insuring our financial strength is one of the key goals of the new board. By building our financial resources, we will be able to invest in sport development as well as our national teams. Bill Smith, our new secretary has taken the lead for us in putting in a new financial forecasting system, so we can manage our finances on a very careful basis and avoid negative surprises.

The new CEO will be very revenue oriented, with major new initiatives in marketing, sponsorship development, and fundraising that will be launched over the next year. Three of the new board members, including Bill and myself, have significant business and Wall Street experience which we are bringing to bear on the organization.

We have honored Tom Seitz's contract, and we will honor all of our contracts. Finally, I am pleased to say that while we have challenges, we have finished the summer in solid financial health.

WPP Question 9: The current membership has many members that are willing and able to help the BOD grow the sport. Where can our talents and efforts be best used and who should interested people contact?

MG's Response: There has been a tremendous outpouring of goodwill from members and alumni all around the country who really want to be helpful. This has been especially encouraging to the new board. While we are strengthening our staff, we will continue to be a volunteer based organization. Once we get the new CEO on board, we will review our organization structure, including the committee structure, and reach out to our members and others in the community to be helpful. The most important place to help is at the local level either in starting new high school or college programs or clubs, or in helping existing clubs grow. If people have specific suggestions, they can contact me at USA water polo.

WPP Question 10: The exclusivity arrangement between USA Water Polo and several companies such as Speedo has brought in much needed equipment and clothes but it has not brought in enough badly needed cash. It has also completely locked out smaller, more water polo oriented companies who are willing and able to invest in the growth of the sport, especially at the critical age group level. It appears to us the more venders you involve the better it is for the sport, so moving forward, can we expect the new BOD to look more closely at any exclusivity arrangements?

MG's Response: We will be reviewing our entire sponsorship approach in the fall. Some of our current contracts run through the next Olympics, so it will take some time to upgrade our sponsorship arrangements. Speedo has been a great supporter of our sport, but we need to expand our base of support.

WPP Question 11: Marketing the sport is very important to the growth of the sport in the US. Complex rules and inconsistent refereeing are often brought up as a major deterrent to a larger interest base. How can we best address this issue?

MG's Response: We have a number of challenges in the marketing area. The rules of water polo are complex, and make the game difficult to referee and understand. All the whistles retard the flow of play, and make it confusing for fans in the stands. We hope to get more television coverage for our sport, but water polo is a difficult sport to broadcast because of the underwater action and the complex rules. Improving our basic product, the game itself, is critical to broadening interest in the sport. This will also take time, but it is something we will turn our attention to in the next year or two.

WPP Question 12: What do you hope to achieve over the next few years?

MG's Response: All of us are committed to growing our sport dramatically over the next few years. We hope to build a strong organization based on guiding principles and values with a high quality staff supported by thousands of energetic volunteers. We are developing a code of ethics, modeled on the US Olympic code of ethics, to guide decision making and behavior in our sport.

We also hope to dramatically increase our financial strength, so we can invest in sport development and build a truly national game. Increased resources will also allow us to help our national team athletes play longer and achieve their maximum potential. The new board has stepped up and already made substantial personal financial contributions to USA water polo. We will be asking our members to join us so that we can achieve our goals as rapidly and effectively as possible. Water Polo has done a lot for each of us, and we are honored to have a chance to ‘pay back’ to the sport by serving on your Board.

When J. D. Rockefeller gave 3 million dollars to the University of Chicago the students sang the following song:

John D. Rockefeller
Wonderful man is he
Gives all his spare change
To the U of C
He keeps the ball a-rolling
In our great varsity

After Mike and the rest of the Board of Directors start the USAWP on the road to fiscal sovereignty maybe the water polo community can sing:

Michael X. Graff
Hard working man is he
Gives all his spare time
To the USAWP
He helps to keep the cash a-coming
In our great water polo entity

Finally let us hope that what the business men in Cleveland said about John D. Rockefeller is also true of Mike Graff, “John (Mike) always got the best of the bargain, ‘savy fellow he was (is)!”

Email Coach Hunkler at rhunkler@waterpoloplanet.com