Interview with the USAWP CEO, Chris Ramsey

Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet

Chris RamseyChris Ramsey is the first Chief Executive Officer hired by USA Water Polo under the new organizational structure adopted in 2006. Chris represents both East and West, a native Californian who has lived on the East Coast for enough years to be considered both an Easterner and a Westerner. He has taken the helm of an organization that is  dysfunctional and is fractured by competing interests resulting in what some might call a stagnant third world sport.  We, at WPP applaud his successes thus far and call on the entire community to support his task because we believe Chris Ramsey is not only a man for all seasons but also a man for all coasts – a man who will help make our organization functional again and a man who can bring the water polo community together.

Don’t just take our word that these things are true – read his responses and see if he doesn’t make you a believer as well. In the following discussion the initials WPP are for Water Polo Planet and the initials CR are for Chris Ramsey, the USAWP CEO.

WPP Question 1: You left a very secure and prestigious job with the New York City Ballet and moved your family completely across the country to accept the position of CEO of USA Water Polo. What strengths do you see in the organization that caused you to make this move?

CR's Answer: Water Polo is a wonderful team sport with potential for growth.  All of us who have played it recognize the impact of the game on our lives.  Personally, I was ready for a new challenge, and I thought my experience in large not-for-profit institutions could be useful to some of the challenges facing our sport.

WPP Question 2: You have taken the helm of a fractured organization with the competing special interests of East vs. West, USAWP vs. AWP and NCAA vs. Club. Is it possible to bring these interests into line to grow the sport and how?

CR's Answer: I think the changes in governance in early 2006 eliminated much of the fractures, putting in place a professional board committed to running the organization in a professional way.  For years, many AWP members have also joined USA Water Polo because they want a higher level of training and competition.  The same is true of high school players and collegians.  There is no reason polo players can’t participate in our sport through more than one organization.  It should be USA Water Polo’s role to support the institutions you mentioned, not to compete against them.  It should be our role to inspire the highest levels of training and performance and competition within the field of play.

WPP Question 3: You were a principal in the development of the very successful Greenwich water polo system. Do you think it is possible for other areas which may not have the economic strength of the Greenwich area to emulate this system? What steps would a prospective club take to begin operations?

CR's Answer: The Greenwich system, like many great systems, was founded on a simple principal envisioned by Bill Smith: provide regular opportunities to play water polo in a safe, supportive environment at a reasonable cost.  The system should work well in just about any market.  It requires only a facility that can offer sufficient pool time along with a system that trains and supports its volunteers.

USA Water Polo needs to do a better job of supporting its clubs, and we are committed to improving our service to members.  We have already begun the process of evaluating best practices among our many clubs, with the goal of aggregating their strengths into a flexible, portable system.  Greenwich was a success, but it is not the only success.  There are many outstanding programs around the country from which we can learn.

WPP Question 4: American Water Polo has attracted many members with the strength of its insurance program. We understand that you have been instrumental in obtaining similar coverage for USA Water Polo Members. Could you give us some of the details of the new coverage and how the membership will benefit?

CR's Answer: Insurance may not be exciting, but it is a cornerstone of a successful athletic program.  We started by switching our carrier to Chubb, Inc., which is one of the top insurance carriers in the world, well known for its superior claims handling capabilities.  We tripled our accident coverage for individual members, and made the coverage portable, so that members are covered whenever and wherever they play water polo, as long as they are in a setting supervised by a coach or official.  Our insurance is in force if you play water polo internationally, or even if you are just competing against athletes that are not registered with USA Water Polo.  We strengthened other aspects of our coverage as well, so that overall, it is the premiere insurance package in aquatics today—actually much stronger than USA Swimming and AWP.  Frankly, every pool and athletic administrator would be well advised to require USA Water Polo membership by its participants simply because of the peace of mind that it provides.  We felt it was important to provide quality coverage, not only for the substance of it but also to say to our members, “We are concerned about your safety and protection.”

WPP Question 5: The growth of USA Lacrosse is often brought up as a model for USA Water Polo. Do you plan to use the USA Lacrosse model to effect growth of water polo? What steps will you take?

CR's Answer: Lacrosse has done an outstanding job, and we are looking carefully at their accomplishments.  They have lowered barriers to entry. They have massed resources toward targeted geographic areas to spur membership growth.  And they have involved their membership in national initiatives through structured committees and advisory groups.  All of this is admirable, yet they are not the only sport from which we can learn.  Soccer, triathlon, swimming, and others have also been innovators.  We intend to benchmark our efforts against the best out there, regardless of sport.

WPP Question 6: One of the largest impediments to water polo growth in many areas of the country is the lack of all deep indoor pools.   How would an average community overcome that hurdle?   Do you envision USA Water Polo becoming a partner in a community’s plan(s) to seek funding and support for a 50 meter all deep pool? What assistance can USA Water Polo offer now?

CR's Answer: There are more pools out there than one would think.  However, facilities become fully committed over time, and we need to create a better value equation to encourage suitable pools to open up training hours to water polo.  One way that we plan to do this is by establishing regional training centers, where we can recruit and mentor coaches, officials and players.  These centers ideally would also offer leagues, so that they would serve multiple clubs and constituencies.  Most major facilities have a political component, and USA Water Polo can be helpful in a political process and in building a multi-sport business plan to maximize year-round use, particularly among the under served.

WPP Question 7: The NCAA operating paradigm seriously restricts water polo athletes training and coaching to 4 months a year but offers top level players college scholarships.   Do you think that the existence of NCAA scholarships for water polo has any effect on the number of age group players entering the sport?  What role, if any, do you see USAWP assuming in growing the number of teams competing in NCAA Water Polo?

CR's Answer: Water Polo is not unique in its frustrations with the NCAA.  Many so-called minor sports, particularly for men, are under siege from NCAA schools, where most of the money goes to football and basketball.  The major sports are really professional sports at the big college level, and these schools function as farm systems for the NBA and the NFL.  Although I love football and basketball, I am philosophically opposed to this system.

Among the questions all of us who care about college sports should explore are:  What is the proper role of sports in higher education?  Has the NCAA lost control of the current system?  Should Congress consider removing tax exempt status from NCAA schools that cannibalize their commitment to amateur sports by spending a disproportionate amount on football and basketball?  Should there be an equivalent to Title IX for men’s sports in the NCAA, so that men’s opportunities more closely mirror those available to women?

These are issues that should be more broadly discussed.  I hope that water polo will become part of a coalition of sports that can pose these questions and, over time, bring about meaningful reforms.

WPP Question 8: How do you plan to reorganize the professional staff structure so that it provides all the needed administrative services while at the same time maximizing the effectiveness of the still-needed volunteer pool?

CR's Answer: Our administration should exist in large part to support the efforts of our volunteers.  In the recent past, one could argue that the organization devoted too much of its resources to national teams.  Our reorganization plan commits us to hiring at least three positions this year dedicated to sport development and club support.  In addition to that, our marketing and communications efforts will be focused much more tightly on club water polo at all age groups.  Finally, we are closing the Colorado Springs office, and are opening a new national office in Orange County, California.

WPP Question 9: How do you plan to make the case that USA Water Polo represents a potent value proposition to the water polo community outside of California?

CR's Answer: We will have to prove our value by what we do, not just what we say.  I expect that the new package of resources that we are developing will command everyone’s attention in fairly short order.  We are evaluating our regional and national events, and we are exploring some exciting concepts for new competition that are truly national in scope.  We want to offer better club administration tools and the highest levels of competition and training at all age groups, including a more visible involvement by our Olympic coaching staff overseeing the system-wide teaching of fundamentals.  It will take time, but we are committed to helping our clubs and members who seek our help, wherever they are located.

WPP Question 10: How do you plan to balance the competing needs of directing resources towards overall growth with the needs to direct resources  towards support of our National Teams?

CR's Answer: The National Teams ARE a resource for overall growth.  They put a face on excellence.  They represent best practices.  And many of our best teachers are part of the national team staff.  The national teams have been an active participant in conforming best coaching practices throughout our organization, particularly Guy Baker’s well established program for the women, and we believe that we can do even more.

WPP Question 11: What do you think will be the operational changes that have to be  made that the water polo community, accustomed to the way things have been done in the past, will have the greatest difficulty accepting?

CR's Answer: We must all work harder to help one another.  We must motivate the great California coaches and clubs to share their expertise and enthusiasm beyond the state’s border.  In less developed regions, everyone must accept that it is better to have five competitive clubs in a market than one dominant club.  Coaches and clubs need to help one another to build a prevailing climate of sportsmanship and strong competition.  Only by working together can we hope to offer a superior product to young athletes that have so many other choices.

WPP Question 12: What do you consider your greatest success during your first 90  days?

CR's Answer: I will leave that for others to debate, if anyone is even interested.  But the organization’s triumph, without a doubt, has been the elevation of character as a central tenant of our sport.  It began with the board of directors adopting a statement of ethics and values.  Within weeks, we had adopted codes of conduct for players, coaches and officials.  Not everyone will become an Olympic athlete, but everyone can adopt the Olympic ideals and learn life lessons from water polo—teamwork, self-discipline, honesty, the pursuit of excellence, reliability, competitive spirit, and mutual respect.  These are traits that our sport, at its best, teaches to those who play it.  These are traits that we have an obligation to place at the center of our mission.

After living 50 years of living on this planet, I have to say that maybe my grandfather may have been wrong when he said, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” Reading Chris Ramsey’s sincerity and vision for our sport have made me think that there is hope for our sport, and that, indeed, he may be more than we have deserved. Hopefully, the entire water polo community will rally around Chris and the USA Water Polo Team of administrators and volunteers to show that we, and the sport, are equal to following this vision to a better future for all.