The idea of a professional water polo league is not a new one in the US, having been discussed off an on for the past few years. The idea has gained momentum in the past few years and more water polo people are looking at such a league as a positive growth move for the sport.
Within the water polo universe, we are lucky to have many accomplished professionals who are willing and able to share their expertise to this endeavor.
As we begin to discuss the idea more frequently, I thought to share some of the thoughts that have been brought up on the subject. By placing these on the table, I hope that they will stimulate thought and help others arrive at more possible solutions. These are starting points for thought.
In no particular order;
The Premier League is dead. The NCAA gave the Premier League limited conditional approval for a 2 year period that ended in 2008. The Premier League was originally certified by the NCAA as a National Team Training/Tryout program which intent has been questioned by enough NCAA members to make it doubtful that the NCAA will allow it to continue. It is thus most likely unfruitful to look at the Premier League as a starting point for a Professional League.
Large cities may not be the best location for a professional team. It is not accidental that most minor league hockey and baseball teams are based in small cities or large towns. The cost of housing in these areas is far less, allowing the organization to pay lower wages and keep it affordable for players. Compare the cost of a decent 1 or 2 bedroom apartment in New York ($2000 per month) with the same housing in Indianapolis ($400) and the choice is clear. The smaller cities who cannot support a professional sports team have fewer total recreation choices and are most likely t develop the “home town pride” that sustains a 2nd tier team like professional water polo. Look at Europe and count the number of professional teams in the large cities and you will find that the vast majority are based in smaller cities… not by accident.
Professional Water Polo is a usually a losing investment in Europe. Most European Pro teams are supported by one or a few small investors for egocentric reasons. Professional water polo is NOT a money-making proposition and when a club loses a major sponsor, the club usually becomes unfeasible. This is the reason Tony Azevedo did not play this year… his team lost their major sponsor and the club could not afford the costs. How can the sport attract investors when there is not even a European basis for ROI (return on investment)? How do we attract investors who are satisfied a loss when the same money could be invested with a non profit for a full tax deduction?
Basic Costs Look at strictly minimum costs…13 players and a coach at bare minimum salary of $30k per year. The salary costs alone are over $400,000. Factor in pool time, travel, league buy in, uniforms, and insurance, and you are now up well over ½ million dollars per year. Anyone who thinks that the ticket sales alone will generate this income is delusional. The average attendance at the Premier League could not have exceeded 50 people per game. And as for the players, as many have pointed out, why would a top player with a degree from Stanford, Cal, Penn State, UCLA etc. etc. play water polo professionally for less than $30k per year when their earning potential outside water polo is so much higher.
Is it possible to have legitimate water polo in the USA, for ages 19-22, outside the NCAA? I have been working on a plan with a Midwestern college to offer 50% academic scholarship to students with reasonable SATs (1200+). I know I can send out 30 emails today and have such an offer accepted by at least 15 players (Division II pros or better) from Europe. I also know that for the right ethnicity (depending on the area), I could probably raise another 25-50% scholarship for players from (as only some examples) Italy, Serbia, and Greece to yield them a possible 100% scholarship. Add a grant and/or other fund raising for travel, league fees, and pool time ($100,000) and now you have a professional team (of at least the caliber of a top division II pro team from Europe ) with these features: (1) it is outside the NCAA; (2) it “pays” the players with a college education (what the NCAA claims it does but does not really do); and puts it on USA soil. It is probably easiest to do this with a European coach (not sure what SoCal coaches I could lure to the Midwest) but it would be better (for the USA) if it were an American coach (ideally with prior professional playing experience and some international contacts). In the beginning, the competitive season would consist of trying to get invitations to enter some invitational college tournaments, a few home-and-homes with the Canadian National Team, games against the current big-time clubs (NYAC, Olympic, LAWPC), and maybe to play intact in whatever form the current Premier League takes. Not a bad start… but just ONE such club is not enough.
Is it possible for top USA players to bypass the NCAA system? This is one of the great imponderables to me. Based on the previous construct, are there top USA students, coming out of high school, who would come to college for a real 50% academic scholarship, and play on such a team in non-NCAA environment? Based on the current NCAA guidelines whereby there cannot be more than a 4.5 equivalency, this would be the equivalent of at least twice that much financial support on a team-wide basis. Are they willing to do leave southern California (where our costs are higher) to do this in (for example) the Midwest where there are lower costs? Would they be more willing to do this if it meant being able to play year-round with no artificial NCAA-imposed season limits? And if it starts to work here, could the same system be successful in Southern and Northern California using a group of colleges who do not have water polo now?
Is it possible or top USA players to choose Pro vs NCAA? Aside from the self-evident “only game in town” argument, one of the other arguments often used to support the current college system is that its very limits (season limits, coach contact limits, competition limits, etc…) are valuable to “protect” the interests of the “student-athlete.” Aside from the fact that only the most naïve among us believe that, this “protection” is a red-herring. Water polo players are often some of the highest-achieving students at their universities. As long as these players are doing well enough in school, why NOT train and compete year round? That happens, as a normal matter of course, in individual sports (surely none of you out there REALLY believe that top distance runners only train “in season”) with no compromise to academic achievement. Why not in a team sport like water polo, one that already is full of high-achievers?
What do yo play to win? If we had such a system, what would we need to put into place as an end-of-the-year target? Could we establish, as is common throughout Europe, a championship sequence ending roughly the same time (mid-May) as school ends? And what would qualifying for this, or winning it, get the winning team?
What else are we missing? What else are we missing?