Interview of the USAWP Sport Developmental Director, Scott Tanner

Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Scott Tanner, the newly appointed Director of Sport Development for USA Water Polo.  Just hired, I caught Scott in the process of working through the organization to assimilate the myriad workings and discovering the tasks facing him in his new position…a task described to me by someone as “trying to drink water from a fire hose”.

Throughout our conversation, I found Scott interesting, articulate and creative with a refreshing sense of humor as well as a sense of excitement to get started on the tasks ahead of him.

Unlike many pessimists (hard to imagine water polo people are sometimes pessimistic), I greatly admire the “out of the box” thinking that led USA Water Polo to hire someone for this very important position that is not a dedicated water polo person.  Oftimes, we (all of us inside the sport) are so hindered by past experiences and preconceived ideas, we can easily become mired in inertia, pessimism and apathy.  This was a courageous hire that I, for one, applaud.   We are coming into an Olympic quadrennial where the USA has recently won an unprecedented 2 silver medals. The fact that we have someone of Scott’s background to help us capitalize on this great achievement should be enough for all of us to look more optimistically toward the future.

Water Polo Planet Interview
Questions for Scott Tanner, USA Water Polo

  1. Your job description sounds more like that of a CEO than an assistant to the CEO so how will your job tasks differ from that of the CEO?

    Wow, that’s the fastest promotion I have ever had!  Seriously, my role as Director of Sport Development is to grow our sport by focusing on programs and events and continuing to find ways we can increase value to our USA Water Polo membership.  Consistent with our mission, it is my job to run a division devoted to growing our sport, and Guy Baker’s job to run a division based on promoting high performance culminating in medal-winning national teams.  Chris Ramsey, our CEO, has a broader purview on the sport, which includes National Teams, philanthropic support, corporate sponsorship, financial administration, USOC and FINA relations, etc.

  2. Understanding the chain of command for your new position is important so tell me if the Olympic Development Manger, the Marketing Director, and the Controller will report to you or the CEO?

    These positions report to the CEO, but we are definitely creating a culture around increased collaboration across all our disciplines in the organization.  As you know, we are not a large organization so it is critical we all work towards common goals and everyone understands the mission of USA Water Polo and meets regularly to evaluate performance, share information and support each others’ efforts.  You mentioned Olympic Development on your list, and it’s a great privilege to work with Guy Baker.  I hope that I can help him achieve his goals, especially by chipping in to expand the impact of tournaments like “Holiday Cup” and “Fisher Cup.” In the same way, I know that Guy, Terry Schroeder and Adam Krikorian, among others, can help me to connect our clubs in more tangible ways to the Olympic movement.

  3. Clubs are an integral and important part of the USAWP so could you give us some ideas of how you are going to provide more opportunities for club competition?

    One aspect of Sport Development is the management of events on a national level.  We will look at new opportunities for events that can compliment the existing slate and certainly in areas outside of California, where we have an incredibly busy calendar of existing events. We will also work with the USAWP Zones to support regional events they are creating or look to develop as the Zones are the best barometer of what is needed in their area to bring the sport along.  Finally, we anticipate a broader program of club support, which will provide more resources to clubs, including marketing, branding, and educational support.  We are also looking at ways to recognize outstanding clubs and share their formulas for success across our entire system.

  4. Isn’t it really the CEO and his entire staff job to ”help all USAWP athletes to achieve their highest potential in a fun, safe, rewarding environment” and not the job of just the assistant to the CEO?

    As I said earlier, we are evolving our USAWP culture to one of greater collaboration.  That actually extends beyond our National office staff as well.  No one “owns” development or achievement.  Everyone in the sport has an obligation to work towards a continuing elevation of the sport and our athletes.  The thing we also tend to overlook is achievement outside the pool to help our athletes prepare themselves for life experiences.  We intend to create programs that will, alongside our current Academic All American and Positive Coaching Alliance programs, recognize participants and clubs who excel in many areas that create well rounded individuals who also play water polo.

  5. How do you think your experience at Disneyland will help you to accomplish the tasks assigned to you at the USAWP?

    My role with Disney Parks was actually quite diverse and allowed me to not only work in sales and marketing at all levels but I also was part of the executive team that worked on all our ticket, hotel, and package products, our distribution strategy, and resort-wide strategic initiatives.   I served as Director of Marketing for our Walt Disney Travel Company, itself a nearly $100 million travel operation, which has given me extensive experience in creating and marketing travel programs, a new area we expect to develop around our USAWP events.   I was also involved in the initial expansion of Disney Sports to the West Coast and oversaw the marketing around all West Coast based events in the first three years of their operation.   Across all lines of business, I managed an $8 Million marketing budget which drove nearly $500 million in revenue.   Beyond that, I would expect that my years at Disney have also created a distinct philosophy when it comes to my business practices.  First, attention to detail and always striving to exceed guest expectations was a core competency at Disney.  That is easily transferable to any job but certainly as we look at Membership Services & Support and Club Support, this is one skill that could, and should, pay dividends.  We also “ate, slept, and drank” creativity and innovation and encouraged risk taking. I intend to take some calculated risks using creative approaches to our programs and events, and I also want to innovate, particularly in our member and club support areas to become the envy of all Olympic NGB’s.

    Aside from my experience at Disney, I have also been very involved in youth sports through my daughters’ participation in soccer and basketball.   I coached, refereed, served as age group commissioner and board member for AYSO for more than 15 years and was also team manager for my older daughter’s club soccer team.  While I do not have extensive water polo background, I firmly believe my experience with youth sports from a successful organizations like AYSO and USYSA will provide new perspective to our sport.

  6. We realize that you have just started but have you developed any sense of the top priorities you plan to address in your new position?

    Yes I have; the trouble is I have five #1 priorities!  Actually, there are few things that are bubbling to the top.  We know we have a lot of people who are in the sport that are not currently members of USAWP, so one priority to is to create a value proposition that makes it irresistible for them to join.  Part and parcel to that is improving, and effectively articulating, our member benefits.  One of my personal priorities is to speak to as many people as I can to develop a broad perspective of the sport’s needs.  I am conscious of the California-centric aspect of our sport, so spending time outside the state is a key component to that.  I also feel we need to develop means by which we can activate our passionate volunteer base.  To that end, I am reaching out to other volunteer based groups to get some ideas from them about how they manage and motivate their volunteers.

  7. Liz Grimes has come up with some exceptionally creative solutions to help develop high school water polo in Georgia. Tell us a little bit about that program and how USAWP members could use this as a template to begin a similar program in their own area.

    Georgia, and Atlanta specifically, is a great example of what can happen when you put someone with passion for the sport in a focused effort in a market that has the demos to support water polo.  This began in 2007 when Liz started working with Liz worked with Karina Cordisco of Wheeler High School on a summer league in a community pool.  This summer league was one of the first US Leagues for USA Water Polo.  By fall of 2007 there were four high schools competing.  In the summer of 2008, Liz worked with Richard Tavernaro and several of the Dynamo Water Polo Club leaders to pull together a tighter competitive structure and schedule while offering coursework for referees through  Fall of 2008 boasted eleven high schools competing and building enthusiasm for additional teams to take the plunge next season.    Then in February of 2008, Liz worked with Tavernaro and the Men's National Team to host a clinic at Georgia Tech during the Georgia State High Swim Coaches Association year end meeting.   Finally, Tavernaro, armed with 27 schools supporting water polo, petitioned the Georgia State High School Athletic Association to include water polo as an official sport in the fall of 2009.  While it was not sanctioned for 2009, there is still hope for 2010.  In the meantime, Liz has set up the fall 2009 Atlanta High School League as a US League with certified officials and following rules and governance put forth by the Georgia State High School Water Polo Association and all athletes are USA Water Polo members.    Liz has also worked to take what had been a Washington, DC metro league and evolved into the Mid-Atlantic Coast League also focused on building high school play.  The template is really finding an area that has interest and then working with a motivated volunteer, or group of volunteers, to create the vision for growth.

  8. USAWP has been evaluating 3 different startup games (Spashball, Noodleball etc) to be used as a tool to develop new players at younger ages.  How long do you plan for the evaluation period to last and is there a plan to publish a “Get Started” manual for other clubs?

    here have been a number of entry level programs that have been or are being piloted throughout the US and we are even now looking at the various models, successes, opportunities, etc.  I don’t think it is any secret that getting kids into the sport at the earliest age possible creates greater “lifetime value” for everyone so this is a major priority for us to figure out.  My hope is to be able in this next year to expand dramatically the number of clubs and areas that have an entry level program in place.  As to a “Get Started” manual, suffice it to say we are looking at several ways to be able to “evangelize” the concept through USA Water Polo resources.

  9. The initial growth strategy of USAWP planned to identify a few regional/local “pockets” where water polo could be implemented with several teams/programs in a small geographic area offering competition without travel and housing costs.  This was a radical new (and brilliant) strategy for water polo.  Is this still the operating approach and if so, has USAWP been able to identify any areas (other than Atlanta) where this can be implemented?

    This has been a strategy that is talked about a lot and one that certainly has a lot of merit.  At this point it is too soon to say that is THE operating approach but could certainly one of several we will continue to develop and support going forward.  We have been centering a lot of energy in Texas.  Joe Linehan has opened a club in Dallas and a more than 20 high schools picked up the sport this year when the season was moved from the fall (competing with football!) to the spring.  One thing I have definitely learned is that water polo is unique to each community where it exists.  An operating approach that works in one market may have no relevancy to another, so we will continue to look at a variety of methods to grow the sport.

  10. Many new age group programs are started by coaches and flounder financially and ultimately fail because the average coach is not trained in marketing, merchandising and/or administration.  Moving forward, do you see any role for USAWP in creating an out of the box marketing and merchandising package for new clubs to help them succeed? What role do you see USAWP filling in new club development?

    In that respect, water polo is no different than any business when you are in a startup.  Even the best business plans fail but we are fortunate to have hundreds of “franchises” out there to help us construct a template of “best practices” for club start up and even for taking existing clubs to a higher level.  We do know there are opportunities to provide some new and existing clubs with tools that can either get them to the next level or support the efforts as a start up.  I am not prepared to discuss them in any detail yet until we have some time and more input as to what we feel would be most valuable.  Goes back to that priority thing!

  11. In years past, water polo was integrated into the strong “Learn to Swim” programs at the nations YMCA’s, who control a large percentage of available swimming pools in the country. Do you see any potential for USAWP Sport Development to develop new, stronger ties with the YMCA’s and Red Cross swimming programs as a means of sport growth

    I am still new enough to claim “job naivety” so I am going to say, yes, I believe there is an opportunity to develop stronger ties with YMCA and others.  Certainly facility constraint is not a new barrier and building new pools in the current economic environment is going to be a tough sell so developing what we refer to as our “eco-system” is critical.   This is an area we will also look to our volunteer base to assist with since so many of them already have great contacts at the local level.  If we can jointly work on a value proposition and/or new ideas for programs that YMCA’s are looking for, this could ease our entry as well.   One of the strong factors around promoting programs for younger age groups is that smaller pools with shallow ends can be used in the early years of development, and that will open up many more facilities to us.  In the current difficult economy, I am also hopeful that facilities will be looking for new sources of revenue, which are programs, if conceived correctly, will provide to them.

I would like to end with a brief quote from Scott’s interview that gives me a sense of excitement and invigoration as well as hope for the future of the sport.  …hopefully Scott can help lead us all to establishing our own Magic Kingdom! I ask the entire water polo community to join me in welcoming Scott Tanner to our community and to take the time to extend a hand to assist him in his new endeavor.

“Always striving to exceed guest expectations was a core competency at Disney.  That is easily transferable to any job but certainly as we look at Membership Services & Support and Club Support, this is one skill that could, and should, pay dividends. “