Building a Professional Water Polo League in the US: Part 1

Joan Gould
Water Polo Planet

During the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, a group of water polo people (Americans and non-Americans ) had the chance to begin serious discussions of ideas, budgets and structure required to begin a Professional Water Polo League in the United States.   It is clear to us that this is a direction critical to both the growth of the sport and US success internationally, particularly on the mens side. Male water polo players physically peak in their late 20’s and early 30’s which fact places the best athletes well outside of the NCAA Division 1 participation period as well as outside the USAWP Olympic Development program (18u).   Currently, the NCAA does a fine job of developing successful female international players and is arguably one of the best female pipelines in the world thus we have not addressed the womens side.

This series of 3 articles will look at a basic branding strategy, demographics,  merchandising and financial models for a Professional Water Polo league in the USA.  Those of us involved in the research and development hope that we can have the groundwork laid to begin competition in January 2011. It is my belief that it will take a full year to secure sufficient financing to prove the required support for the league for its first year of operation.

We are making this research public to provide a transparent operation as it develops.  We actively solicit input and comments as we move forward as each one of you is a vital component of the success of this enterprise as either a coach, player or fan.  

One of the most compelling arguments I have heard for starting a professional water polo league in the USA comes from a former professional player in Europe who recently finished his MBA at a very prestigious European university. He caught the NCAA Final 4 on webcast and remarked;

"It was interesting to see how the game looks in US.  The quality of the game is not bad nor is the atmosphere, but I think that the biggest problem for the water polo in the USA is the lack of senior players, and professional clubs. 

College water polo is cool when you are young  but to increase the quality and to play on more serious levels, there has to be some more experience in the players.  I know that's why all the USA players who want to continue playing and who have good skills are forced to come to Europe. 

I know that here in Europe, everybody is wishing for a professional water polo league in the States.  Water polo needs the American marketing and promotion know-how. This might seem funny, but you Americans know how to make a spectacle of a game. That's what's missing to promote our sport. To open it towards broader public, to make it fun to come to the pool and enjoy the game."

Any discussion of a professional league must begin with what my colleagues very derisively call the “fluff”…the basics of marketing, financing and growing the league to simultaneously initiate and increase public demand for more.  With the competing sports and entertainment venues available to todays American consumer, the “build it and they will come” paradigm is both ineffective and unworkable.  Ticket sales generate sponsorships which are the keys to allow the teams in the league to support key players as true professionals. It is not enough to have good players and great coaches…this endeavor must have a sound business and marketing foundation in order for it to succeed.

As an extension of these meetings in Rome,  this past September,  I began working with a group of outstanding seniors from Marian University in Indianapolis. 

Known as the “A” Team, Business Creation & Development student consulting at Marian University is an opportunity for students to direct and execute an engagement of their choice.  Students are presented with various business situations by prospective principals, from the local business community, who seek recommendations from the A-Team.  As highly motivated students from Marian University, with diverse disciplines, they come together and synergize their strengths to create a dynamic group.

It is important to recognize that none of the people in this group has any experience with water polo. They began the project with no pre-conceived ideas, no emotional baggage or vested interest in the sport. This important fact allowed them to observe the sport dispassionately and professionally, analyzing trends strictly on the basis of numbers and the business sense of the group and their professors. The following presentation presents the beginning steps of the process of branding a Professional Water Polo League in the US.

Catch the student development team on the December 14 edition of Talking Water Polo at the Planet.

Professional Water Polo Association: Part 1