Semi-Professional Water Polo in the USA: A Blueprint for Success

Loren A. Bertocci, PhD
Water Polo Planet
03/15/07

To begin, a bit of history is in order. After failing to qualify for the 1976 Olympics, the reorganization of our Olympic Team processes resulted in the installation of Monte Nitzkowski as Head Coach. Monte concluded that there were strengths in how we played the game that could be productively adapted to succeed in the international game. The achievement of the 1984 Olympic Silver medal was testament to his vision of a team using superior speed and conditioning to offset what many outside the USA would consider the natural advantages in ball skills and team tactics possessed by the European teams. This was the equivalent to the brilliance of Red Auerbach building a “fast-break” attack on the superior rebounding and shot blocking of Bill Russell.

The response by the Europeans to our back-to-back 1984-1988 Olympic Silver medals was to ramp up their own swimming and conditioning. The effectiveness of this can be seen in our slowly but steadily declining results since 1989. In addition, there has been a sustained growth in the number of professional teams playing in Europe. Thus, the 21st Century landscape for men’s water polo is that every member of every top team in the world is selected from a pool of talent that has been playing, year-round, in a professional setting.

NCAA Raises Its Ugly Head - Chop It Off with Club Teams and a Professional League

Unfortunately, this is not the case in the USA, where the reality is quite different. NCAA eligibility rules virtually prohibit anything even remotely resembling such year-round play and the post-college athlete not good enough to get a job playing professionally in Europe is limited to spare-time conditioning and limited scrimmaging with the “National Team” at Los Alamitos. At this point, even with superior performances by our coaches and athletes, breaking into the top-eight in a World or Olympic Championship must now be considered an unexpected success.

Can this be reversed?

Yes.

How?

By establishment of a professional league in the USA.

What? Are you crazy?

Well, yes, but this is not the evidence, and what follows is a simple blueprint for one way to do it. Can it be done in other ways? Sure. Will this require either some major-league NCAA-convincing or avoiding? Yes. But will it work? Absolutely.

Getting Blood Out of a Stone - Financing the Professional League

OK, let’s get started on the finances of how to pull this off.

First of all, what does the club look like? It looks like a standard, full-service, year-round water polo club, with a top-level semi-pro team on top. Assuming that this club has at least a 20-player group in each age group (12U, 14U, 16U, 18U, open, and Masters) and gender, and what looks like standard dues for a year-round swimming club, it can support a full-time professional head coach. The fact that the vast majority of water polo players in the USA do NOT belong to such clubs is one of the failures of our sport that, if resolved, will go a long way towards putting us, as a sport, where we belong.

But what about the professional team? How does that fit in? Quite nicely, as it turns out, and fits easily as the top of the above described, and entirely logical, participant pyramid, just like in most other sports.

So how do we staff this team? Let’s consider doing so with a goal of trying to satisfy as many of the obvious needs as possible. Let’s assume a13-player playing roster based on an overall roster of 20 players. These 20 players are divided into three groups: 1) at least 5 players not born in the USA, all of whom are paid; 2) at least USA 5 players not playing collegiate water polo, all of whom are paid; and 3) an unlimited number of unpaid USA players, drawn from any combination of current USA varsity collegiate players (whose participation is allowed as part of a Premier-League like NCAA waiver).

Why these categories? First of all, why foreign players? We want our top players to get the gamut of experiences only possible by mixing in players from other countries, all of whom have different styles and perspectives. Next, why post-college players? So that the kinds of experienced athletes we want to retain in the sport find a way to do this while at the same time training 3+ hours per day and playing 2-3 real games every week. Finally, what about the rest? Ideally, the NCAA cooperates, as they do now, with the Premier League. But if not, this amount of funding is at least equal to what most top HS players can expect to get as a combination of need-based + athletic scholarship support and would allow those top players to select this path instead of the traditional NCAA varsity experience.

In that this is to be a semi-pro operation, what kinds of funding does it need? Although there are many ways to do this, one that would certainly work is to “pay” the athletes a semi-pro type amount. What would this be? For a 22-26 year old, not yet committed to family or career, I suspect that support equaling roughly $2000 per month as pocket money, in addition to provision of a studio apartment (with utilities including internet access), small lease car, and cell phone (rough guess is that this can all be made available for not much more than $1500 per month, would be enough. During this time, with morning practice ending by 8:00AM, and evening practice beginning around 6:00PM, any of these players could use the middle of the day to go to graduate school, begin a career, or work part-time, perhaps as a coach of one of the age-group teams of the club. Thus, the “salary” of these players, over 6 months, is roughly $20,000, totaling $200,000 for the paid fraction of the team. Ideally this roster is supplemented by an athlete pool analogous to the group we currently have playing in the Premier League, again, ideally, with NCAA eligibility waiver. But it is possible this will not be permitted, and if not, the supplementation can be extended via other means, including via expanding the roster with unpaid “club” players.

This is a professional operation, so for the December through May 6 month period, the Head Coach gets $50,000. Let’s assume that the Asst Coach – Team Leader gets $25,000, and another $75,000 is allocated to all training and competition expenses, and this team costs $350,000.
Ouch? Maybe, maybe not. Read on.

Creating the Brooklyn Bridge - The League Structure

OK, enough of that. What about the league structure?

In that this is an ideality, and I can describe it any way I want to, I will operate on the assumption that this is a 12 team league, in three 4-team divisions, one in the East, one on the west coast from Santa Barbara south, and one on the west coast from the Bay Area north. The teams play multiple games within the divisions, fewer games outside the divisions, leading NHL-like to a playoff of the top eight teams, three each from the two top divisions in inter-division play and the top two from the other division. The first two rounds are best 2 out of three over one weekend. The final round is best 3 out of 5 over two weekends. With reasonable geography, and perhaps a bit of cost sharing to offset travel, this can easily be managed within the $75,000 budget per team.

So, WHO pays for all this? It is a club, remember? A real water polo club, constituted as I described earlier, can operate enough in the black to pay professional coaches and rent water time. Although they might be considered the Model Franchises, certainly clubs such as San Diego Shores, Florida Coast, CHAWP, Seattle, Annapolis, LAWPC, Commerce, Long Beach Shore, and Lamorinda have figured out how to do this. So it can be done. But what about grafting the semi-pro team on top?

Let’s take the worst-case scenario: no revenues whatsoever. The semi-pro team operates at a $350,000 loss per year. I am absolutely convinced that there are many communities where 10-20 “owners” can be found to share this loss in return for “owning” a semi-pro team, particularly one that is the centerpiece to a big age-group team that is part of the community. Imagine the bragging rights to owning a winning team. Now add commercial sponsorship, advertising, tickets as business expenses for entertaining clients, that sort of thing, and the net cost per “owner” goes down. The ego blast of belonging to an exclusive country club is, for many members, just that, an ego blast, and an ego blast can take many forms, and distributed over a group of owners, this is much less expensive than a country club.

But are there revenues to be had? Certainly. And the creativity for this is unlimited. Certainly, at first, I cannot imagine operating one of these teams at break even, but certainly after selling tickets, $5 beers, DVD's of the games, running summer technical camps, and taking symbiotic advantage of the connection to the age-group club in the community, break-even is possible, making “ownership” even more attractive.

Having Your Cake and Eating It with an Olympic Gold Medal Around Your Neck

Now imagine how much pleasure the National Team Head Coach would have in having the opportunity to cherry-pick the top players from this league for our National Team. I would imagine that THIS is the single biggest fear the top teams in Europe have: that the USA does something like this.

Now this is just an idea, only barely fleshed out. But it is intriguing, is it not?