A Case for a USA Professional League

Loren A. Bertocci, PhD
Water Polo Planet

As they say, “everyone complains about the weather but no one ever does anything about it.” The corollary may be “many have been complaining about the USA Mens National Team but no one does anything about it.” Actually DOING something about it is not difficult. In fact, it is easy. Sadly, what it takes to actually make this happen is to embrace a reality that most of us in this sport do not wish to consider. But, more importantly, it is a reality that everyone in meaningful decision-making positions will either fight or (worse) try to take-over.
Before I go any further, I must admit that I do not know to what audience to address this. Certainly, I do not have concrete plan (with people and investment dollars in place) to make any of this happen. But I am confident that this is exactly what we DO need if we are to have the kind of medal-level success a country with our size and resources would be expected to have.

What do we need? We need what every other meaningful sport has: a mechanism by which our best athletes train almost year-round and compete so much that assembling a national team is no more difficult than putting together any other top-level team. I know, I know, the apologists out there will argue that we already have programs (of one acronym or another) designed to develop top-level athletes. However, as a scientist, I look at data. In the case, the data are the numbers of athletes (ages 15+) playing in this country (compared to the countries we cannot defeat internationally), the ages (and competitive life-spans) of our effective international players, and where our national (particularly youth and junior) teams place when compared to where our senior national teams place.

OK, back to the task at hand. Because we have no other functional mechanism, let’s find one. This particular one is one I have promoted in the past. I know Coach Dettemanti does not necessarily agree. Neither do many others. Regardless, my opinion remains. And whether we call it a professional league, a semi-professional league, or anything else, what we need is a mechanism by which our top players (aged 17+) are playing (as if they meant it) 8-9 months per year. I have argued, in the past, that such a league is essential. For lots of reasons, including the changing international landscape, I believe that it is becoming increasingly essential. Yes, it is too late to put this into place in time to roll out a full-professional team for 2012. It is not too late for 2016.

The structure is simple. It could EASILY be created. What remains is the collective will. I will describe one (simple) organizational construct. Several others would work as well. I do not care WHICH structure we have. But, in the absence of any such structure, we have moved our international efforts back to the pre-1980s era and there is no way this can work now.

What does a legitimate team look like? A typical team needs 15-20 legitimate top-level players. It needs a legitimate top-level coach. It needs a typical top-level training program. It needs a typical top-level competition program. It needs an explicit link to the national team. What do EACH of these look like?

Top-level players (I): According to those who track these players, and have posted on WPP, we have more than 20 players currently playing (at some level of seriousness) on teams in other countries. We currently have a national team with 15-20 players all competing for 13 slots. We have 40+ varsity college programs in the USA. Thus, on average, we have 40 x 7 x 0.2 = 42 graduating seniors who were good enough to be starters on their college teams. If only 10 of them have not quite had “enough” of top-level play, we pour 10 top level players into this pool of players every year. If you add these numbers, you get 45-50 players of this caliber ready to play as of September 2011. Add to this pool of players the 5-10-15 currently out there (from the pool of recent top-level players who are still playing at a high level at the club level), we easily get to a large enough number to fully-populate four or more top-level teams. More importantly, we easily get to a large enough number to populate eight or more top-level teams with starters and then the remaining roster spots are available for the huge number of players, still in their 20s, who either still have big-time hopes or just want to continue to play at this level.

Legitimate top-level coach: In an ideal setting, each of these teams is coached by someone who has either played or coached at the legitimate international level. If this is going to work, the caliber of the coach is an absolutely essential component. I strongly believe that, right now, by a combination of the coaches we currently have, and legitimate coach education (even a hint of which I have not seen in this sport during the 36+ years I have had any contact with the national level), we have what we need to staff these positions.

Legitimate top-level training program: As much as any of us would like our best players to have lives equal to what (in the major sports) others get to live, we are not (yet) in a position to make that happen. OK, so let’s get real, shall we? What does it take to really prepare a modern water polo player to compete at a high level?

Acceptable training program: Water polo training – designed properly, all the water polo training needed in any one day can be done in a 2-hour period. Seriously. Doubt this? Go ahead – build a training program, based on a five-day week with alternate weekends of training and competition, and it is very difficult to find a water polo training period of more than 2-hours in a given day. As for the physical training component, that can be time-shifted. Ideally, a top-level player can take an hour each day (alternating weight training lower body and core, weight training upper body, and swim training, then repeat, then take Sunday off) in addition to this 2-hour period. No additional training is necessary. This is simple physiological fact.

Fitting this into a normal life:  Our NCAA athletes do this all the time. Eager triathletes with full time jobs do this all the time. I did this for six years while I was in graduate school earning a PhD. If you add my current training load with my current dog-walking time, I almost do this now. Three hours per day? It is easy to do and wrap it around a full-time job and family.

Legitimate top-level competition schedule: Given the size of this country, and the distances between cities, outside of Southern California, Northern California, and the Northeast, travel will become an issue that limits this. Thus, in order to make this happen, teams need to be encouraged in places where travel to competition is not the limiting factor (either for finances or travel time). Given the size of the USA, this may well be the most difficult issue to overcome. At a minimum, this competition construct requires a 2-3 game weekend, two weekends per month, from December through April, with May as Championship month.

Link to the national team: Obvious.

The in-season process itself: Our National Team coaches get to spend December through May scouting our top players. Why not have a “game of the week” internet broadcast, perhaps two or three each weekend, with a play-by-play commentator and our National Team Head Coach as “color commentator?” This provides a public presence for our National Team Head Coach, puts him into a scouting position and effectively gets information disseminated about the National Teamp players to make them more interesting to consumers (Marketing 101).

Fitting this into a national team structure: During December through May, our national team head coach could easily have 3-day weekend training weekends for the top 15-20-25+ players playing in this group (leaving the international players with their teams elsewhere). These could easily include physical performance tests (swimming and strength) to monitor their conditioning status so that everyone arrives, ready to play, when the national team is fully assembled in April-May.

The selection process itself: Our National Team coaches get to spend December through May scouting our top players. They get to construct, if they desire, a National Team selection weekend (ideally over Memorial Day weekend) with the top two-three teams from this league paired with one-two “all-star” teams (with the remaining players) in a bracket then Final Four competition structure. It would be a “gathering of eagles” for our national team coaches.

Fitting this into a normal life:  Our NCAA athletes do this all the time. Eager triathletes with full time jobs do this all the time. I did this for six years while I was in graduate school earning a PhD. If you add my current training load with my current dog-walking time, I almost do this now. Three hours per day? Should be do-able for most.

Top-level players (II): Yes, our top players all have access to competition based on their age-group clubs, their HS teams, and their NCAA clubs. All this competition is some combination of seasonally limited and pits age-equals against age-equals. Compare the effectiveness to our top players, age 16-17-18-19, to what they would gain by playing on teams like this? Compare this to what these athletes currently have with highly legislated HS-NCAA programs.

Top-level players (III): Yes, our NCAA players all have access to “athletic scholarships” to attend universities and have some of their expenses supported by “athletic scholarships.” Outside of the Ivy League or the service academies (where no such athletic scholarships exist), the reality is that the equivalent of 4.5 equivalents are spread out over and entire roster. Worse, any athlete that receives some athletic support is not allowed to have academic support. Yes, there are a few top NCAA athletes who get so much athletic support that the finances are really in their favor. However, they are in the vast minority of currently competing NCAA athletes. If you are from a family that can live without the small fraction of the 4.5 equivalents you were offered, you can now attend ANY university you choose and play on one of these teams, concurrently gaining your baccalaureate degree AND playing for a top team without season or training limits. Compare the effectiveness to our top players, age 19-20-21-22, to what they would gain by playing on teams like this? Compare this to what these athletes currently have with highly legislated NCAA programs.

Funding (I): OK, fine, funding rears its ugly head. The members of our current National Team gets what little financial support they get from their own resources, their parents, and the USOC. None of this is lost in this construct. However, let’s add to this, shall we? Given what $1,000s parents currently POUR into the support of their own children (club dues, university expenses, year-round support for post-college players), why would these same resources be used to subsidize their competition on their OWN team. And, if a protected fund directed solely into supporting our National Team could be created, where every single $$ would be used solely to partially subsidize such teams… in theory, it should work very well.

Funding (II): With few exceptions, the members of most “professional” teams in Europe are paid so little that, when compared to the kinds of dollars paid to people in the USA, they are closer to being volunteer players than most would imagine. This is particularly so for Division II teams. Porting all these players to local USA-based teams would not generate much, if any, less income to these players than they currently make now. If you add to this the fact that, in the USA, they can work/go to school during the day, the issue of funding to these players really becomes a non-issue.

This is not a simple issue, and much more needs to be done to make this work. But I cannot imagine any legitimate reason not to move forwards, immediately. What remains is for a few critical people to create the essential constructs and move forward so that this could be put into place right after London 2012.