Lately, water polo seems to be bursting onto the scene of not just water sports but sports in general. The rapid pace of play and the physical nature of the sport are certainly appealing to the eye, but is there any truth to the claim that water polo is growing in popularity?
The popularity of water polo has reached record highs, with USA Water Polo reporting that its membership has exceeded 50,000 players for the first time in its existence. This is an impressive jump in participation, especially considering that there were only 26,873 total members as of 2008.
These statistics provided by USA Water Polo are about as reliable as they get, considering that they’re the supervising committee for the entire sport (source).
Below, we will delve into even more detailed statistics about how popular water polo has become. Read further to discover why water polo continues to attract more athletes and what the future holds for this sport.
Popularity of Water Polo By the Numbers
According to the most recent report from the International Swimming Federation (FINA), 478,791 people worldwide are registered water polo players. That’s nearly half a million people!
If you’re curious about where these water polo players are distributed throughout the world, look no further. All of the insight you’re seeking has been provided in the following table (source):
FINA is seen universally as the primary administrative body for international water sports, but it’s still important to acknowledge that they’re still capable of making mistakes. For this reason, there may be a few inconsistencies in the data above.
In Oceania, for example, it’s somewhat hard to believe that there are only two referees in Oceania, but this is what FINA has made official in their report.
So although this data is likely the best information available regarding worldwide water polo participation, take it with a grain of salt. The numbers offer a solid estimation of worldwide participation, but it is probably not exact.
Why Water Polo is Becoming Increasingly Popular in the United States
This upward trend in popularity is widespread, but water polo in the United States is experiencing a spike in popularity as it has never seen before. Many are now asking the simple question: why?
Would-Be Football Players are Transitioning to Water Polo
American football is undoubtedly one of the most popular sports in the United States, sporting approximately 1.9 million players from ages 6 to 18 in the 2019-20 season (source).
Although this is a colossal number of athletes, football has experienced a steady decline in participation over the last decade. In fact, since the 2008-09 season, total football participation in the age bracket of 6 to 18 has dropped by approximately 620,000 (source).
Much of this steady decline has been attributed to the recent research that has come out regarding the injury risks of football. Some of the more shocking data on head-related injuries caused by football has caught the public’s eye.
Consequently, young American athletes are beginning to abandon football to focus on alternative sports, such as water polo. Put simply, football’s loss has inadvertently become water polo’s gain.
Splashball Initiative Has Appealed to the Youth
Not all of the credit can be attributed to the drop in football participation, however. The water polo community—led by USA Water Polo—has made a concerted effort of its own to help spread awareness for the sport in the United States.
One of the most successful initiatives that USA Water Polo ever launched is a program called splashball.
The whole premise of splashball is to make the sport of water polo more appealing to youth athletes between the ages of five and twelve. This program helps kids to acquire basic water polo skills and better understand the sport overall.
In addition to learning about the specifics of water polo, this initiative also assists children in knowing how to be safe in the water, how to swim with proper technique, and how to work as a team with other children.
The program has been proven to be extremely successful, translating into much higher water polo participation rates across the board. In fact, as these youngsters are now maturing into high schoolers, these efforts have helped to increase boy’s water polo participation by 8.8% and girls’ water polo participation by 18.0% since 2009 (source).
United States’ Olympic Success Has Attracted More Athletes
Water polo has been around the Olympics since as early as 1900. Although water polo has been around for longer than a century, the United States team has only seen real success fairly recently.
The men’s American team won silver in 1984 and 1988, and then again in 2008 in Beijing. Women’s water polo joined the Olympics in 2000, but the women’s American team have collected two gold medals in 2012 and 2016 (source).
These most recent medal placements have helped propel the sport to new heights in the United States due to the greater prevalence of mass media.
Compared to the 20th century, more water polo games are televised for the public in much higher quality. This has given the sport a tremendous amount of exposure, which has ultimately translated into higher participation rates among the younger generation of athletes.
What Aspects of Water Polo are Attracting Young Athletes?
Beyond football, splashball, and the Olympics, water polo also possesses several appealing characteristics of its own that have drawn the attention of young athletes everywhere. The health benefits and valuable lessons obtained through this sport have convinced more people to try their hand at this game, as we will see in the subsequent sections.
Teaches Practical Communication Skills
Every single water polo athlete—from the most junior player to the best talent the sport has to offer—must learn to communicate with teammates effectively.
Communication is what allows all seven players in the pool to act as one cohesive unit. Given the rapid pace of play, the communication between players must be clear, concise, and to the point. If communication is dysfunctional, there are bound to be some costly mistakes down the road.
A larger subset of young athletes is beginning to recognize the importance of teamwork communication skills not just for athletics but for life in general. This change in mindset has prompted many young athletes to jump at the opportunity to play water polo instead of other extracurricular activities that aren’t so team-oriented.
Helps People Feel at Ease in the Water
Many parents have a strong desire to see their children strengthen their swimming skills and develop a natural sense of comfort in the water. But, unfortunately, drowning is still one of the leading causes of unintentional death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it stands fifth among accidental injury-related fatalities in the United States (source).
Swimming lessons may teach these youngsters the basics of how to swim, but it fails to keep them in the pool of their own volition. To be kept in the water, a competitive element often has to get involved. Water polo is about as competitive as it gets.
Thus, both parents and children are happy to join water polo, as each gets something out of it. The parents get the assurance that their child will develop into a strong swimmer, while the child gets rewarded with the competition they were looking for.
At the end of the day, this mutual benefit is another contributing factor to why water polo has skyrocketed in popularity.
Bolsters Both Mental & Physical Toughness
Water polo is both physically and mentally exhausting. Water polo players must tread water constantly, constantly be aware of their surroundings, and swim back-and-forth across the length of the pool. Add in the element of physical contact, and you have one of the most difficult sports known to man.
The physical grind inevitably sharpens the mental willpower of players, forcing them to push beyond their limits and challenge themselves to the utmost.
It’s no wonder that a fair amount of Navy SEALs have a water polo background (source). This sport has all the necessary tools to pave the way for the mental and physical toughness required of SEALs.
To play water polo, you will have to be both mentally and physically strong. While you are trying to get the best tactics in, you will have to make sure that you will remain above water and communicate effectively with your teammates. As a matter of fact, many Navy Seals have played the sport, and we all know that it takes an extreme capability to be a Navy Seal!
Athletes Both Big & Small Can Find Success
In most other popular sports, an imposing physical stature is practically a must to thrive during games. For example, basketball players need to be tall, and football players need to be heavy. Players that possess these specific physical characteristics are likely to see more success.
Water polo, on the other hand, has no such physical stipulations. As a result, athletes with all body sizes can flourish in water polo, as height and weight are relative non-factors.
Success in water polo is determined by a player’s physical conditioning and mental toughness above all else. Players can almost surely acquire a high level of each, as long as they stick with their water polo ambitions for multiple seasons.
Greater Opportunity to Earn Scholarships
Although the popularity of water polo is on the rise, it still has a long way to go before it eclipses the participation rates of other major sports, like basketball or football. It will be at least several more years before water polo even enters the discussion of major American sports.
For this reason, water polo players do not have to contend against nearly as many players for scholarships. Instead, most young athletes have set their sights on competing for a scholarship in some other sport where the competition is extremely high.
Little do they know that they would have a much better chance at earning a scholarship in water polo while still having a fun time doing so.
Plus, these scholarship opportunities will only become more prevalent as additional colleges continue to launch new water polo programs. With so many colleges actively seeking out water polo talent from a relatively small pool of players, why wouldn’t you pursue this sport?
What’s Holding Back the Popularity of Water Polo?
Not everything about water polo is completely positive. There are a couple of underlying flaws with the sport that have held it back from reaching its true potential in terms of popularity. Most of these flaws have to do with the potential injury risks of playing at a young age.
High Frequency of Shoulder Injuries
Unfortunately, shoulder injuries are fairly common in the sport of water polo. This shoulder pain stems from the high-impact nature of throwing the ball and the repetitive stress of swimming the length of the pool.
So the longer you play water polo, the higher your chances are of experiencing shoulder problems. Unfortunately, there’s little the water polo community can do to prevent such issues, aside from emphasizing proper throwing and swimming techniques.
There are a variety of shoulder injuries that water polo athletes endure, including:
- ruptured ligaments
- impingement of tendons
- partial muscular tears
- full muscular tears
At Greater Risk for Knee Injuries
In addition to shoulder injuries, knee injuries are also prevalent. Since water polo players are prohibited from touching the bottom of the pool and holding onto the pool’s sides, they’re not afforded any breaks from treading while they remain in the game.
The act of treading requires heavy exertion from the legs, involving what is referred to as the eggbeater kick. On top of treading, the eggbeater kick is also utilized for players to explosively jump out of the water to pass or shoot.
Over time, the repetitive use of the eggbeater kick exacts a heavy toll on the knees. Hours of kicking at water polo practices and games are more than sufficient to meet the criteria of joint overuse in the knees. There’s strong evidence to suggest that the constant rotation of both knees directly correlates with pain along the insertion of the medial collateral ligament (source).
Like shoulder pain, this knee pain is practically unavoidable because water polo players need to use the eggbeater kick to keep themselves above the water’s surface. As soon as a player ceases to kick, they immediately put themselves at the mercy of the water and start sinking. Obviously, this is not something a water polo players needs.
Consequently, the water polo community is at a loss for how to help resolve this issue, other than teaching proper form, recommending pre-game warm-up routines, and advising that players ice their knees post-game.
Dangers of Violent Underwater Antics
Lastly, water polo is known for its rough underwater play, given that referees have a difficult time monitoring what goes on beneath the water’s surface.
This may not be as prevalent at the younger levels of water polo, but it is a major issue at the more competitive tiers of the sport. Players kick, scratch, and—believe it or not—claw at each other underwater, all to the obliviousness of the referees.
These aggressive underwater antics have become so widespread that water polo players have been known to deliberately sharpen their fingernails and toenails before games so that they can inflict more pain on opposing players.
Fortunately, referees have caught on to this illegal ploy and started checking for sharpened nails pre-game. Though, there’s little that they can do to eliminate the small acts of brutality that go on underwater since they cannot clearly see into the water’s depths. Even if a referee does manage to catch a glimpse of fighting underwater, they often cannot determine exactly who the aggressor is.
This underwater cruelty intimidates certain prospective athletes that may have taken up water polo otherwise. Hopefully, this problem is better addressed in the future to help push the game of water polo to even bigger audiences.
Future Outlook of the Sport
Water polo may not be perfect, but the future looks bright for this water sport. It looks as though this upward trend in participation will continue for years to come. This claim has been corroborated by nearly every piece of statistical participation data gathered in the past decade.
If the current state of things holds, there should be no reason that water polo should decline in popularity. The nature of the sport fosters so many positive characteristics in the youth that it’s difficult to make an argument against at least experimenting with water polo for a season.
As long as the water polo community keeps progressing with its rules, boosting its marketing efforts, and preserving the integrity of the sport, younger athletes will undoubtedly flock to water polo.