Why Water Polo Should Be More Popular

Water polo has all the makings of a widely popular sport, and it should be.
Image Source: Nathan Supanich

Water Polo. No, it is not played by affluent foreigners riding on the backs of halfway submerged horses, splashing around a ball in a body of water. It is played entirely by humans. There is, however, plenty of splashing around in a body of water.

You may have decent, little or no knowledge of the sport itself, but it is a fantastic sport to play and spectate. Here is why water polo should be more popular than it is today.

Water Polo Is A Relatively Simple Sport

I have played and followed many different sports. Water polo has some nuance, undoubtedly, however, the objective of the game can be summed up in a sentence: Get the ball into the goal more times than your opponent.

Of course, there are rules, general ways in which people play, and infinite amounts of possible outcomes. However, it does not take long to get the gist of the game and become an involved player or spectator. It does not take much to get involved, either. There are age group, club, college, and masters teams in many of the states that participate in water polo.

If you are able to get involved with pool time and a group, all you really need to play is a swimsuit. Competitive teams do wear head caps, generally with ear protection. This is as much equipment as the players themselves need.

I say water polo is a relatively simple sport but should clarify. The sport itself is very physically demanding and it can be very challenging to play. A lot of training and conditioning is required, as well as having nuance like any game. As a spectator, at least, water polo is relatively simple to learn and understand what is going on. I have watched 2 hours of cricket on television and still had absolutely no idea what was going on. It was pretty awesome when the batsman scored two 6's in a row, but even still, I barely understood what that meant.

That is neither here nor there. Water polo is easy enough to understand and yet an absolutely grueling sport to play. We will dive more into that later. Below is a very brief explanation of the pool set up and quick glance at rules and gameplay.

Source: Wikipedia
  • Two opposing teams of 6 field players and a goalie play each other to score as many goals as possible over the course of four 8:00 minute quarters.
  • Players are only allowed to swim and tread water; there is no touching the bottom of the pool.
  • Players pass and shoot the ball one-handed and can 'dribble' by swimming with the ball in front of them using a wide-armed stroke to keep control.
  • Only the goalie can ever touch the ball with two hands simultaneously.
  • Each quarter begins with players racing to the middle of the pool where one of two referees drops the ball as a 'face-off'. The team that concedes a goal restarts play with possession.
  • Fouls committed range from a stoppage in play to allow the free resumption of play, to a player ejection for 20 seconds, all the way to a 1v1 penalty shot against the goalie. A player may shoot the ball if fouled beyond 5 meters from the goal.

Similarities Between Water Polo And Other Sports

Water polo actually draws many similar aspects with other sports. Many from more popular sports that have millions of fans. Here are a few sports that stand out in similarity to water polo.

1. Swimming

Swimming is an obvious yet important comparison. The only way to get around in each sport is by swimming. Water polo varies in that you have to tread water at times of passing, shooting, and defending. The stroke varies some too, as water polo players have a wide-armed, head-up stroke.

2. Basketball

Basketball has a very similar back and forth type gameplay style. Turnovers can happen at any moment. They to fast breaks or extremely quick turn arounds of gameplay at any moment in transition. There are drives, picks/screens, middle players called Center or Hole, and even jump balls! Scoring is not quite the same, but the sports actually carry a lot of similarity during gameplay.

3. Soccer

Water Polo and soccer share aspects like goalies that always play in the net. Goals must be scored by getting the ball into the net, past the goalie. All goals count as 1 point. The goalies are both allowed to grab the game ball with both hands.

If a defensive team deflects a ball and it goes out of bounds behind the goal line, water polo restarts with the offensive team at the nearest corner, 2 meters up from the goal line. Soccer plays a corner kick for the offensive team. An egregious foul in a goal-scoring chance results in a penalty shot from close.

4. Hockey

Hockey also has goalies in the net, but the biggest similarity here is the ejection. In hockey, a player who commits a common foul must sit in the penalty box for 2 minutes, while their team plays down one player. In water polo, an ejection lasts for 20 seconds. While it may not seem like much time, effective passing results in a goal more often than not when a water polo player is ejected.

5. Wrestling

Perhaps the least obvious to the observer, yet most obvious to the players. What is happening above the water is completely different than the goings-on underwater.

Water Polo is most definitely a contact sport. There is plenty of pushing, pulling, grappling, and wrestling for position. Water Polo speedos are actually made of a more cloth-like material that does not stretch and is worn very tightly, as to give opponents less opportunity to grab you.

You can "turn" opponents by hooking your arm around them as you swim past them, leaving them vertical and in a very tough position to catch up. I have been punched, kicked, and scratched countless times underwater. If it is hard for the refs to see, it will likely not get called.

Regardless of your sports knowledge or background, it becomes easy to see that water polo shares many aspects of gameplay when compared to other sports. Some elements are more directly useful than others, but watching water polo becomes that much more exciting when you can draw similarities.

Most Water Polo Teams Have Men's and Women's

Team USA Men's and Women's Water Polo
Image Source: USA Water Polo

A huge draw for sports is the exposure it can get. The United States Women's National Soccer team won the 2019 World Cup. A CNBC article written by Abigail Johnson Hess showed the US viewership of the 2019 World Cup final was 22% higher than the 2018 men's final.

While the United States Men's team did not even make the World Cup, the success of the women's team created a big spike in popularity. This is important to growing a sport, considering men only make up half of the world's population.

Did you know the Women National Water Polo team won the gold medal in both the 2012 London games and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games? If the women's team continues to compete at the top level, hopefully, the sport will continue to grow.

Nearly all water polo organizations that have a men's water polo team, also have a women's water polo team. I played in high school and college, both levels had a men's and women's team as well. Women's is also equally as intense of a sport, with often much more physicality. They have a lot more swimsuits to grab onto underwater and for whatever reason seem to get away with longer nails.

Water Polo Has A Large International Presence

Much like soccer, water polo has a much larger presence internationally than in the United States. Even then, I have never seen a televised game of Water Polo outside of the Olympics. I have seen competitive Corn Hole on ESPN, but never Water Polo. That being said European countries have adopted the game much more seriously than the United States has so far.

Wikipedia lists the top Water Polo Countries like Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Serbia, and Spain. Many of these teams are the top competitors in the Olympics and FINA World Championships which take place every 2-4 years.

US players are beginning to go to Europe for professional experience, at higher rates than before. An article by Jay Cohen from the Cape Cod Times stated that some 18 US-based players went to professional European teams when the COVID-19 pandemic struck down their regiment in California. This showing was reportedly "unprecedented" as the US generally has a "handful" of players in those top leagues.

That being said, although the USA Water Polo presence is growing, overall numbers still remain relatively low.

USA Water Polo Popularity Growing Numbers
Image Source: USA Water Polo

You can see girls have grown more in percentage than boys over the last 10 years, potentially due to the Olympic success. You will see how there were just 50,000 members of USA Water Polo in 2019.

In comparison, USA Swimming had more than 411,000 members in 2019. Water polo should grow in popularity even more since swimming does not have to be your top skill to be a good player.

High Intensity, High Action and Often High Scoring

Water polo is far from boring, especially when compared to other sports. Golf, baseball, and even football have a lot of breaks in between the action, long periods of standing around, and commercials. Water Polo hardly stops and is very high intensity. The players may not look like they are moving incredibly fast, as they are not skating on ice but rather swimming, but there is no shortage of action.

Players are moving constantly, splashing water and wrestling opponents. Impressive passing opens up the offensive options. High-speed shots from many angles, positions, and heights with the potential to skip off the water cause mayhem for defenders and goalies.

Water Polo matches are often high scoring as well, which is something Americans undoubtedly appreciate. For example, the Women's US National Team won the Gold Medal in Rio by defeating Italy 12 - 5. Russia won the Bronze Medal match over Hungary by a score of 19 - 18.

The lowest scoring matches in all tournaments still saw 16 total goals. US fans can attest to many popular professional sports having rule changes and scandals to increase offense.

The 3-point line in the NBA, the steroid era, and the 'juicing' of baseballs in the MLB, and harsh defensive penalties like "Roughing the passer" in the NFL all make life easier for the offense and harder for the defense. This is by design; people love the action and want to see scoring, not the defense. That could explain why soccer is not as popular, since a 0-0 result is possible after 90 minutes of play.

The video shows an impressive range of skills. From outside shooting and skip shots to underwater backhands and very difficult touch shots that act as a change-up to fool the goalie and defenders. Both men's and women's teams have utilized these tactics alongside precise passing and increased physicality.

You can see examples of players 'turning' opponents, shooting outside 5 meters after being fouled, and even using their foot to kick the ball up in the air to catch it and shoot.

Water polo should be more popular, plain and simple. It is an easy enough sport to learn, exciting and engaging to watch, and obviously grueling in difficulty which immediately earns your respect. With men's and women's teams competing at the highest level, it is easy to see the potential for this sport to continue picking up a head of steam in the future.

Enjoying an active lifestyle, focused on family and community. Writing on relevant and helpful topics that most people can relate to.

No Saves yet. Share it with your friends.

Write Your Diary

Get Free Access To Our Publishing Resources

Independent creators, thought-leaders, experts and individuals with unique perspectives use our free publishing tools to express themselves and create new ideas.