THE BLOG
12/11/2013 07:11 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Five Ways to Save UK Water Polo

I'm a big fan of water polo as a sport.

Scientifically proven as the toughest sport in the world, it's exciting to watch and a lot of fun to play. Like the best team sports it helps people develop a range of skills, capabilities, and social networks.

I play with a local team in London; I volunteer with British Swimming as part of the sports presentation team for international matches held in the UK; and at the 2012 Olympics I was an announcer for the sport and watched nearly every match there was.

I really like water polo.

One of the big buzzwords associated with the 2012 Olympics was "legacy" and the slogan "inspiring a generation" was plastered on billboards everywhere. However, disappointingly, the sport of water polo in the UK doesn't seem to be in a position to build any momentum or legacy following the Olympics.

The easy explanation is money. The funding of sport in the UK is relatively complicated and the available resources are finite. While some funding has been allocated to support water polo at the elite level (via British Swimming who manage the aquatic disciplines in the UK), there seems to be just enough to keep the mens and women's teams competing at an international level but not much more.

The challenge is actually much deeper and more fundamental than just funding. For a sport that originated in the UK, the grassroots levels of participation are extraordinarily low and local club infrastructure is almost non-existent.

This is in stark contrast to many European countries who take the sport very seriously. In Hungary it's their national sport. Across the Atlantic the US has a very strong college system. Even Australia manages to field mens and women's teams that rank in the top eight in the world.

I've spent the past weekend in Sunderland, volunteering to support the delivery of a tournament that forms part of the LEN Mens Water Polo European Championship. This was round three of the qualification series and the Group I teams were battling it out to see who would progress to the next round. Vying for qualification points were Israel, Moldova, Russia, and Great Britain. Slovenia were also a part of this group but were a late withdrawal from the event.

This was the first international matches that the GB mens team had played since the Olympics in London last year. There were some one-sided matches, but also some fantastic international-standard water polo skills on display - a standard rarely seen in the UK. The final match of the weekend was a great contest between GB and Russia - neck and neck until the final period when the strong and powerful Russian team took control and won the match to finish top of the group at the end of this round.

The European Championships are an important international competition and the focus is rightly on ensuring that the Great Britain team performs as well as possible and progresses as far as they can. But it's also important to consider how international matches and tournaments such as this fit into the wider perception of the sport within the UK - the culture of the sport: From kids learning how to play, local competitions, regional and national leagues.

The tournament was professionally presented and everything ran smoothly. However in many ways it seemed to be a missed opportunity. Perhaps 100 people had made it to the Sunderland Aquatic Centre to watch the matches - most of them family or friends of the players.

It's not being over-dramatic to conclude that this tournament hasn't inspired anyone to give water polo a try; hasn't motivated anyone to keep training, to keep playing; hasn't encouraged anyone to sign their kids up to a local club; hasn't attracted anyone to volunteer their time to support water polo tournaments such as this one in Sunderland.

This wouldn't necessarily be an issue if there was bags of money and lots of other activity going on around the country to engage people with the sport. The reality is that when resources are tight you need to leverage everything that you have and maximise every opportunity.

Here's five things that the sport of water polo could do right now to raise its profile in the UK and engage with its target audience.

1. Provide live broadcast coverage of important matches via internet streaming. The technology exists and it's not expensive to do. If the GB v Russia match from Sunderland had been streamed, anyone around the world would be able to watch it live or watch it on replay. It's not rocket science to work out the positive impact of that kind of visibility.

2. Create a series of online coaching clinics featuring the GB national squad players. This will help make the players more visible and accessible but will also provide resources that coaches can use at a grassroots level.

3. Be transparent about the pathway for developing players. Young players that aspire to play water polo at an international level will need to leave the UK in order to build the skills and experience required. Let's enable people to do that and build partnerships with key clubs in Europe.

4. Our best volunteers and advocates for the sport won't come from the ranks of our international players. They will come from people who love the sport and love being involved in something that they're passionate about. Let's celebrate the local clubs that are actively recruiting new players, teaching the game to beginners, and training officials and referees.

5. Let's not be too precious. Organisations such as LEN naturally take the game very seriously and require a strictly consistent delivery of tournaments and matches. But beyond that, let's have some fun with this crazy sport - let's showcase what it means to throw yourself into the sport of water polo. Whether it's a beginners match at a school, or a club match in a local league, or a regional or national tournament - we wouldn't do this unless it excited us and made us feel extraordinary. It's time to share that feeling with the world.

Water polo - it's time to inspire a generation.