Fan in The Stands: Unearthing Water Polo Broadcasts Can Be Herculean Task

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The ESPN+ Network is great resource for polo streams — but problems do occur.

BROOKLYN, NY. Today, for the first time this season, the Pac-12 Networks will broadcast a men’s water polo match, an occasion worthy of both celebration and inquiry. Celebration because of the high production values of Pac-12 broadcasts. Questions are also fair game. More than halfway through the season the conference whose schools include the absolute best in American intercollegiate water polo are only now being showcased by their own network.

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At 10:30 a.m. (PST) the Trojans of USC will march crosstown to face their nemesis the Bruins in UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center. Up the California coast at the exact same time, Stanford will host arch-rival Cal in their annual “Big Splash” contest. It’s a fantastic pairing of programs that over the last two decades have exclusively possessed the NCAA championship.

That there’s only one day — so far — of Pac-12 Networks coverage is disappointing; however, additional opportunities exist for avid fans to view a niche sport that has a devoted thought modest followings on both coasts.

Pac-12 Network: top of a diminishing polo heap?

The “Big Four” of Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC — all members of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) — have experienced unparalleled success in securing national championships. Since its inception in 2001, no non-Pac12 women’s team has won the NCAA women’s tournament. On the men’s side, the last time a non-Pac-12 team captured the title was 1997, when Pepperdine beat USC.

The Pac-12 Networks have historically provided the best coverage of the college game in the U.S. Featuring multiple cameras, extensive replay capability and superb announcing — experienced broadcasters Greg Mescall and Kevin Danna are regular play-by-play announcers Pac-12 — in years past color commentary has been supplied by Adam Krikorian, current U.S. Senior Women’s Team coach and the extremely knowledgeable Chris Dorst, a silver medalist for the American men in the 1984 Olympics.

[On The Record with Pac-12 Network’s Chris Dorst]

By cutting their coverage of the men’s side in half — not entirely unreasonable because the Big Four only play three regular season conference games — polo fans are being cheated. The match-ups typically are the country’s best college competition. The Pac-12 will also broadcast the MPSF tournament semi-final and final matches, but the diminished coverage represents a negative trend for a sport eager to demonstrate growth.

As in past seasons, the Pac-12 Network will broadcast the third place and championship games of the MPSF tournament, giving fans an opportunity to watch games with NCAA tournament implications. The paucity of Pac-12 Networks coverage doesn’t mean that matches including the best teams aren’t being streamed. Stanford, UCLA and USC offer streams of select games.

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Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center is a a mecca for polo — but not everybody can get there. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

According to Bill Cohn, longtime announcer for UC San Diego who has been involved in the sport for four decades, the broadcasts from those games lack replay capability and use camera angles that leave something to be desired.

And, schools are selective about which games they stream. One of the most anticipated games of the young season was in September when an undefeated UC Santa Barbara team came to Avery to face the mighty Cardinal. It was a significant test for a Gaucho program that a week earlier had beaten USC for the first time in two decades, and polo fans were eager to see if UCSB was “for real”. They were — winning decisively over host Stanford — but no one outside of those in attendance got to see it.

[#2 UC Santa Barbara Storms into Avery, Shocks #1 Stanford in Men’s Water Polo]

Cohn gives high marks to Pacific for their home game broadcasts, describing them as the best outside of the Pac-12 Networks. At Chris Kjeldsen Pool, the Tigers typically employ two cameras, and announcing is done by a former player. The Fresno State women’s home games are also webcast with an experienced announcer and a good camera angle. UCSB broadcast select games this year, which Cohn described as passable, though with no announcer and a feed that often dropped.

One of the drawbacks of viewing games on the web is it’s difficult to identify players by either cap number or distinguishing characteristics (e.g. left handed). Cohn points out that an alert announcer will identify the player during specific possessions, allowing viewer greater comprehension in following the action.

He is critical about the issues of camera angles. At Pepperdine, the camera is positioned on the roof at one end of Runnels Memorial Pool; Cohn likened this view to sitting on the goal line at a hockey game.

Even with poor angles and announcing, the plus is these matches are streamed. Many of the top California program do nothing, including California, Loyola Marymount, UCLA and San Diego State’s women’s program.  For the MPSF schools which are PAC 12 members, they may be limited as the rights to their games are owned by the PAC 12 Network. Even if a school wanted to webcast a particular contest, they require consent from the PAC-12 network.

Steven Munatones, whose son Skyler plays for UCSD, said that “Triton TV” is good with knowledgeable announcers—an endorsement of Cohn. He mentioned that Long Beach State has good coverage but he did not rate their announcers very highly. Santa Clara, like UCSD a member of the the Western Water Polo Association, places some of their games on a YouTube channel with a camera mounted high above the pool.

Out East polo coverage is surprisingly deep

The sport on the other coast is decidedly inferior to that played in California, but the quality and selection of streams is noteworthy. ESPN+ has supplanted the former Ivy Network as broadcaster for a variety of sports by Ivy League teams — Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale. For a mere $4.99 a month the ESPN+ package is exceptionally appealing if one wants to catch the three Ivy polo-playing programs—Brown, Harvard and Princeton—as they face off against the best of the East.

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Harvard’s Blodgett Pool is a great venue for the sport — live or streamed. Photo Courtesy: M. Randazzo

One delightful bonus was the Harvard Invitational at the end of October. The majority of matches were streamed, including those with Eastern powers Bucknell, George Washington, St. Francis Brooklyn and a surprisingly competitive match between DIII power Pomona-Pitzer and host Harvard. A four-goal burst at the end of regulation brought the Sage Hens even, forcing the Crimson to overtime, where they finally subdued the visitors in sudden-death.

[Host Crimson Remain Unbeaten; St. Francis Enjoys Big Comeback @ Day One of Harvard Invitational]

The ESPN+ camera work at Harvard’s Blodgett Pool is admirable. A stationary camera at mid-point is the primary view—but there’s also an underwater camera (only used for random shots of sprints; so much more might be revealed). The announcing at Harvard matches does leave something to be desired. The broadcast team of Alex Vispoli and John Holland-McCowan are knowledgeable but decidedly pro-Crimson; no a surprise given that Holland-McCowan is a recent graduate.

Play-by-play is uneven; it’s clear that Vispoli isn’t entirely familiar with polo (in his defense, how many broadcasters in America are?). Still, one can’t argue with the results; Vispoli and Holland-McCowan broadcast for the nation’s only undefeated team. And there’s two of them; the Pac-12 Networks now only feature a single play-by-play announcer, and the absence of a color person is noticeable.

A recent ESPN+ broadcast of Mike Mancuso and Nick Dow calling a Princeton versus Brown match in Providence was more satisfactory. Both are Brown graduates and do often favor the home team. But, it was a more nuanced and informed broadcast. Perhaps the subtle point is that Brown hasn’t been to the NCAAs in five years — and Princeton doesn’t look so strong for this year either — so paeans to the home team didn’t come naturally.

Seek and ye might actually find interesting streams

cwpaMany Eastern teams stream their matches; the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) website is a great repository of links to free streams of various DI, DII and DIII programs. The quality is not great, but it’s worth it to see some teams never featured elsewhere. One such recent match was La Salle versus Wagner — a competitive contest between two teams in the lower half of the Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference bracket. Dan Wanser and Maddie Martinez described the action, and at one juncture they confessed to a substantial challenge of La Salle’s Kirk Pool; there’s no scoreboard. Rather than forcing the issue, Wanser admitted he wasn’t sure and would get back to viewers.

Johns Hopkins uses Stretch Internet, as does the CWPA for its two championships: the Northeast Water Polo Conference and Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference. There’s also the occasionally tech-savvy parent who streams games through Periscope; the viewpoint (behind the goal) was not great but the background comments of spectators can be priceless. Of course, you have to know how to find the link.

The best things in polo are NOT free

Like ESPN+, there’s a cost for the Pac-12. But, unlike the $4.99 per month, the Pac-12 is quite expensive for East Coast fans, especially if one is not connected to a cable provider. Because the Pac-12 Networks is an additional package, the cost on Sling pushes $60 a month.

For the tournaments it oversees, the CWPA advertises access to stream—a hefty price by the game ($10 each) but a relative bargain for the weekend ($25). At least there’s coverage. The MPSF will be streamed, as will the Golden Coast Conference. Because Cal Baptist will host, the Western Water Polo Association will not be televised, nor will the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. If polo is to assume a higher profile in the pantheon of intercollegiate sports, at the very least all conference championships as well as NCAA matches should be available to all who care to partake.

5 comments

  1. avatar
    Stan

    Looks like the terriers have a Herculean task in 2 weeks!

    • avatar
      Phil G

      Yes, I too want to know how you’re going to spin the terriers crumbling going into the postseason? It’s going to take nothing short of a miracle to get them into the finals! Perhaps Bora can concoct a magical recipe and deliver the terriers from 6+ years of futility!

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        Ha! You guys are funny – and using my words against me (which is of course fair game).

        St. Francis Brooklyn has obviously stumbled late; the key takeaway is that Terrier leading scorer Ivan Stefanovic (59 goals, 22 assists) has missed the last four matches, where the team has gone 1-3. Will he be healthy for the NWPC tournament? That’s an open question and could be key to how they perform against the undefeated Crimson (assuming they can get past MIT in the Engineers’ pool).

        As the fourth seed they drew the short straw; I cannot predict they will beat Harvard (who has this season?!) but they certainly have the offense to stay close with Minnis’ squad IF Stefanovic is healthy. I’d like to see Klauzer in goal—no offense to Molnar BUT Victor has appeared to me to be stronger this season.

        If no Stefanovic, well I would say we’ve already seen what you can expect of the boys from Brooklyn.

        More to the point, what do you make of Harvard? They’ve run the table; can they make it to California? Or will someone from the East beat them?

        Your correspondent

      • avatar
        Stan

        Right now it doesn’t look like anyone is going to beat Harvard. Undefeated going into the Nwpc championships. Doubtful the mawpc winner could beat them. SF needs to get hot at the right time and make sure their qtr final game isn’t tough. Harvard is a pretty open book: they will run a tight press and look to counter and cherry pick. SF may be the team that matches up the best with Harvard they have a ton of talent but they need to execute. 2nd seed would’ve been great for them becuase that side of the bracket is not very good

      • avatar
        Michael Randazzo

        Stan:

        I get your analysis of the NWPC (for Phil; sorry to jump in on that…) BUT not sure I agree about the MAWPC winner not being a tough out for Harvard. GW is a different team when Destici is healthy. By my count the Colonials have lost four times when their top player is in the water—a one goal loss to Harvard in Cambridge (his third game back from a lengthy absence), a lopsided loss to Brown the same weekend (I’m not sure Destici was totally healthy), a mystifying loss to Navy and a one-goal loss to Fordham – who are REALLY good this year. That kid is a gamer (three goals to help beat Bucknell).

        As to the Crimson; I agree that SFC has the best personnel to counter them; not sure what it will take for them to put it together – especially now that they face MIT on the first day. I think that switched game from Brooklyn to Princeton was a pivot point on what looked to be a great season for the Terriers (hope I’m wrong…).

        Your correspondent.