USA Water Polo Selecting Jamie Davis, of USA Volleyball, as New CEO

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USA Water Polo Selecting Jamie Davis, of USA Volleyball, as New CEO

For just the second time in two decades, USA Water Polo, the national governing body for the sport in the United States, is hiring a new CEO. After 18 years—currently the longest tenure of any NGB leader in the country—Chris Ramsey will leave the job of steering American water polo to someone else.

And for the second time this century, USAWP is selecting a CEO who has scant experience with one of the world’s most esoteric sports. After an extensive search facilitated by Russell Reynolds, an executive search firm, Jamie Davis, who’s been USA Volleyball’s top executive the past seven years, has been selected to run USAWP.

According to knowledgeable observers, Davis’ candidacy was approved at a USAWP board meeting on Friday.

Given the candidates considered for the position, including Adam Krikorian, poised to become the most successful coach in Olympic water polo history, Davis’ selection is a surprise, one that will likely cause the organization’s rank-and-file supporters to react negatively. He has no prior experience with water polo; before USAV, he worked as a sports marketer and promoter. Davis grew revenue and membership at his NGB, which now has an annual budget of $35 million and approximately 425,000 members. These numbers dwarf those of USAWP—with an $11 million budget and 50,000 members. Davis’ career includes stints at NBC Sports, ESPN and Fanatics, the world’s largest online retailer of licensed sports merchandise.

Ryan Bailey, a four-time Olympian (2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012) as well as a USAWP board member from 2012 to 2016, will not be rolling out the red carpet for a newcomer who will be in charge of water polo planning for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

“In conversations I’ve had with former Olympians who’ve been involved with water polo, it’s important for US Water Polo to understand that their clients are the water polo folks interested in having [as CEO] someone they can relate to, [who] understands what’s going on,” Bailey said by phone on Thursday. “Bringing in an outsider—again—who no one knows… we’ll be nice, and I’m sure we’ll get along. He’s probably a great guy.

“You don’t need someone starting on Day One who can’t take off running because they don’t know [key] players—who are the most vocal and most involved. Get someone who already has that information and who can pick up the ball and run with it.”

Jamie DavisDavis has his defenders; even though he had zero experience with volleyball when he took the top USAV job, in his time at the top, membership grew by 30%. US volleyball garnered success in the Olympics—perhaps the most important metric of an NGB’s impact—with the Americans taking home three golds from the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Lee Feinswog, editor of Volleyball Magazine, believes a lack of water polo experience is not a negative.

“Jamie really learned about and became passionate about volleyball during his time on the job. What makes him valuable in his job is that he learned to ‘play the game’—how things work on the international sports politics level,” he said about the new USAWP CEO. “The thing about running an NGB is that the skill set you need isn’t necessarily about the sport. Jamie, for example, wasn’t a volleyball person when he went to USA Volleyball.

“In the case of USA Water Polo, it would be getting someone who is used to running a much bigger organization who knows the USOPC, IOC, and how to navigate the layers of politics that smother international sports.

“Those things are invaluable,” he added.

Feinswog may be the best person to evaluate the new CEO’s potential. Not only does he know Davis through volleyball, as an active USAWP masters water polo competitor, he understands first-hand the sport’s demands and fanatical supporters.

The organization Davis inherits is not as robust as the one he is leaving, but it is significantly improved from what Ramsey found when he was surprisingly plucked in 2006 from New York City Ballet to lead USA Water Polo. In collaboration with Mike Graff, former USAWP board chair who termed out after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and Bill Smith, longtime USAWP board member who is currently the board chair, Ramsey has restored American water polo’s luster, primarily due to the historic performance of the US women’s team.

Led by Krikorian, the American women hope to capture a fourth-straight Olympic gold at the 2024 Games, being held next month in Paris. A finals win will push Krikorian’s team past the legendary Hungarian men’s program which won gold in 2000, 2004 and 2008. Hungary’s 2008 finals win in Beijing came at the expense of the American men; it is the only Olympic medal they won during Ramsey’s tenure, a situation which has led to criticism of his leadership.

SW May 2020 - Silver Lining Could Turn To Gold - Positive Side of the Olympics Postponement for Water Polo - Coach Adam Krikorian - Photo by USAWP Orange Pictures

Adam Krikorian

Besides Davis and Krikorian, two other candidates were considered. Rob Solomon, a Silicon Valley whiz with some of the nation’s biggest tech companies—GoFundMe, Groupon, Yahoo—was recommended for the job and aggressively pursued it. The other finalist for the position, Solomon presents a stark contrast to his rival; where Davis has no prior connection to the sport, Solomon played at Cal, where he was a member of two national champions (1987, 88) coached by Pete Cutino, one of America’s most prominent water polo heroes.

Russ Stryker, who played polo at Cal from 1989-93, recommended that his friend apply for the position, believing that Solomon’s combination of business smarts and water polo experience would be the ideal fit for a new WP CEO.

“It’s hard to find a good leader with a proven track record—someone who understands water polo and is able to listen and build top-notch teams, iconic teams,” Stryker said in a phone call Friday. “[H]e could have done that for US water polo. He has a very good understanding of modern marketing and how you leverage social media. There’s not many CEOs as qualified as him—a lot of amazing companies have brought him in to run their businesses.”

There is little doubt that a Tech mogul with a rolodex of wealthy friends would have made a significant impact on the organization’s finances, but Stryker detailed that Solomon’s focus was on expanding the sport by strengthening ties between USAWP and the NCAA men’s and women’s programs.

“[T]he writing may be on the wall that the NCAA is prepared to drop some of its Olympic sports,” he said. “The majority of kids who start playing water polo for college or put it on their college applications. Someone has to address that challenge; a guy who’s played and understands the sport and is a visionary… Rob’s that guy.”

John Abdou, who for five years was USAWP’s Chief High Performance Officer before leaving in 2022 to take a position at UC Irvine, his alma mater, was also a strong candidate to lead the organization where he had previously worked. His efforts to maintain competitive excellence throughout the organization’s national teams and sponsorship of diversity and inclusiveness initiatives mark him as a worthy successor to Ramsey.

But given USAWP’s leadership structure—Smith and Ramsey make the organization’s most important decisions with tacit support from Graff, who brought them both in—once Abdou left he had no chance of returning. Even Krikorian, with his 15 years of meritorious service, could not break through. That leadership apparently values Davis’ prior NGB experience.

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WoPoFan
WoPoFan
15 days ago

The age cut off date change (Sept 1st to July 1st, ) Jamie Davis made for USA Volleyball helped grow the sport. USA Volleyball’s age chart is also easier to read. New July 1st cut off date aligns with USA Volleyball’s July Jr Olympics. Wonder if this will be one of the changes Davis will bring to USA Water Polo….

WoPoFan
WoPoFan
15 days ago

why was my comment not posted?

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