Water Polo One of Fastest-Growing Sports in U.S., According to NFHS

Photo Courtesy: Andrew P. Scott-USA TODAY Sports

Water polo has become one of the fastest growing sports in the USA, according to data from USA Water Polo (USAWP) and the National Federation of High School Associations (NFHS).

According to USAWP, nationwide membership jumped 25 percent in the last five years, from 35,750 in 2011 to 44,773 in 2016. In the past eight years, membership rose nearly 67 percent, from 26,873 in 2008 to the current number, which is an all-time high.

High school water polo participation is also growing nationwide. The NFHS reported that women’s high school water polo grew 7.9 percent, while men’s water polo increased 5.5 percent during the five years from 2011/12 to 2015/16. During this period, mainstream high school sports such as football, soccer, wrestling, field hockey, indoor volleyball and basketball registered declines in varsity participation.

“In a relatively short time, water polo has become a very hot sport,” said Christopher Ramsey, CEO of USA Water Polo. “Based on the data, we believe it is poised for further expansion across the USA.”

Water polo is surging in states like Utah, Illinois, Texas, Michigan, and Oregon, where it’s played as a club sport. Its club status means that these states are not counted in the NFHS numbers until it receives formal certification in those states. According to USAWP records, high school-aged federation membership (15-18) jumped from some 17,000 participants in 2012 to 19,099 in 2016, an increase of more than 12 percent. Membership in the Midwest jumped 42 percent year over year (YOY) to 1,960 members, making it the fastest growing USA Water Polo region in America.

USAWP member players not yet of high school age—13 and under—increased more than 9 percent in 2016 YOY, from 15,388 to 16,819, suggesting that increased youth water polo play will fuel further high school growth in the years ahead. The USA Water Polo program “Splashball,” which introduces a simplified version of the sport to children under 10 years of age, has been adopted not only by clubs but also by YMCAs, Parks & Recreation programs, and others with aquatic facilities. Splashball is water polo’s version of kiddie kick soccer and tee-ball in that it lowers the barriers to entry by allowing flotation to make the game easier. Many multisport organizations have learned that Splashball is also a useful program to teach swimming and water safety.

The trend in water polo is counter to a larger nationwide crisis of physical inactivity, according to Forbes magazine. In 2014, inactivity among children approached 20 percent and—in 2015—increased to 37.1 percent, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). The SFIA estimates that 81.6 million people were inactive in 2015, contributing to a sedentary culture and nationwide obesity trend. The SIFA posits that the rush for kids to specialize in a specific sport at younger and younger ages has alienated a section of the youth population, with some experts estimating that 70 percent of young people quit youth sports by age 13.

Long considered a California-centric sport, water polo is also growing in states such as Connecticut, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Washington, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Tennessee. In the decade since 2006, USA Water Polo membership has grown by more than 4,000 members outside of California, increasing from 8,599 to 12,702. This marks a move from 25.1 percent non-California membership in 2006 to 28.3 percent in 2016. Clubs—the backbone of the athlete experience within USA Water Polo—saw growth in seven of the 11 USA Water Polo regional zones in the United States.

“States beyond California are joining the water polo party,” Ramsey said. “It is no coincidence that our women’s Olympic team goalie, Ashleigh Johnson, grew up in Florida and played ball at Princeton, or that our Olympic lefty Thomas Dunstan learned the game playing in Greenwich, Connecticut. The success of these players from outside California is inspiring others around the nation, while further expanding the pool of talented players beyond traditional Golden State strongholds.”

Texas is another example of this where the University Interscholastic League (UIL) will consider statewide varsity status for water polo in the fall of 2017. The move could create hundreds of new water polo programs across the Lone Star State, which is also recognized as a swimming powerhouse.

“TISCA (Texas Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association) is excited with the progress of our proposal to add water polo to the UIL. We look forward to working with the UIL to have water polo be a part of all the great educational extracurricular academic, athletic, and music contests in the great state of Texas. The growth of water polo in Texas is due to great coaches of aquatics throughout the state, and we look forward to an exciting future with the UIL,” said Chris Cullen, TISCA Water Polo Chair.

Growth hasn’t been limited to the high school and club ranks, either.

According to the NCAA, varsity water polo participation has remained essentially stable during the past five years, including 104 varsity men’s and women’s programs nationwide. The number of varsity water polo programs is projected to increase in the next two years. Recently San Jose State University brought back men’s water polo after decades without a team while La Salle University in Philadelphia and McKendree University outside of St. Louis added both men’s and women’s programs. Wagner College in New York added a men’s water polo squad, joining an existing women’s team, and started play last fall.  Saint Francis University in Loretto, Pennsylvania and California State University, Fresno both recently added women’s water polo programs that will compete for the first time in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

Recent data from the Collegiate Water Polo Association also shows growth among college club teams nationwide, with 19 programs having been added in the last five years. It’s part of an overall surge in additional programs that has seen 32 more men’s programs and 25 more women’s programs than in 2006.

While the profile of USA Water Polo on the Olympic and International level reached new highs in 2016 with the women winning their second consecutive Olympic Gold medal, preparations for the Tokyo Games in 2020 have already begun. The USA Women look to repeat as FINA World Champions this summer in Budapest, the USA Men aim for their first-ever medal at a World Championship tournament after winning their first major FINA medal in eight years last summer. The women’s and men’s programs are bolstered by the return of Head Coaches Adam Krikorian and Dejan Udovicic, both of whom recently signed new four-year contracts through the quadrennial.

Later this year USA Water Polo will once again host the Junior Olympics, the largest water polo tournament in the world. The premier age group tournament in the United States will be held in Irvine, California and throughout Orange County.

Press release courtesy of USA Water Polo.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Andrew Iacobelli

    Maybe there is still hope for this sport in places other than California.