Commentary: Water Polo Planet Hopes To Expand Coverage By Trading on Popularity of Anonymous Posters

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Water Polo Planet, a vital resource for the sport in America, seeks to raise funds for additional content. Photo Courtesy: Jack Horton

For the past two decades, anyone who wanted to take the pulse of American water polo could type “Water Polo Planet” in their browser and be linked to a cornucopia of information on the sport unmatched anywhere in the world. Launched in 2002 by Richard “Doc” Hunkler and Joan Gould — referee Loren Bertocci’s wife — WPP has been an essential voice for the sport, with insightful articles about polo in the U.S. and abroad, lengthy interviews with key individuals and a variety of instructional materials on how to play and understand a complicated sport.

And a message board thousands strong, perhaps the most authoritative but also opinionated polo forum in America.

wpp-logoIn an effort to replenish the site’s editorial energies in the wake of Hunkler’s passing last year and Gould’s retirement in 2016, Nikola Malezanov and Jim Staresinic, who now maintain Water Polo Planet, have hit on an interesting funding formula: leverage the popularity of the site’s message board and its most ardent contributors.

Staresinic, who in addition to his work for WPP is a club coach in Pittsburgh as well as an age group coach for USA Water Polo, sees this as a necessary investment to maintain an important water polo resource that has always been free.

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Jim Staresinic. Photo Courtesy: J. Staresinic

“The Water Polo Planet Store is a small step toward generating financial support for the site so that we can invest in developing quality content,” Staresinic said in an email. “New content is something missing from The Planet, and we want to change that. We will continue to add to the store — and other site features — and hope visitors like what they see.”

The message of the shirt, “I’m on the message board,” pokes fun at what’s currently driving viewership at WPP: the site’s biting chatter from knowledgeable commenters who decline to reveal who they are.

The Blogsphere is a captivating — and sometimes treacherous — space

There are some ironies regarding the current state of the Planet’s readership and its reputation. First is that Hunkler was once the most potent — and recognized — force in East Coast polo. It was the force of his personality, as well as tireless advocacy, that helped lay the foundation for a U.S. women’s polo program now universally considered the world’s best. In setting up the site with Gould, Bertocci and others, Hunkler sought to create an alternative voice for polo in America, To that extent, his vision was wildly successful.

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Nikolai Malezanov. Photo Courtesy:W&J Athletics

To peruse the WPP site, which was reformatted three years ago when Malezanov and Starinac took ownership from Gould, is to uncover a rich storehouse of material covering recent American polo history. It contains lengthy interviews by Rich Foster with luminaries such as Guy Baker, head coach for the UCLA men and women as well as the inaugural Olympic coach for the U.S. women, and Wolf Wigo, two-time NCAA winner at Stanford, three-time Olympian and current head coach for UC Santa Barbara’s men’s program.

There’s also the “Interview with the Referee” feature by Russ Thompson, detailing the thoughts of the most influential — and often least popular — participants on the pool deck. Thompson has had in-depth discussions with some of the country’s top referees, including Bob Corb, Michael Goldenberg and Alex Stankevitch. Visitors can check out in-depth coaching information from luminaries such as Terry Schroeder, head coach for Pepperdine’s men’s program and arguably the greatest men’s water polo player and coach in our country’s history. There are insights about the sport and coaching by Dante Dettamanti, eight-time NCAA winner with the Stanford men’s polo team. Even now, the treasure trove of material — including clear, concise and lengthy paeans to the sport by Doc Hunkler — remain an invaluable resource for polo fans of all interests.

[Dettamanti on 50 Years of NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championships]

These entries, as well as interviews by Trevor Freeman, a former Fordham polo player who authored a series of exclusive conversations with many of the sport’s great personalities, form a formidable knowledge base. But, new content stopped flowing on or about when Hunkler and Gould ended their participation with the site. This leaves a clear gap on the site, especially has polo has continued to expand in popularity in various regions outside its California base.

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Richard “Doc” Hunkler. Photo Courtesy: Lynn Kachmarik

Filling that content gap has been left primarily to the message board, which remains chock full of in-depth information dished out by exceptionally knowledgeable polo followers. Player moves, pending violations, savvy predictions of who will win CIF, NCAA or even Olympic contests are mixed in with general gripes about the sport under message board headings including “College Water Polo” or “Free Advice.” There are threads such as: “The Quicker Kicker Outer” moderated by someone called the “Righteous Referee.” Or referee training which includes extensive insights from Bertocci, considered to be one of the most influential rules arbiter in America.

[On The Record with Loren Bertocci; What’s Going on Under Water Doesn’t Matter]

Planet posters tolerate no fools

The most popular thread by far is the college water polo forum moderated by Freeman. Given the popularity of this forum, it likely takes most of his free time wrangling the current topics of the day for men’s college water polo, which now numbers 15,000+ posts on almost 900 topics. It’s a fascinating stew of fact, allegation and innuendo, and has become the signature identity of the site that Hunkler and others imagined as a vital communication tool for polo fans and devoted supporters.

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Photo Courtesy: Water Polo Planet

Interestingly, in a mission statement for the site, Hunkler believed that freely sharing information about polo — including coaching techniques — would be a great leveler. The message board is not exactly representative of this idea. Anonymous protesters casually ridicule posts and posters while often grandstanding about their knowledge. It’s clearly contradictory; posters are shielded by online handles such as “ItsaCaliforniaGame” — who, in commenting on an incident of Nazi salutes among California high school polo players referenced philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s writing — then assailed by a commenter named “GoBears!” who excused the behavior as a “boys will be boys” moment being blown out of proportion by left-wing media. That particular thread became so contentious that, after 160 posts devolved into an argument regarding Marxism and Totalitarianism, comments were no longer allowed.

[Commentary: Polo has No Place for Nazis]

This is not to overlook the amazing volume of data regularly shared an dissected on the site, which makes it such a compelling read. By remaining anonymous the posters, who include some of the sport’s most informed and passionate observers, are able to share insights not found anywhere else in this country.

All of which makes it that much more imperative that the free-for-all that is the Planet’s message board — which contains threads dating back to the site’s origins, a trove of insights on the sport unmatched anywhere on the web — be balanced with timely and fact-based reports of the current game in America. In fact, the rich dialogue on the message board, matched with years of archival materials from some critical thinkers and new content for an audience of fans both knowledgeable and not, would again be one of the country’s premier polo resources.

If you do decide to buy a shirt — and you should if you care about polo coverage in our country — be forewarned you’re joining a community as resilient as the sport it examines.

For information about Water Polo Planet’s new store, please email info@waterpoloplanet.com

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