WP World Conference, day 1: Fan satisfaction is no.1

World Water Polo Conference

The FINA World Water Polo Conference had its first day in Cancun (MEX) on February 27 and was highlighted by the vision and analysis of representatives from major professional leagues, newly successful sports, but also from the sponsor’s point of view, and equally important, from some stars of this spectacular team sport.

Throughout the day, one main message emerged to the delegates present in Mexico: to target high, water polo should be much more than a game; it should represent a unique experience for fans, and create a memorable opportunity to attract new spectators and supporters. Many ideas were presented on this matter, but one conclusion was evident: fans’ satisfaction is the number one priority. Promotion, entertainment, global show, heroes, social media, drama and emotion were some of the key concepts that were retained. The Conference will conclude on February 28.  

In his opening speech, the FINA President Dr. Julio C. Maglione highlighted the impact of this initiative for the future of Water Polo: “Water Polo symbolises team spirit, strategy, goals, and strength. These are also the values that should preside to this Conference. Together, exchanging ideas, sharing experiences and proposing innovative concepts, we will be able to define a successful strategy, leading to tangible goals. At the end, this will make Water Polo stronger, more popular and more recognised internationally”.

Dr. Maglione concluded by saying: “With this initiative, and thanks to the prestigious lecturers from other team sports, but also from Media, Sponsors and Water Polo leading figures, FINA wants to think outside the box, searching for a new approach and looking to a better dynamics for its team sport”.

Dr. Julio C. Maglione, FINA President - credit photo: Giorgio Scala

Cornel Marculescu, FINA Executive Director, then briefed the delegates on the programme of the two-day Conference, underlining that “water polo is the oldest Olympic team sport, being on the Games programme since 1900”. Himself a former water polo player, the FINA Executive Director said that the aquatic community was in Cancun to “acquire new ideas and experiences, so that the development of water polo can be done in optimal conditions”. This is the reason why “external” personalities were invited: “to inspire us with their concepts and innovative approaches”.

Think different
The morning session was devoted to the vision from the big professional leagues, such as NBA (Basketball), NHL (Ice Hockey), ICC (Cricket) and NFL (American Football), as well as the insights for relatively new sports that knew a rapid success in the international sport market (Rugby 7 and Beach Volleyball). A representative from ESPN/Disney was also in Cancun to speak about the strategies behind sports tourism.

Ambassador James C. Cain, former President and COO of the NHL team NC Hurricanes spoke about the four keys for success in his sport: cultivate and celebrate heroes; the importance of great rivalries (“that definitively sell well”); deep connection with the grassroots communities; never underestimate the power of television. He recalled that one of the secrets for the expansion of ice hockey was to make the game more offensive, namely by introducing shorter sticks for the players and raising the size of the goals. “You don’t score too much in ice hockey, but people like to see goals; we had therefore to put in place some strategies that allowed for more goals”, Ambassador Cain explained.

Ben Kavenagh, Regional Development Manager for ICC Americas, also shared six of the lessons assimilated by cricket over the last years, and that allowed a faster evolution and popularity of the sport: 1. Know your audience and sport; 2. Don’t be afraid to lead; 3. Think big, think global; 4. Think different; 5. Understand the economics and where you fit in; 6. Don’t neglect your heritage. On this last point, he was clear: “Our Sport has over 130 years of history, but we were not afraid to innovate in order to create a different experience to our fans. So, even if you have a big tradition, always try to innovate”.

From the NFL world, Pete Ward, COO of the Indianapolis Colts, focused his approach on the creation of “drama and emotion” around the game experience. “What we are providing is more than a game. To simply watch a game, the fan stays at home; this is not enough for us. From being our best ally in the past, TV became presently our worst enemy”, said Ward.

“The people going to the stadium must have a unique experience that is not available for those staying at home; that’s why we have implemented HD video boards in every stadium, devoted replays for all those on site, and we have carefully chosen our announcers, who play a very important role in the drama surrounding the match”, added Ward.

Rick Fuson, NBA (COO Indiana Pacers) - credit photo: Giorgio Scala

Rick Fuson, also working in Indiana, but for the local NBA team, the Indiana Pacers, reinforced the idea: “Fans must remember their thrilling experience when they come to watch a basketball game. Entertainment must start already around the stadium, at the entry hall, around the field of play, and even after the match. Everything must be done in order to create a pleasant moment; we need to give special attention to children for example; we need to have solid merchandising; we need to embrace technology”.

Understandable sport
Leading the presentations in the second panel of the day, Nigel Melville, CEO of USA Rugby and great promoter of Rugby 7s, recalled the long way to transform the sport and to succeed in its inclusion in the Olympic programme. “We had an image that was not very positive; rugby was associated with violence”, he said. The initial priority was therefore to alter this situation: “We strongly engaged with the parents, underlining the familiar character of the game. Rugby is now associated  a healthy lifestyle and to an activity that motivates youth”. Melville then stressed the importance of the game’s understanding. “Your sport must be easy to apprehend. This is what people want when faced to a new sport. This is also one of the key factors for a solid digital presence. You create a movement, you engage, and you drive the conversation with your fans”, Melville considered.

Nigel Melvile, CEO USA Rugby - credit photo: Giorgio Scala

Bobby Clarke, Senior Director at USA Beach Volleyball, rapidly explained the reasons that led to the inclusion of this discipline in the Olympic programme in 1996: “Beach Volley produces a great entertainment, is held on a festive environment, generates spectator’s engagement and is played in iconic locations. This is basically the key of our success – we also aim at creating a unique experience for our fans!”

To conclude the morning session, Mike Millay, Director of Sports Development at ESPN/Disney, spoke on a “holistic customer experience”, leading to a maximum satisfaction from the fans' point of view.

“If the quality of your service is good, it will go viral and get amplified. Imagination is needed and new experiences are always welcome: for example, modified sport events will necessarily create more opportunities”, noted Millay.

Underlining the importance of the “parents and coaches’ education”, he also reiterated that the comprehension of the game is of paramount importance. “Your game must be understandable. When I watched some water polo matches before coming to this Conference, I never imagined that so many whistles would be possible in a single game…”

Attractive image
The sponsors’ panel was initiated by Giuseppe Musciacchio, Arena’s Head of the Brand Development Team. In his view, the main weakness of water polo lies in the lack of heroes. “Every sport needs identifiable leading athletes to which the fans can identify with. This is missing in water polo. On the strong side of it, it’s a sport with a great tradition, it displays strength and stamina, it implies strategy, and has a ball that needs to be put into a goal. This is its greatest asset: every child likes this, a ball and a goal. This is why football is so popular”, said Musciacchio.

Jonty Perry from Dentsu International Sports Division, also identified the ups and downs of water polo: “It is not a global sport and it has a low TV exposure, but displays an attractive image of healthy athletes. This is where we need to put our effort: to better define this image, to bring it into life and to communicate it”, he explained. Once this is done, water polo events will have more impact and will be able to generate a festive atmosphere around the game. “Today, a brand is not searching for sponsorship; it wants partnership. This is slightly different from the past’s approach: now, the brand wants to grow with the sport, wants to know what the sport can bring to the brand”, Perry noted.

President of Navigate Research, an agency dedicated to measurement, research and sponsorship ROI (Return on Investment), AJ Maestas talked about the “power of social media, which should not be neglected”, and sai: “Aware fans are three times more likely to purchase and two times more likely to recommend. Therefore, you must identify and know them to then define your strategies”.

Keld Strudahl, founder of BrandActivators, considered that presently, “sponsorship is a mix of emotion and business”. He then elaborated on the five criteria that should preside to sponsorship management and activation: consistency, attention, innovation, relevance and organisation. Strudahl also emphasised the importance of digital strategy and advised that “the role of TV tends to decrease in the years to come”. Much involved with the brand activation in the football world, he gave a clear advice: “Be innovative, but remain realistic. You have to know your target group; you will never be football, but you can be something else, also very important and popular”.

The players' panel - credit photo: Giorgio Scala

“We will adapt, if needed”
The end of Day 1 was consecrated to the vision of Water Polo stars: Brenda Villa, 2012 Olympic champion from USA, Johanne Begin, international player for Canada and bronze medallist at FINA World Championships, Slobodan Nikic, one of the iconic Serbian players with 25 medals in major competitions since 2003, and Alessandro Campagna, Italian Olympic champion in 1992 and a well-known coach since 1998.  

The four leading representatives of the discipline were unanimous: water polo is not having the place it deserves in the international sports market. Villa recalled the need for more TV and social media exposure, but also more time between the periods to increase the animation in the stadium, while Begin affirmed that players are ready for any change leading to a better water polo”.

On the men’s side, Nikic talked about the necessity for more spectators in the pool, the international calendar very crowded, and the need to perhaps adapt some rules to create a more offensive game:

“I have the feeling that this Conference is a decisive opportunity for our beloved sport. We need to discuss and exchange new ideas, and to implement new models for the future”, Nikic said.

Campagna spoke against the “culture of alibi. We constantly complain, but everyone must be aware that we are not working well. We must do better!” The Italian coach then demonstrated with a video that water polo is often not displayed in the best possible conditions on TV: “The light conditions are not good, the lamps are reflected in the water, the dressing of the venue is poor, and the advertising opportunities are not in place. This has to change. We have a great game, but it must also appear great!”