Water polo can’t stop winning the growth game. Following its successful introduction of a kid-friendly version of the sport, it has shown epic gains at the collegiate level with the inception of a national championship specifically for Division III schools. And that kind of popularity can mean more events in the sports tourism market.
USA Water Polo made the announcement at the close of February, noting that the first championship at the D-III level will be sponsored in fall of 2019.
It is, the organization notes, a joint effort by the D-III water polo institutions and USA Water Polo to provide those student-athletes the opportunity for a meaningful postseason competition in addition to offering an incentive for other D-III institutions to add the sport on a varsity level.
Beginning with men's water polo in December of 2019, and followed by women's water polo in May of 2020, two teams from both the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) and the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA), will square off in a four-team Division III national championship tournament. The SCIAC will assume hosting responsibilities for both genders in the first year of the championship (2019-20). Hosting responsibilities will then rotate every other year.
The overall hope of the endeavor is to grow the sport of water polo at the D-III level to the point that the NCAA adds a Division III Championship, similar to the recent growth of men's volleyball.
According to Felix Mercado, President of the Association of Collegiate Water Polo Coaches, there has been a growing demand among D-III schools – who previously had to compete in the same divisions as DI and DII institutions.
“Over the last four to five years, we have started to see schools looking to add,” noted Mercado. “We started looking more closely at what men’s volleyball did to grow the number of teams in their sport and we felt that if we wanted to grow regardless of division, that mirroring the Molten Championship would be a great idea.” (Note: Molten was a championship event for NCAA Division III men's volleyball, founded in 1997 and operating through 2011; NCAA created a formal Division III championship in 2012 and Molten ceased to exist.) “Since the process started, we have seen three or four schools add and hopefully many more in Ohio, Texas and Illinois.”
In recognition of the fact that more D-III programs are beginning to take shape across the nation, the two goals of the this new championship are to provide exposure for the sport so more institutions continue to add water polo and increase membership allowing water polo to be sponsored at the NCAA D-III level.
And that can mean an uptick in registration for event owners – and an opportunity for natatoriums to partner with colleges in their area for practice and competition facilities, particularly since sports at the collegiate level are more likely to grow when the incentive of a championship is offered.
"In my discussions with athletic directors considering the addition of water polo as a varsity sport, the opportunity for a meaningful postseason championship is often a major part of their decision," explained Daniel Sharadin, the Commissioner of the CWPA. "The establishment of this championship removes a key stumbling block for these schools. In addition, it goes without saying that our Division III members are excited about the chance to compete against "like" institutions for a national championship."
The transformation of college club programs to varsity sports has been a pivotal point in many sports’ overall growth.
Mercado notes, “In all honesty it would be foolish not to recognize the work Dan Sheridan and the CWPA office has done to promote the sport at a Division III level. They actually offer a Division III Club Championship.”
His goals include continuing the growth pattern, and recruiting more schools nationwide, including those in New England such as Tufts and Wesleyan, and Washington University in St. Louis.
The teams that are eligible for the Division III national championship are as follows:
Men's programs include Austin College, Caltech, Cal Lutheran, Chapman, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS), Connecticut College, Johns Hopkins, La Verne, MIT, Millikin (starts in two years), Monmouth College, Occidental, Penn. State Behrend, Pomona-Pitzer, Redlands, Washington & Jefferson and Whittier.
Women's programs include Austin, Caltech, Cal Lutheran, Carthage, Chapman, CMS, Connecticut College, Grove City, La Verne, Macalester, Millikin (starts in two years), Monmouth, Occidental, Penn. State Behrend, Pomona-Pitzer, Redlands, Utica, Washington & Jefferson, Whittier and Wittenberg.
Information on USA Water Polo’s clubs and regions, which may become event organizers’ first point of contact when reaching out to assist with program growth at the D-III level, can be found here.