Innovation lessons from the oldest olympic team sport water polo

As a former college water polo player, now a business professional, I want to share with you what happily surprised me lately. Water polo has been on the Games program since 1900. Obviously, sports are neither tech markets full of disruptive innovation opportunities nor free markets with dynamic competition settings. Relying on its 130-year tradition, for instance, water polo has very strict game rules and predefined global regulations.

However, last week, leaders of water polo from 65 countries gathered in this conference to discuss innovation to make this sport more appealing. Water polo was not regarded as a global sport and had a low TV exposure. FINA, the international governing body of water sports, admitted that the new developments of the sports industry, technology, and social media made innovation inevitable.

So what did they talk about? Actually, there may be lots of lessons hidden in their conversations for those who think of innovation mostly in relation to technology and tangible products. Established industry leaders may feel the need and find the courage to innovate, as well.

Innovation kick-off 

“Water polo should be much more than a game; it should represent a unique holistic experience for fans, create a memorable opportunity to attract not only existing spectators but also new supporters.” -Dr. Julio C. Maglione, FINA President

First of all, FINA executives chaired and facilitated the discussions, so top-level global leadership is maintained. In addition to water polo federations, clubs, and players, they also invited many external personalities for idea exchange and innovative inspirations. Among those outsiders were executives from newly popular and professional team sports, sponsor companies, marketing research firms, sport tourism agencies, and broadcasters. It is arguable that inputs from all the members of their ecosystem (or value network) were taken into consideration.

They defined their goal as “to modernize the product (water polo) in order to make this sport even more popular and more recognized internationally. Core values symbolizing water polo were team spirit, strategy, goals, and strength. Most importantly, fans’ satisfaction gained the number one priority. So sport clubs and players would perform to achieve the maximum satisfaction from the fans’ point of view.

How to make a game (product) more than a game (product)  

All the contemporary business and marketing topics found their spots during the conference sessions. Most believe, not just water polo, but all sports have always been a great case, an inspiring model for businesses to overcome their challenges. Consider this old principle in sports, for example, “create a movement, engage, and drive the conversation with your fans”. With the rise of social media and tribal marketing, this now sounds more familiar, doesn’t it?

Also, sports are best examples of hedonic consumption and experiential retailing. Considering today’s consumers turning into experiencers rather than being solely buyers, creative ideas herein present amazing benchmarks and inspiration for customer experience managers who want to create lovemarks regardless of their industries. These may be great tips for those who are dealing with gamification, too.

Here are some innovative approaches put forward in the conference:

  • cultivate and celebrate heroes (M. Phelps, C. Ronaldo, S. Jobs, B. Gates)
  • promote well-selling great rivalries (Real Madrid-Barcelona, Samsung-Apple, Oscar-BAFTA)
  • build deep connection with the grassroots communities (make conversations and touch fans’ hearts via fan clubs, special events, celebrations)
  • improve the display conditions on TV (light conditions, dressing of the venue, and advertising opportunities; use HD video boards, hybrid communication on TV-social media-stadium-written media).
  • make the game offensive allowing more goals (uninterrupted action and speed, acknowledgment of the progress, less whistle)
  • present more understandable sport (simplification, easy rules, customer trainings, guides)
  • know your audience and sport (product-market fit, different merchandising, attractions, features, and education for different target markets)
  • understand the economics and where you fit in (pricing, consumption trends, customer’s buying power)
  • build on your heritage, but lead and innovate, too (tradition vs. modernization, conserve healthy athlete images vs. use the power of social media)
  • focus on the creation of drama and emotion around the thrilling game experience (images, replays, music, animation, announcers, commentators, show elements -even before and after the match)
  • look for partnership rather than sponsorship (mix emotion and business, align brand’s public image and role with sport’s)

It seems like nobody talked much about water polo but enthusiasm and experience🙂 This reminded me Ernst&Young World Entrepreneur of The Year 2013 Hamdi Ulukaya who said Chobani is not a yogurt company, but a life-style brand”. I suppose, in every context, the less products and tangibles, the more emotion and experience.

 • FINA President Maglione talks about the importance of this conference.

Now it’s action time

This conference has convinced the entire water polo value network on 3 key points, which are innovation is
(1) not a choice, but a must
(2) possible in many ways even in a traditional established product like water polo
(3) achievable to a great extent locally without any change in the game rules globally.

In addition to local efforts, some major game rule changes are on the way. These may include, but not limited to smaller pool size, more time between the periods, more spectators in the pool, less crowded international calendar, and modified sport events. The FINA family certainly deserves a huge applause for displaying a wonderful effort to deal with their innovation challenge. Now, it’s your turn to do your thing!

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