There is a disproportionate number of high school water polo athletes on the west coast, with roughly 76 percent of all 43,000 high school water polo players competing in California. With most college water polo programs concentrated on the west coast, many of these student-athletes will likely remain in California for college, should they choose to continue their athletic career at the collegiate level.
Only six percent of the 22,500 men’s high school water polo players go on to play at the collegiate level. These 1,600 student-athletes have the choice of 42 collegiate water polo programs and just one intercollegiate program. The few number of college water polo teams creates a competitive recruiting process, but that’s not the only reason recruits may have a hard time securing a roster spot. Water polo is a sport that draws interest from both domestic and international athletes and college coaches focus their recruiting efforts on both pools of athletes equally.
Beyond simply earning a spot on the team, student-athletes also face fierce competition for an athletic scholarship. The NCAA permits 4.5 full scholarship equivalency per team at both the Division 1 and 2 levels. With the average team size of 25 and 21 at Division 1 and Division 2 programs, respectively, there’s little money to go around. While full-ride scholarships are very rare, student-athletes can still aim for partial funding.
There are approximately 75 colleges that offer men’s water polo. Water polo is believed to be one of the fastest growing sports in the United States from youth to colligate level programs. With the heavy focus on international recruiting, it’s no surprise that men’s water polo saw a 12 percent increase among Division 1 international student-athletes between 2011 and 2016. This is the largest growth that the NCAA has seen among international student-athletes at any Division 1 level men’s sport. Unfortunately, funding for college water polo programs has not yet caught up with the sport’s growth. As a result, varsity water polo is sponsored by the NCAA and NAIA at very few institutions.
The Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) is a member conference of the NCAA and serves as the governing body for 19 men’s water polo programs at four-year institutions in the Eastern region of the United States. These programs are categorized into three divisions; Mid-Atlantic-East, Mid-Atlantic-West and Northeast. As a member conference of the NCAA, the CWPA is responsible for coordinating competitions between the 19 men’s water polo programs and determining a conference champion. The CWPA is unique in that these 19 programs not only enjoy all the privileges of active NCAA members, but they also compete for the national champion title at the annual NCAA men’s water polo championship.
Like the CWPA, the Western Water Polo Association (WWPA) is an affiliate of the NCAA and sponsors five men’s water polo teams in the Western region of the United States; Air Force Academy, California Baptist, Concordia, Fresno Pacific and Loyola Marymount. Each season, the WWPA creates competition schedules that include matches between WWPA member teams and within the NCAA. At the conclusion of the season, the WWPA holds a championship tournament where WWPA teams compete to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA men’s water polo championship.
Student-athletes have the option of 22 Division 1 water polo colleges. These programs are nearly evenly split across both coasts. There are 11 programs in the East Coast in DC, New Jersey, New York, Maine, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. All 13 programs on the west coast are in California. The U.S. Air Force Academy is the only school outside of these regions, located in Colorado Springs.
While these programs offer the same level of competition and team talent, the schools themselves are diverse in size of the student body. Student-athletes looking for a small to medium-sized student body between 2,000 and 8,000 students should focus their college search on east coast programs. Programs on the west coast are better suited for student-athletes who want a large school, with the student body ranging from 18,000 to over 30,000.
At the end of each season, the NCAA holds a men’s water polo championship. Due to the few number of men’s water polo programs, all NCAA and CWPA sponsored programs across the three divisions are eligible to compete for the title of national champion. In 2019, USA Water Polo and NCAA Division 3 institutions introduced their own postseason tournament and no longer compete in the NCAA sponsored championship. Despite representation from both east and west coast programs in the national championship tournament, no school located outside California has ever competed in the final championship game.
There are only 7 Division 2 water polo colleges; California Baptist University, Concordia University – Irvine, Fresno Pacific University, Gannon University, Mercyhurst College, Salem International and University of California – San Diego. With programs in California, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, student-athletes can play water polo on either coast. Most of these programs are sponsored at small Division 2 universities that have less than 3,000 students, except for the University of California – San Diego, which has over 27,000 students.
Division 2 water polo teams end their season with the NCAA men’s water polo championship. All three NCAA divisions are eligible to participate in the annual tournament. Division 3 water polo programs ended their participation in the NCAA championship in 2019 after announcing they had teamed up with USA Water Polo to sponsor their own men’s water polo tournament. The NCAA’s final tournament sees representation from men’s water polo programs across both coasts but has never seen a non-California program compete in the final championship game.
Division 3 offers twice as many water polo programs as Division 2, with 14 sponsored programs. Monmouth College in Illinois is the only Division 3 water polo college not located on either the east or west coast. While Division 3 schools prioritize academic excellence over athletics, USA Water Polo is putting a spotlight on Division 3 water polo programs.
In 2019, USA Water Polo announced that it will sponsor the first ever Division 3 national water polo championship tournament between the SCIAC and CWPA in December 2019. USA Water Polo and Division 3 water polo institutions developed this championship to recognize the growth of water polo at the Division 3 level and incentivize other institutions to add water polo to their list of varsity sport. Inspired by NCAA Division 3 men’s volleyball, which created and hosted the Molten Championship from 1997 until the NCAA established an official Division 3 championship in 2012, USA Water Polo is hopefully that this tournament will influence the growth of Division 3 water polo and encourage the NCAA to sponsor an official championship.
The NAIA only sponsors 1 intercollegiate men’s water polo program at Ottawa University’s satellite campus in Surprise, AZ. The NAIA introduced this new program in 2019, after several schools made the transition from NAIA to NCAA. Because this sole NAIA men’s water polo program is not part of a conference, the team has no set limit on games, giving them the freedom to compete in as many games and tournaments as the coach is able to schedule. This also means the program has no postseason championship. While NAIA programs are not able to participate at the NCAA men’s water polo championship, they can and do compete against NCAA programs during the season.
All 31 junior college water polo programs are located in California and governed by the California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA). The 31 CCCAA water polo teams are categorized into nine conferences and compete each year for a chance to earn the title of state champion at the CCCAA men’s water polo state championship. CCCAA institutions average 12,300 students, though student-athletes can find water polo programs at smaller and larger than average sized campuses.
Most student-athletes who attend a California community college transfer to an NCAA or NAIA institution to continue their athletic and academic careers.
The college experience is more than just athletics. For the student-athlete, factors such as size, location, cost and academics heavily impact their college decision. NCSA has developed our Power Rankings of top men’s water polo colleges using data from the U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges, IPEDS graduation rates and average cost after aid, as well as data from student-athletes in the NCSA network to rank the best college for men’s water polo. NCSA gives student-athletes a comprehensive look at institutions that offer men’s water polo, outside of just the program’s athletic performance.
Student-athletes can see how the NCAA ranks men’s water polo teams on the NCAA website.