The Importance of Media for Water Polo

Halo everybody. I hope you are all having a nice day. My today’s guest is Mr. Marko Štefanek. Co-founder of the biggest water polo news media outlet out there, Total Waterpolo. I don’t know exactly when they were founded, I just know that out of nowhere they were here and they instantly became a part of the water polo fabric.

Together with almost 20 000 people following them. It used to be very rare (read: it used to never happen) that the people within the media world interview one another, but with the new times new moves were adopted. To be honest, I was a little bit triggered into doing this interview. What triggered me was the situation that happened between Total Waterpolo and the Hungarian Waterpolo Federation. More about it you can read in this article Response to the Statement made by Hungarian Water Polo Federation. But this is not the first time I was triggered because of Total Waterpolo. Last year, also around this time, they got banned from the European Championship which, funny enough, took place in Hungary. More about that situation you can read in this article Water Polo Fight but outside the Water. After the latest situation I wanted write another article, but have decided to do an interview instead. So without further ado Mr. Marko Štefanek.

Halo Marko. Welcome behind the enemy lines haha. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this nerve wrecking interview haha. Over the course of the interview we will talk more about the Media Outlet that you co-created, but for now let us start with the latest situation. In your response it is clear to see that you have not said anything against the hungarian water polo federation, but what was your main objective? To defend the honor of your Outlet, or to point out something within the Hungarian water polo, or maybe to point out something within our water polo community?

Thank you for the invitation and a big greeting to you and all the readers of

My response to the Hungarian federation is common business practice. When someone calls you out with some accusations publicly, of course you will react with denial. As they did not issue an apology within the required deadline, we published a denial in the form of an open letter and filed a complaint with the EU regulatory body.

To answer your question, this has nothing to do with Hungarian water polo, only with responsible people within Hungarian water polo federation and with the purpose to protect our brand reputation. Does this reveal problems of the water polo community? Definitely, this is a good example of the biggest problem in the world of water polo which is unprofessionalism and incompetence of people in the key positions.

Last January you were banned from the European Championships held in Hungary. Looking back on that incident now, how does it make you feel? Why do you think LEN banned you? Was that a power move against Total Waterpolo, or just a move against the whole Water polo media community? What do you think they trying to accomplish?

Yes, just a few days ago Facebook reminded me of that memory 🙂

As then, I still think that LEN’s move pushed everything forward. Both for Total Waterpolo and for water polo in general. This move, from a business point of view, brought us to the position we expected only in 6 months, but more importantly, it provoked reactions from people from the water polo community who are not willing to publicly criticize the current situation and thus consolidated and homogenized this water polo “opposition”.

We never found out the official reason for the expulsion. Sources from LEN told me that key people went crazy after reading the #nopoolshit article and told Media Manager Gergely Csurka to revoke our accreditations. If this is true, then we are back to the problem from the first question. In any case, expelling the media from the competition due to an argumentative critical review is a completely reckless move and contrary to all the basics of work and communication with the media. Unfortunately, water polo is in a situation where there are no people in the LEN hierarchy who understand this or (worse) do not bear any responsibility for their decisions

How did Total Waterpolo came to be? Can you tell us a short history of your co-baby? Was this something that was pre-planned, or something that came into fruition after a combination of events? I assume that as some stage in your life you have played water polo on some level, but what motivated you into starting and continuing this project? How many people are/were involved in this project?

I was highly involved in water polo on many levels since my early childhood. I used to play for HAVK Mladost throughout the youth selection and 2nd League for VK Zadar for a couple of years. At 18 I became a licenced referee even though I was still actively playing (I guess wanted to have more argument discussion with refs during the game 😀 ). For a short period I was also coaching kids at water polo school in Mladost. I can say I was really passionate about the game, but as I got older I started to dislike water polo outside the pool. Other interests in life took over, but the game and water polo friends were always present. 

But I believe that the main trigger for me was when my stepfather Vlado Kobešćak passed away a few months before we started. I was thinking a lot about the glory days of water polo in Zagreb when he was in charge of Mladost, with thousands of fans in the stands. As a kid, I have witnessed a lot of good and bad things that were happening in the water polo outside the pool. Our mission in Total Waterpolo is to build up on the good things I have experienced and we want implement them in modern sport practices and give our contribution in positioning water polo in the world of sports.

It started off as many great ideas do. After a couple of beers back in the summer of 2017 🙂
The initial idea was an online platform on water polo in English. At the time, there was only Waterpology, which did a pretty good job, but we believed there was a lot of room to work on social media. We decided to do things that no one else did or we saw that they could be done much better with a little time invested. The agreement was that the three of us would do it for a year as a hobby and then see how we stand and what we will do next. After a year we decided to continue like this for another year 🙂 In the summer of 2019 we were joined by Ivan who took over a large part in terms of writing articles, and I decided to dedicate myself entirely to the development of Total Waterpol (I have to thank my wife for support 🙂 ). 

At the moment, I’m the only full time employee and four people are working on 50%+ of their working hours. We have outsourced the TW Arena development to one Croatian agency and few freelancers and we have few volunteers, who are helping us on certain projects and we are hoping to employ them this year. Recently, we have also started to cooperate with 5 guys who are our regional sales managers for our sports brand. So all in all, we have a great international team of 20 people who works on various projects.

Besides the already mentioned situations, were there any other road-blocks in Total Waterpolos way?

There are always roadblocks in business, especially in a startup. There is no point in going through all the specific situations, but I can just say that I’m quite disappointed with the level of business culture in water polo. I’m talking about companies involved in water polo and people who are in positions to make business decisions regarding our sport. But I won’t complain, that is a great opportunity for us. 

Is Total Waterpolo as a company profitable? Do you have a clear financial structure and future objectives that should bring some income?  What is Total Waterpolos end game?

December was the first month in which we made profit. The plan was to become profitable by the end of summer 2021. When you look at it from that perspective we can be happy. But I believe we could have reached that milestone a few months earlier if it weren’t for COVID pandemic. Of course, we have plans to reinvest the profits, but our pessimistic prediction is that we will return the initial investment by the end of 2022. The end game? there is no end 🙂 I believe that the digital era is a perfect opportunity for a smaller sport like water polo to position itself even higher than it once was (in comparison to other sports). And I’m not talking about social media. We would like to make water polo the first sport which would combine e-sport and real life sport. But first we need to sort out some basics. Connect the water polo community, develop communication channels between all participants and define the development KPIs which will be measured.

I have seen that you have made your first podcast episode with the captain of the USAs womens National Team, Maggie Steffens. I have also seen that you have your own sports brand Wear Waterpolo. What is the logical continuation for Total Waterpolo?

Total Waterpolo has four verticals of business  – media, TW Arena software, sports brand manufacturing and webshop – 

YouTube channel is something we plan to develop this year for our media vertical, so we are starting off with two series – Timeless Talents (where we will introduce legends of the sport) and The Talent Hunt (where we will talk with future stars). 

Wear Waterpolo is our webshop which we use to sell only water polo related equipment and merchandise. Beside our own brand, we will also sell curated products from other brands.
The idea to start our own brand came when we realized that none of the other brands are willing to pay the advertising. So we decided to make the best water polo equipment available on the market. We invested a lot of time to find the best material, stitching technique, laces… Also the customer support and the design process is a novelty on the market custom water polo team gear. 

In your opinion, how important is media for a sport like water polo? Does our sport need media, like Total Waterpolo, in order to cross over to mainstream, or do we need better players to attract more new eyes? Who do you think could be water polos biggest cross-over player/star?

The question of all questions – how to attract more people to water polo? 🙂

Everyone is talking about better promotion, marketing efforts, broadcast quality, summer calendar… but we are missing two important steps. First, we don’t know the STARTING POSITION. Purpose of marketing is to increase a metric of our interest – more sales, more viewers, more clicks, more kids playing water polo… What is the current state of water polo as a sport? How popular is it? Compared to what? We don’t even know how many active players we have or how many players stopped playing after 18. 

When we determine our current position, we need EXPERTS who will create a unique, agile and long term global strategy for popularization of water polo with measurable marketing and PR goals. Again, we need experts. Not the people like Marco Birri, who has the balls to stand in front of people to present this high school essay on the basics of marketing, showing only one, but completely inaccurate number (that 400.000 WP games are played across Europe every year).

How to get in the mainstream media? You need interesting content and on many occasions money.

I will give an example of our PR for Total Player Award 2019. It is easy to write a press release for the media in the country of the winner. But if you want to get published in other countries then you need to adjust your content. For Hungarian media you will send a press release with the title “Denes Varga is the best player in the world”. If you send the same press release with the same title to Croatian or Montenegrin media, they won’t even open your email. So you need to put the title “Four barracudas in the best team” or “Aleksandar Ivovic is the best defender in the world”. This is the first step, which might grab their attention. If you literally don’t adjust the whole press release into an interesting article (on their language) which they can just copy/paste, you don’t stand a lot of chance to be published. This is how mainstream media functions these days. 

Of course it is a lot easier to do it with when you have an occasion like Total Player.

If water polo in general wants to get on mainstream media it would definitely involve a budget, a person who would provide interesting content regularly and nurturing relationships with journalists. Regarding the content part, clubs and players need to realize that sport today is much more than just the result and performance. Few days ago I’ve read somewhere that the 5% of transfer value of football players is their digital presence. Digital, not the whole marketing value. And we are in a situation where Perrone, Ivovic, Loncar and many other star players don’t even have a social media profile.

Important question. Within water polo, do people identify more with certain teams, or with individuals within a team? What is more important to attract new eyes to our sport? Two clear examples are the NBA, a league which is purely star driven, and NFL, a league which is purely team driven. NBA has been growing constantly ever since the 80s and the Bird – Johnson rivalry, while NFL has been losing its following steadily for the last few years. How do you think water polo should promote itself?

Very interesting question!

For me, the first word that stands out in your question is rivalry. And water is definitely missing a lot of that. Outside the pool of course 🙂 There are no tensions between the team or players, no trash talk, no drama… Every sport needs that.

Regarding the strategy, my opinion is that promoting individuals would be a better option, since most of the clubs don’t have a strong fan base and without that core it is hard to attract new fans. But whatever you decide, the main goal is that both league and clubs generate more viewership and attract more sponsors. And current water polo has no interest for sponsors. And that love is mutual. 

As a referee/player turned Total Media guy how did the people which you knew within your water polo community reacted? As a footblocker turned interviewer I just have to ask haha? How long did it took them to accept you as a Total Waterpolo guy? I am not asking about those people who are close to you and always support you. You know which part of our community I mean haha.

Actually, people who are close to me reacted with WTF face 🙂 And many people didn’t even know who is behind Total Waterpolo.
It was sort of an experiment not to mention that to the people I know who are close to water polo  and I was surprised how many of them mentioned Total Waterpolo and started showing me some of our posts on social media. Then I would tell them that I run that channel and then again I would get another WTF face. People are not aware of the opportunities in the digital market and sometimes it is hard to understand the possibilities if you are not in that bubble.

Marko thank you very much for your time and thank you for doing this interview with me. I would love to continue this interview, but I think that we have reached the end of our show. We need to think about our readers a little bit haha. Is there anything you wish to add on the end for our readers? What can we expect from Total Waterpolo in year 2021? Marko, the floor is yours. Thank you for reading. My name is Tomo Bujas.

You can expect more videos, more leagues covered, more educational content on how to run water polo outside the pool, focus on statistics and visual rebranding of water polo in real life and  on digital channels. One more thing, for all the people with passion for water polo and some business/digital skills, my doors are always open to discuss opportunities.