The Importance of Proper Marketing for Water polo

Hello everybody in our today’s interview we will speak about everything digital, water polo included. My today’s guest is a co-founder of a digital communications agency called “The Right Street Digital”, based out of Brussels, Belgium. The agency helps organisations and companies leverage digital channels and tools to lobby European Institutions more effectively. This is the most basic explanation of what his company specializes in. The truth is much more complex for us who are still getting used to this new age.

I met my today’s guest trough water polo of course. He used to be a coach for the Belgian Mechelen Pirates. He invited me over for a training, a beer and a talk. Ever since we’ve stayed in contact. He was born in Zagreb in 1983 where he started swimming in 1990. After the war he moved with his family to Russia where he lived until 99. He later continued his education in California and finished it in Belgium and all along he has played water polo. I am pretty sure that I don’t know anybody who knows more about digital communication within our water polo community than this guy. So without further ado Mr. Filip Lugović

Hello Filip. Thank you for accepting my invitation to do this interview with me. Could you try to give us a short version of your water polo career and what role did water polo play in your life?

First I want to thank you for inviting me to do this interview with you and to say hello to your readers. When you ask me what role did water polo play in my life, let’s put it this way. Regardless of what I do professionally I will always feel as a water polo player first. I started swimming at the age of 7 in Mladost in Zagreb. At the age of 10 I moved to Russia with my family and this is where I made a switch to water polo. I am definitively the product of the Russian school, however, every summer throughout my teenage years I also spent practicing and playing in Croatia, at the Solaris club located in a coastal town of Šibenik.

At the age of 16 I moved to the USA, played one year at a high school and then played collegiate and club water polo for 4 years, including participating in the Junior Olympics (sort of a US U18 club championship) in 2001 where we went all the way to the final. 

In 2005 I moved to Belgium for personal and professional reasons and played for RBP Poseidon (former Belgian champion) and Antwerp where I played both the final of the cup and the championship before settling in Mechelen, where I truly found my water polo home. This is where I evolved from a player, to a captain, to a player coach and then ultimately to the head coach, and contributed to the club winning 2 only trophies in its history: Belgian Cup and Super Cup. During those 11 years we evolved from being a club that competed at the bottom of the Superleague to one of the top teams in the country with multiple top 3 finishes and 2 trophies over that period. Because of this, even though I live in Brussels, it is in Mechelen that I feel truly at home when it comes to Belgium.

So when you say that regardless of what you do professionally you will always feel as a water polo player first what do you mean by that? How deep of an influence has water polo had on you?

It’s a good question, but the answer is easy. It comes down to the feeling of identity and in my opinion there can only be one. Components which make up this water polo identity, such as hard work, passion, competitiveness, the love of a challenge, being part of a team and surely that drive for excitement which comes with winning, are also present in my professional life. 

Let’s start with what you/your company do/does for a living. Digital Advocacy. As I was preparing for this interview (read: scrolling through your company’s web page) I found that there are clear differences between PR, Marketing, Advertising and Advocacy. Could you break it down for us a bit?

Hahaha, not sure how interesting this particular topic is for your readers, buy hey…it’s your interview. 

I understand what you are saying, but believe me there is a bigger meaning and a bigger picture behind all of it wink wink haha.

Let’s start with the last question – PR, advertising (and many other things for that matter) is what you DO in order to advocate or do marketing more effectively. So you can’t really throw PR and advertising in the same basket as advocacy and marketing. The difference between advocacy and marketing being that advocacy is used to communicate a message or a position while marketing is about selling a product or a service.  

So when we talk about digital advocacy, it is the use of digital tools, channels and platforms in order to advocate for your views and positions. And this is what we do for various organizations and companies in Brussels’ wanting to communicate to policymakers sitting in the European Commission, European Parliament and other EU institutions.

The objective of your job is that somebody else hires you and pays for your services. Do you think marketing should be done internal, or external? When does one opt for an external marketing company to promote their own products/agendas?

You say that the objective of my job is to get hired and paid – I believe that is the objective of any ‘job’, not just mine. Regardless of whether you are a business owner where clients pay your business, or an employee where an employer pays for your labour.

Now, when it comes to the second question let start by looking at marketing as a set of processes which help achieve one or both of the two objectives – branding and increasing sales. These processes can be very complex and require different sets of expertise in advertising, PR, social media, analytics, copywriting, content production and so on.

Internally, companies and organisations have to be clear on their overall purpose, know their market and then develop the right types of products and services for it. External marketing providers such as agencies or consultants help them articulate what they are doing and offering through engaging content (copy, videos, images, etc.), and then making sure it reaches the right audience (social media, news sites, etc.).

Having said that, I believe that the best results are achieved by connecting internal and external resources. Internal vision and objectives – with external execution. It is true that sometimes much of the execution which usually falls onto external providers can be internalized, but in that case you end up missing that fresh and innovative perspective and broad range of expertise outsiders can bring.

Today, even the largest companies in the world rely on external support and expertise. Just in the USA the advertising agency industry market size is well over 50 billion (in terms of revenues)!

Knowing what you know by doing what you do, what do you think water polo is doing wrong with the way it promotes itself? Should water polo be doing more, or are we already doing a lot?

Are we doing a lot? Is this really a question? The answer is no. Actually, I think what is being done is counterproductive. Now this is a question we could talk about for hours, if not days.

Sometimes I like to ask questions which are obviously clear and need no answer, but it has to be asked. Continue please 🙂

Let me give you just one example. Earlier this year there was a Men’s Water Polo Olympic Qualification Tournament. I was simply interested in a schedule of games, and it probably took me 5 minutes to figure out where it can be found online! The official tournament page was promoting Rotterdam as a tourist destination. No joke! In Covid times!

The only positive marketing I see for the sport comes from enthusiastic people like yourself. And without a systemized and coordinated approach, not much can be done at scale.

Should players expect to be promoted by someone within the water polo, or should it be expected from players to somewhat work on their media situation?

Players are there to perform, but they shouldn’t have to worry about marketing the sport. Are NBA players involved in how basketball is being promoted? Sure, they contribute, and players should contribute through their performance – but the actual marketing has to be done at the organizational level. And it is not. This is why the stands in most of the leagues are half empty at best and there is very little interest from broadcasters.

So, does water polo need to do a better PR work, have a better Marketing plan, be smarter at advertising, or is advocacy the only salvation for our situation, or maybe a bit of everything?

Water polo, as any other sport which aims to be professional, has to view itself as – entertainment business. And understand that as such, it competes with all other forms and channels of entertainment. And entertainment is all about content. 

This means that as a sport you are literally competing for the attention of a teenager who is watching Tik Tok videos. Tik Tok video is a piece of content that is taking up someone’s attention and as a sport wanting attention, you need to compete with that. I don’t mean Tik Tok particularly, but you get the point.

Yes I do. In this modern world content is the king. No matter the platform or app.

Content doesn’t have to be just games or competition. Look at the narratives they create around their fighters in the UFC. This is the reason why they are a dominating force when it comes to fight sports. For example, my wife doesn’t watch fights, but takes interest in interviews and backgrounds of the competitors. But we will get to the content later. Let’s talk about the ‘product’ first.

In communications, for anything to work, it has to be (or at least appear to be) authentic. Therefore this ‘revolution’ our sport needs to undergo starts with the sport itself. I know there are a lot of conservative voices in our community who don’t like what I am about to say. I know water polo is the oldest Olympic team sport and that these traditions matter – but we need to start with changing our sport. Wrestling has Olympic tradition, but professional wrestlers (not WWF!!) don’t really make real money, right? But MMA fighters do, at least good ones do. Connor McGregor became the highest paid sportsman last year. Sure, it is his side businesses that took him there, but the sport was the platform!

And when it comes to changes, I am not talking about fundamentally changing the sport, but rather obvious things which would help make the sport more attractive and accessible for the wider public. Shorten the field, have fewer competitions, simplify the rules and play during the summer.

Just look at the season when it is played. It is a water sport – and it belongs outdoors. Can you imagine a skiing competition in July?  

Or did you know that the water polo field is about the same size as the basketball one – with a similar shot clock? And they run, we swim! Imagine a basketball match where at least half of the shot clock is taken by moving from defense to offense?

When it comes to the rules, I will not even start, I am already talking too much. 

The first condition for this to happen is for the water polo community to take its destiny into its own hands. That means setting up a body independent from FINA and LEN. Let them stick to their swimming. What happens in the sport of football is influenced by clubs and national football federations through UEFA and FIFA.  Perhaps even too much, as we have seen with the fiasco of the recent Super League initiative. But not IAAF!  (International Association of Athletics Federations ?).

Wait, I am not able to follow you right now. What does the IAAF have to do with anything now?

What I mean by that is, just because athletes have to run and sprint when they play football doesn’t mean that IAAF should have any right to decide on anything when it comes to football.

Ahaaa. Okay okay.

Sounds ridiculous, right? Because it is – and this is exactly what is happening with water polo. Now for this to happen, people like (some) referees, officials, etc., basically the few who ‘live’ of water polo need to lose their influence. Once that happens, we will be in a position to see necessary changes take place. And consequently, an opportunity to modernize and move the sport forward will open up. 

This will then position the sport so it can reach a broader audience. By broader I mean more than just enthusiasts. UFC is not only watched by fighters. Tennis is not only watched by people who play tennis. NBA is not followed only by the people from the basketball community. 

Once you can create the type of content (going beyond game footage, as explained earlier) which attracts this broader audience – on one hand sponsors will gain interest and on the other people will be willing to pay to view it, live or digitally.  This is how you bring money into the sport, and then the competition from clubs or national teams to get their hands on a piece of that pie will drive the whole sport forward.

Well that was an interesting breakdown

This is in a nutshell, I can imagine people having questions, but at least I hope this managed to illustrate the principle. If your readers want to discuss this further, or if there are people who have the time, energy and enthusiasm to test some of these assumptions I am making, I am happy to talk. Then we can have a Water Polo Grand Slam 2022 in San Francisco, California, which will make money from sponsors, spectators and pay per views from fans from all over the world :-). 

Why in San Francisco of all the places?

No specific reason other than I just remembered when I was playing in the USA that even the meaningless games had 2000 people in the stands. And a sport should go there where the people want to see it and have the funds to pay for it.

Ahaaa. Okay okay. For our next question let us come back to Europe. From what I have seen the Belgian water polo has put their water polo on hold ever since we have this pandemic on our hands. Everybody who needs to understand what that means, understands what that means. Wouldn’t you agree?

The only thing this means is that older players lost 2 years of being able to enjoy the sport and younger players lost 2 irreplaceable years in their development. My opinion is that the league should have continued. I understand that the format of the competition should have adapted, but the competition should have continued. Because a lot of time and effort by a lot of these players, especially if we consider the fact that a lot of them are amateur and not paid for what they do, has been wasted for nothing.

And time for our last question. In an ideal world how would your relationship with water polo continue to evolve? Before all of this you were a coach. Is that something that provides you the same amount of pleasure as once playing water polo did, or is it just a way for you to stay connected with the sport that means so much to you, to me and to our readers? Thank you for your time and thank you for doing this with me.

One day I will surely go back to coaching, but at this point I still like being in the swimming pool more. Coaching, in my opinion, is probably one of the most demanding professions. 

You need to be a leader, motivator, a psychologist, salesman, you need to be organized, systematic, strategic but adaptable and flexible at the same time. You need to be able to see the big picture, but then make decisions during a game on a go. And at the end of the day – you need to know your shit :-). All of the above is irrelevant if you don’t have the necessary knowledge of the game, which in itself takes time. While I was coaching I would spend nights and weekends watching our own games, watching other games and learning. Before the Cup Final we played in 2018 I even managed to reach and then get advice from the great Ratko Rudic himself! Something I will always be grateful to him for. 

There are simply not too many other professions which require this versatile set of skills and capacities. Having said that, at this point of my professional path, coaching is not compatible with what I do. It simply requires what I currently lack due to my business and family life – time and energy. So 4 years after retiring from playing, and 2 years since I quit the sport altogether, I have recently started making the trip to the swimming pool again and have been exercising regularly. I sincerely enjoy it. It feels like an escape from the stressful modern life we are all living. Now where this takes me, let’s see…