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Sport seeks renewal in bid for popularity

By Marton Dunai

BUDAPEST (Reuters) - Twelve hours after Germany's soccer team had won the World Cup in Brazil, the country's water polo team jumped in the pool for the opening game of the European Championship in the Hungarian capital.

It is probably not the result - Germany suffered a sound 10-5 defeat at the hands of Croatia - that kept news of the game out of the limelight. Professional water polo has been shunned for so long that the sport's leaders now fear for its survival.

That is not the conclusion one might come to at the Margaret Island Aquatics Complex, which has been outfitted with 8,000 seats and fills to capacity on most nights, especially when hosts and world champions Hungary play.

Television is so saturated with other sports, however, that water polo sponsors get nowhere near the kind of media exposure they would through other events.

"Water polo has been around forever, and some games induce downright euphoria out here," said Tamas Gyarfas, the Hungarian vice president of the international water sports association FINA. "But their TV appeal is weaker for a number of reasons.

"We worry that it might hit a point where it can no longer be considered a top priority sport."

Gyarfas, who has also had a career as a media businessman, said it is hard to popularize, and therefore make money on a team sport where the athletes are mostly submerged in water and the action is interrupted every few seconds by referees.

"Viewers have little idea what's going on," he said. "It is not enjoyable the same way as athletics, where people dash about, or gymnastics, where they fly around. Still, we would like to save this game."

Water polo leaders have sensed this challenge for years.

FINA dedicated a conference to reforming water polo earlier this year, inviting marketing and advertising experts from other professional sports like the U.S. National Basketball Association to learn how to sell a game well.

One presentation compared the introductory show at an NBA game with the start of a water polo match.

The contrast was huge: fanfare and fireworks on one side, a solemn announcer reading out the players' names on the other.

With that in mind, Hungary has put on a big show at the aquatics center, with boisterous sound effects and a cheerleader who directs the fans.

For lasting change, however, more will be needed. Pushing back the playoffs into the summer months so spectators have more fun at open air games is one idea for reform.

Other ideas include smaller pools to allow faster games, fewer players to fit in the smaller pools, or a smaller ball to allow more powerful shots and more goals.

The long-term goal is to spread the sport, which is only really big in the Balkans and some southern European countries; but water polo officials are reluctant to change a sport that has taken a century to develop.

FINA water polo director Gianni Lonzi said any changes need to be tested before they become adopted, a process that could start next year but will take time to calcify.

"It is like when I have an old car which I want to change," he said. "Until I see a car that gives me the same satisfaction, I don't change."

SUMMER ATMOSPHERE

Apart from a regular contract with the Hungarian team Szeged, three-times Olympic gold medallist Tamas Molnar has also played for the last five years in the summer league in Malta, where people adore the sport like nowhere else.

"To the 500,000 people who live in Malta, there are ten teams," Molnar said. "Prominent games often have 3,000 fans, not just spectators, but proper fans, with flags and drums and all. They create a fantastic atmosphere. It's exceptional."

He said part of the secret is that the summer league takes water polo from its regular-season professional roots and puts it where it belongs: in the sun, by the water, where fans get to enjoy the games while they spend a day at the beach.

Molnar's generation had exceptional opportunities which allowed them to focus on the game and earn a very decent living doing it. But he says those circumstances may be hard to emulate in the future.

"I don't know how long this type of a professional game can be sustained," he said. "It is impossible to plan for the long term. Clubs struggle to secure sponsors on a business basis."

The annual budget of a championship-level water polo club can be close to 1.5 million euros ($2.03 million), he said. That may sound like peanuts for some other professional sports, but even that money is often from sponsors who like the game and not investors.

"We hoped that the U.S. would show the way and start a well-financed pro league when the men played in the Beijing Olympic final and the American women won (the 2012) Olympics."

To this day there is no professional water polo league in the United States, and not because Molnar and the Hungarians beat them in that Beijing final. It is because the sport just won't lend itself to mass media.

When big companies finance water polo it is usually a case-by-case affair. Britain's Vodafone PLC has sponsored Champions League football and Formula One on a global basis. It only backs water polo in Hungary.

"The bigger Vodafone units get to choose one sport beyond football and Formula 1," Vodafone Hungary CEO Gyorgy Beck said. "The parent company was surprised when we picked water polo over rugby but when they saw the fan numbers they had no questions."

Vodafone's annual water polo sponsorship budget was more than 100 million forints ($436,200) until recently, Beck said. It has been cut back now, although it still sponsors youth games and special events.

The company constructed a temporary water polo arena on a downtown Budapest square for the European Championships at a cost Beck would not disclose. The arena will emulate the beach atmosphere and broadcast games live.

"It has been a very positive investment," Beck said. "Water polo helped us establish our brand in Hungary. But water polo would not have worked this well in other countries."

($1 = 229.2700 Hungarian Forints)($1 = 0.7400 Euros)

(Editing by Rex Gowar)

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