As the effects of COVID-19 rip through the global economy, jobs have become scarce, particularly for professional athletes in non-major sports who require flexible work schedules to balance the demands of two careers: one athletic, one corporate. Even in a normal year, finding jobs that can accommodate hours of training and frequent international trips can be tough—if not impossible.
That’s why USA Water Polo started its Strategic Business Council (SBC), a board advisory group focused on “leveraging the power of sport with the discipline of the private sector,” according to the governing body. Its first initiative, the Athlete + Business Alliance, works to help National Team athletes get career experience while training by connecting them to a network of companies for professional job placement and mentorship programs.
“We had an athlete retention problem. So many still want to play, but they don’t want to fall behind their peers in their professional careers. It’s hard to balance another career when you’re training year round and have competitions to travel for, but we have a lot of talented athletes who were talented students and have great degrees,” USA Water Polo CEO Chris Ramsey said in a phone interview.
Water polo is prominent within Ivy League institutions and on the West Coast. “We needed to give our athletes the opportunity to develop a résumé,” Ramsey said. “They needed professional work experience, and we needed a program to provide it for the high number of our athletes who really did want to have careers in business.”
Part of the council’s job is to connect athletes with companies in their field of interest and, if a USA Water Polo athlete then earns the job after a normal interview process, work with those corporations to tailor an internship or part-time program to fit that athlete’s availability.
That corporate experience is key, as most will transition to other work after their professional athletic careers end. Doing so with limited business exposure isn’t easy.
In the works well before the pandemic, SBC’s pilot program has become increasingly important since its May launch. COVID-19 postponed the Olympics, restricted training and other coaching opportunities for many of the athletes. The seven-member council has already helped seven Olympians and National Team athletes find placements with participating companies. Nike, JPMorgan, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, Western Digital (data storage), Allied Universal (facility services), Five Point Holdings (community planning) and Edwards Lifesciences, which works in medical tech, make up the initiative’s early corporate partners.
“Bringing these companies on board has been fairly organic,” said Linda Park, SBC co-chair and VP at Edwards Lifesciences—the biggest public company in Irvine, Calif., where USA Water Polo is headquartered. “There are tons of companies in Orange County and others [that] people on the board are connected to. We’ve been talking to them about the purpose and the mission of the program to bring them on, even if it can’t happen right now because of COVID.”
Park and USA Water Polo board member and SBC co-chair Susan Bao both said the pandemic has worked for and against the program. On the one hand, the recession has forced companies to restrict new hires and, in some cases, furlough or lay off existing employees. On the other, those still hiring are offering an increasing number of remote positions, which expands opportunities for athletes tied to a particular region for training.
Former Stanford water polo player and 2016 Olympian Ben Hallock was one of the first athletes placed through the program into a summer internship at Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly.
“They were super willing to work with my schedule and understand that I wouldn’t exactly be able to work normal hours as an athlete,” Hallock explained. “Other jobs just wouldn’t have been feasible. It’s pretty much impossible, even in college, but the National Team takes it to a whole new level because you’re on trips to Europe the whole time.”
Placements through the program provide water polo athletes with experience, but they also provide financial support. As Ramsey explained, USA Water Polo “is not a big revenue sport like the NBA,” so “it’s helpful for our athletes to get additional compensation to make ends meet to make their athletic careers work.” Ramsey calls his athletes “Swiss army knives” because of the different ways each meets their financial needs.
Up to 18 athletes on each team (men’s and women’s) receive athlete support in the form of a monthly stipend between $1,800 and $3,400 each month they’re training for USA Water Polo. Thirty-six total currently receiving financial backing—not including those still in college. Those funds come from U.S. Olympic Committee grants awarded to USA Water Polo but still aren’t enough for most to live on.
“The opportunities [the council is providing] mean financial support in the short and long term,” said two-time Olympian Maggie Steffens. The 27-year-old National Team athlete and entrepreneur is currently interning at Western Digital. “Short-term, most of the internships were paid. Our stipends are not what people may think they are, so to have a little extra money, that cushion is really helpful. It’s also great in the long term. Maybe you’re training full-time or in a phase of the quad where you have a bit more free time or you’re transitioning to life after water polo—now you have experience and exposure to the corporate and business worlds to put on your résumé.”