Traditional polo, which is played on a ten-acre grass field, has become ridiculously expensive at many clubs around the country. The bottom line is that the annual maintenance cost of a single grass field is anywhere from $30,000 to $50,000, and most clubs have several grass fields. Taking these maintenance costs together with the salaries of club employees into account, it doesn’t take long to realize that the membership fees at most clubs have to be set extremely high just to break even (unless these costs are heavily subsidized by the club’s owners).
Exacerbating the problem, polo took a wrong turn in the last few decades. It used to be a sport played by amateurs who worked hard to improve their skills in order to find more playing opportunities. That is no longer the case. Wealthy amateurs realized that they could “become” instantaneous “stars” by hiring professionals to play on their teams. So, for amateurs, playing opportunities are now dictated by money and no longer by skill. Amateurs, also referred to as “sponsors” or “patrons,” spend anywhere from tens of thousands to millions each season to “be stars” on the field.
Some polo schools have become triage centers where the wealthy are quickly identified and are encouraged to sponsor teams that play at levels far above their ability. These newcomers are told that they are extremely talented, that they have made enormous progress in a short amount of time, and are definitely ready for “a higher level of play” – a level at which they will have to hire more expensive pros. And by the way, they’ll have to upgrade their horses. (Sounds familiar?) Those who are less willing to spend extraordinary amounts on the sport are transferred to group lessons often run by grooms. They are milked for all the lesson money they can spare, are taught very little, and are ultimately pushed out of polo. After all, why keep them in the sport when there is no hope that they will hire professionals and “support” polo? (The term “support polo” is often used as code to mean to hire professionals, to buy expensive horses, and generally, to spend insane amounts on the sport.)
There are two often-repeated clichés about polo (almost every news article about polo will feature one if not both of these clichés). The first is that polo is the “sport of kings.” I guess “king” sounds better than millionaire, but the reality is that polo, as it is played in many clubs around the country, is the sport of millionaires. In fact, a survey conducted by the USPA a few years ago revealed that a very high percentage of players engage in the sport because they view it as exclusive and as a status symbol, not because they love the sport.
The second cliché is that a polo handicap is a passport to the world. This was true when amateurs knew how to play and were sought out by teams everywhere because of their skills. Most of today’s amateurs have no interest in putting in the long hours to improve and would therefore never be invited to play on a team solely because of their polo skills.
Let’s be clear on this : I do not condemn the practice of hiring professionals, nor do I condemn polo clubs that have high membership fees (as I said, their costs are very high). A lot of the pros are fantastic polo players. Many really take care of their patrons. And for those who can afford it, games with pros can provide an exhilirating experience. The problem is that when they hire professionals, a lot of low-handicap players end up playing in games which are too fast for them (often on horses they cannot handle). If that’s all these players do, they will never improve. The level of those games is simply too high for B-rated or A-rated players (or for players who have higher “courtesy” handicaps). Another problem is that the sport is not set up in such a way as to allow many beginners a reasonable opportunity to improve at a reasonable cost. Too many beginners get lost in the process and quit.
The biggest problem (and what upsets me most) is that the sport cannot grow if its only participants are the very wealthy. There just aren’t enough such people around! If this is our only vision for polo, then the sport is destined to remain “a delightfully exclusive” boutique sport (in a country of around 350 million people, there are only four or five thousand registered players).
To me, “developing the sport” does not mean finding more patrons. Developing the sport means finding more amateurs who are truly passionate about polo, who are willing to work hard to improve their skills, and who will be part of a new generation of polo players.
We don’t need to replace the high-goal polo played by the patrons and their pros, or even the still-very-expensive medium-goal grass polo played at so many clubs. We need to add a different type of polo that can be played and enjoyed by a far wider segment of the population. We’ll call it “Real Polo for Real People.”
It is all-amateur arena polo. Arena polo is affordable polo. An arena does not have the same high annual maintenance costs as grass polo. Players can participate in arena games with just two horses. Finally, the all-amateur concept has two major benefits: (1) much lower costs because no pros have to be hired; and (2) participants play in games at their own level, and therefore get many opportunities to get their mallet on the ball. Consequently, their game improves much faster.
“Real Polo for Real People” is about developing amateur players to such a level that 6-goal games among amateurs become routine. It is about players at any level who love the game, who want to contribute to the games in which they play, and who want to play with their friends. It is not about money, or image.
It is about fun, it is about horses, and it is about polo.