Stephen Hutchinson, the new chairman of the Hurlingham Polo Association, will look to bring “a transparency” to the governing body for the sport in England, while overseeing what seem to be completely logical modernisations, and imminently, a harmonisation of the rules between the three leading countries – the UK, the USA, and Argentina.
What stands out immediately about chairman Hutchinson is a deep understanding of the workings of polo, a thoughtful demeanour, and all of it done with a sense of humour, too, from the 57-year-old who has been a Steward for some time, and in polo for three decades as a player.
As an example, Tayto, the Hutchinson family-owned business which makes 45 million packets of crisps a week, put out yesterday its April Fool’s news of the day by announcing a new flavour – Eau de L’Onion. Hutchinson, busy with work and busy with play, took real pleasure in relating how the news had generated 15,000 hits in 30 minutes after it landed on the digital sphere. A small thing, but a very good sign, in my view, for the polo world.
“I was flattered – and surprised – when outgoing chairman John Wright asked me to be vice-chairman and if I would take over from him, and it had the support of the stewards,” Hutchinson told Telegraph Sport. “I felt I wanted to give something back to a sport I love, and which I’ve played with my brother, Raymond, and which my four children play. I’ve been involved for a long time time and I’m still playing. It’s a very binding sport. As a family we enjoy playing together.”
There will be no sweeping changes, from a pragmatist and a thinker. Tweaking reforms to things such as an openness about the way the sport is run from the HPA, its working practises, and joined-up thinking with the two other major national associations – Argentina and the United States – will be high on the agenda.
“The HPA does a lot of good work, and a lot of that work goes unseen, hidden in some respects from the membership,” explains Hutchinson.
“There is a tremendous amount of hard work done by David Woodd and those in the office. And there are then a large number of people who do a lot of work in the background, and pretty successful business people who give up their time, and I think a lot of their work goes unseen.”
“The HPA sometimes has a reputation of being reasonably ineffective but I think it’s quite effective,” added the chairman, who plays his polo at The Beaufort, and is based in Gloucestershire. “I’d like to introduce much more transparency into its workings and show the membership what they get for their money.”
Early days yet, but there is wise counsel. “I think it’s a case of ‘look, listen and learn’, for me. You think you know what’s going on, but once you get into a reasonable position within the HPA, you begin to see the inner workings of it. I think a lot of people who do come into the sport have lots of ideas of what they would, or would not do with the sport and I think they are quite vocal quite quickly when they start playing.”
“Polo is not like other sports – it takes quite a long time to make changes. A lot of changes that are deemed to be simple are not effective, so we tend to think about things for slightly longer than you would imagine to make sure we get it right. One of the main things happening at the moment is the harmonisation of the rules between the UK, the States and Argentina. That has been ongoing for quite a long time.”
“Hopefully, we are about to to announce that very soon, and once we get the rules the same in the three countries, which will lead on to every other country, we can start making rule changes that will make the sport more dynamic, more exciting. And a bit more spectator-friendly.”
Again, Hutchinson sees “small tweaks”.
“The differences are not huge, but we do need to harmonise the rules. Then the three associations can decide how we move forward. It happens in Formula One and all sorts of other sports, where they have to freshen it up and keep it exciting. This is an opportunity to be able to do that as well.”
One of big issues facing polo at present at the top end is the dominance of two teams, and Hutchinson does want to attract more patrons into high goal. “In actual fact, the high goal – which looked as of it was going to be a bit weaker than last year – has been strengthened considerably in the last few weeks and some people are backing the high goal again who had maybe taken a rest for a a year or two. Entries are pretty positive and so everybody is quite pleased about that.”
He added: “David Woodd and others have been talking to the Americans and the Argentines about what sort of rule changes we could bring up in relation to that and how we could freshen up high goal in the UK, whether it could be through some sort of handicapping or change of format because I suppose some people are slightly discouraged from the high goal because two or three of the teams are very strong compared to quite a few of the rest.
“So that’s something that will have to be carefully thought about. The main participants in the main teams know that as well – because you can’t play by yourself. We need to see how we can inject more patrons into it, who feel they gave a good chance of getting the semis or possibly finals.”
Bottom line is that Hutchinson cares deeply about the sport. His son Max Hutchinson, finishing his finals at University at present, captained the England Under-21 team and has played for Ireland in FIP tournaments. Bridging the generational divide will also be of great assistance to the new chairman in his role.
Outside polo, incidentally, Hutchinson has carried the horn for 23 seasons as Master of the Foxhounds in South Tyrone. “I started as a child on horses, when I did a lot of showjumping,” he explained.
So with a magic wand … where would Hutchinson like to be at the end of next season, in 2017 ? “I’d like to make sure that the financial situation is on a good footing; I’d like us to be bringing in more sponsors, which will make the game a wee bit more exciting for the people who are watching it. That’s the aim.”
“It’ll take a while, but transparency within the HPA, too. I think the hierarchy has had a lot of criticism. There’s a culture of blaming the HPA in the sport, I’d like to see that change, because there is a lot of experience within polo in the UK, and I want to bring a lot more people into the decision-making process who have good ideas, who sometimes don’t come forward, If they can add things. I’d like to hear from people in the sport in that respect.”
There is more. “We’d like to get a lot more ladies involved as well (on committees). We’ve formed a chairman’s committee which we are using to bring people forward into the decision making process without really having to be a steward, to give us a a little bit more latitude to bring people in and co-opt them for various tasks and various committees. Slowly, slowly and we’ll see how we go.”
A very sound start indeed, from a new chairman whose care for the sport is clear to see.