By Jerry Walker
SCOTTSDALE – It is not every day that a public address announcer at a sporting event interrupts mid-match to announce that a VIP is flying over the field in a private jet to tease a later arrival at the event.
Yet at the Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships, that was just one example of the level of luxury on display.
Polo is called “The Sport of Kings” for a reason, and it continues to have a reputation for being a sport exclusively for the upper class and even royals. However, during the recent Bentley event – also known as the “Polo Party” – at WestWorld, there was evidence that the sport is reaching out to a wider audience.
“I think there definitely has been – and probably still is – a stigma about the sport and that it is only played by the elitists and the royals,” said Nic Roldan, America’s top player and one of the top 10 in the world. “But I think clubs like the (Arizona Polo Club) here. They’re bringing accessibility to the sport and there are clubs all around the United States doing the same thing.”
A version of polo emerged as a way to train for battle in what is modern-day Iran around 600 B.C., according to the Museum of Polo and Polo Hall of Fame. The modern version of the game developed in India in the 1850s and spread across the world.
In the sport, four horse-mounted players on each team try to advance a ball and score goals using long-handled mallets. Today, polo is played in 77 countries and there are more than 4,500 players in the U.S. competing in more than 275 registered clubs, according to the Museum of Polo.
And a Forbes report in 2015 found there had been a 185% increase in revenue brought in by polo events over the three previous winters with the International Polo Club (IPC) adding over a hundred new member clubs in that span.
The sports growing popularity is on display every year in Scottsdale.
Following a significantly smaller turnout last year due to COVID-19, the Bentley Scottsdale Polo Championships returned to full form in 2021. It was the 10th anniversary of what has become America’s most-attended polo event, attracting more than 12,000 spectators this year.
With tickets starting at $30, the crowd crossed social and economic boundaries.
While some spectators dressed to impress, there also were a lot of new polo fans decked out in shorts and wearing t-shirts with the names of rock bands or sports teams, much as one might see on a warm, sunny day at a baseball game or walking through Old Town Scottsdale.
Alongside the field, sponsors pitched VIP tents and there was space for fans willing to pay for pitch-side parking, where they set up tents and tables much like a college football tailgate.
Of course, it was a little more luxurious than a typical tailgate with tables laid out with glistening glass containers of food and drink much like the spread at the sponsored tents.
When the polo ponies trotted onto the field it did not matter if one was sitting in a fully serviced area or in the bed of a truck. Everybody cheered and followed the action.
For Larry Crane, who was attending the Polo Party for the first time, the crowd’s enthusiasm for the sport came as a surprise.
“Now, the polo match has been great; it’s been fantastic,” Crane said. “The scene surrounding the polo match is what surprised me. It’s active and alive and just has lots of positive energy.”
The crowd was engaged throughout the matches, and especially got into between each “chukker” – a period of play in polo – when members of the crowd took to the pitch for the traditional divot stomp. They all stomped the divots of turf kicked up by the ponies back into place before play continued in the next chukker.
The Arabian Horse Association of Scottsdale also performed during breaks between chukkers with three horses and their riders dressed up for the occasion in matching outfits.
For the more serious polo aficionados, the main draw of the event is the high level of polo being played at the Polo Party and in Arizona.
The event drew teams from around the U.S. as well as clubs from Argentina and Colombia. The star of the event was Roldan, who estimated it was the third or fourth time he has competed at the Polo Party.
“I love it. It’s always a fun event to come to,” said Roldan, who played for the Aspen Valley Polo Club, the same club that Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex played with over the summer.
“Scottsdale is just such a great city and we are just looking forward to a great event and the weather is going to be great as always,” he said.
But make no mistake. There was no shortage of luxury on display at the event.
People came for the polo but many stayed for the trappings and people watching, shopping at the various vendors, checking out super cars or sipping bubbly at champagne lounges.
One of the bigger attractions was set up by Barrett-Jackson, the luxury and collector car auction company that has been a part of The Polo Party since the beginning.
“We are hosting the Barrett-Jackson Champagne and Jazz Lounge,” said Rodney Scearce, director of public relations for automotive media at Barrett-Jackson. “Every year we bring a handful of the cars that we have consigned to our January Scottsdale auction sort of as a select preview.”