U.S. Polo Assn. is poised to cross the $2.5 billion sales mark this year, bolstered by the increasing popularity of the sport of polo and a global brand strategy that walks the line between aspirational and affordable.
The U.S. Polo Assn., which dates back to 1890, occupies a unique position as the official brand of the nonprofit governing body of the sport that carries the same name. While the brand focuses on the iconic collared shirts and a classics-come-first ethos, the sport itself exudes an elite lifestyle image due to its matches being held on large fields in far-flung destinations with a posh equestrian following.
Global sales hit $2.3 billion last year, up from $1.9 billion in 2021 and exceeding a goal of hitting $2 billion by 2025 three years early. With a presence in 190 countries, much of the growth was fueled by sales internationally, including the addition of stores in the United Kingdom and Brazil. So far this year, about half a billion in sales have been generated alone from sales in India.
CEO J. Michael Prince, who has been with the brand since 2017, said the strategy to grow the brand also relies on making more people aware about the sport itself. ESPN recently launched broadcasts of polo matches, and Prince told Modern Retail that initial programs performed so well they aired multiple times. A two-year rights extension was finalized earlier this year — and Prince said the draw isn’t just the time on the field, but the ceremony and culture that surrounds it.
“We said ‘if we try to compete with soccer or baseball or American football, sport to sport, we don’t win,’” Prince said. “But if you allow us to share our lifestyle content of the beautiful story around the horses, the beautiful field we play on, the champagne, the divot stomp, the Jack Russells running across the field. Then all of a sudden, contentwise, we’re better than any sport in the world.”
Despite this posh exterior, the brand itself aims to be affordable, mainstream and ubiquitous. Moving forward, it plans to grow its retail footprint and invest in multi-channel marketing to grow its e-commerce sales. With 60% of its sales currently coming from wholesale, U.S. Polo Assn. will invest in its own stores to grow its brand loyalty, as well as boost its physical footprint from 1,100 stores to 2,000 through 2030. The company also plans to continue its sport-themed photo shoots centered around the sport of polo that will appear on social, magazines and Time Square billboards as a way to “elevate the brand” and push its timeless vibe.
“We offer the consumer a sport-inspired lifestyle opportunity, and a great price to value proposition,” Prince said. “We offer families a chance to engage with a world class international sport inspired brand at prices they can afford. And we offer them tremendous value for that.”
The growth of U.S. Polo Assn. dovetails with a broader trend of people are seeking sport-influenced apparel as the game takes prominence. The explosion of pickleball, as well as increased U.S. interest in soccer amid the arrival of Lionel Messi to Major League Soccer, provide similar narratives, as does the mainstreaming of athleisure. But like horse racing or tennis, polo is a sport with a history of belonging to the wealthy, and thus has a different niche. It may not be a sport that people play themselves, but one they attend or watch as an event unto itself.
That’s where the ESPN sports-as-lifestyle-content strategy comes in — as well as acquiring and rebranding a property at the National Polo Center in south Florida. The association bought the property, one of the largest polo clubs in the world, for $95 million last year and renovated it to include restaurants, pools, tennis courts and rentable venue space. The center will host marquee events in 2024 like the Gauntlet of Polo and U.S. Open Women’s Polo Championship. To Prince, the broadcasts and the center are the kind of big-picture moves and long-term strategies that help the sport — and in turn, the brand — get more attention.
“As you get bigger, you have to focus on what matters most,” Prince said. “And it’s really easy to get distracted with the next shiny object or little things that you want to try to control, versus, at $2.5 billion dollars, we need to be thinking about $100 million dollar opportunities, not $1 million dollar opportunities,” Prince said.
Dipanjan Chatterjee, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, said sports like soccer and pickleball have tended to be the biggest influences for brand growth. That’s partly due to people picking up the sport themselves and investing in gear, as well as the growth in popularity of MLS in the United States.
“What happens when Messi plays? There’s an entire stadium full of celebrities who come to watch him who had no interest in football whatsoever,” he said. “There’s been a huge boost.”
But polo occupies a different niche that’s more akin to tennis, with grand events like the U.S. Open and Wimbledon drawing a big crowd amid luxe surroundings. Polo in particular has a history of exclusivity dating back to its ties with colonial Britain. The sport’s history also bodes well for a more international play compared to a strictly U.S. one, Chatterjee said. But there still may be a cap on growth because of those exclusivity and aspirational associations.
“It’s not necessarily the sport itself that is going to drive demand,” he said. “It’s what the sport stands for.”
To that end, Prince said U.S. Polo Assn. is careful not to alienate a middle-class customer — especially in the current economic climate where households are accommodating higher costs of living. The brand’s iconic collared shirts run at around $45 retail with sales putting them at half the price. Prince also said that the brand’s designs will remain consistent, part of a strategy to retain its current consumer and draw in new ones looking for affordable clothes that aren’t a play on trends.
“A lot of brands have really increased prices to a level where they’re almost unattainable,” Prince said. “And we know who we are. And we want to be accessible for people.”