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Polo and the curious case of patrons

167   //    12 Jun 2018, 23:34 IST

Ellerstina v Chapaleufu - 124° Argentina Polo Open
Ellerstina v Chapaleufu - 124° Argentina Polo Open

Big on investment

Polo is seen as a sport wherein one must either be skilled or rich enough to get in. It is this status quo which is seen by some to be limiting its advent into the league of sports played strictly by professionals for whom, the sport is a livelihood, a career and not a feel-good venture meant to be undertaken as per one’s whims and fancies.

Polo is co-dependent on the professional athlete slogging it out on the field and the patron who out of his sheer passion for the sport, invests his time and money into his team. The motivation for these patrons to invest in a sport with a minimal profit motive is to further their passion for the sport.

Being polo aficionados, the polo club is a means for the patrons to be in the vicinity of their strongest passion lying outside of the business world. The only way a patron can see it as a profitable venture is if he can take the field and fulfil his passion on weekends perhaps by playing against other teams.

Doling out millions for their club whilst playing the sport that one is passionate about in one’s own club’s team and the patron would feel that the investment is simply furthering a hobby of theirs’, perhaps they view it the same way as some of us might view purchasing a lifetime membership of a fitness club. The return on investment is immaterial since playing at the club enhances our mood while also helping us achieve our desired goals of fitness. 

For some of the patrons, it’s their personal connect with polo that motivates them to divert their financial funds even when many advise them against doing so, claiming and perhaps rightfully so that an investment in some other sport would fetch them a better profit.

The patron though is addicted to the exhilaration that is common every time one gets on the horse and partakes in the high-octane game of polo, attempting to overtake one’s rival whilst rivalling the wind.

Bringing in a patron has other benefits too as the patron often commands influence in the corporate world and hence getting sponsors for the tournament becomes a relatively easy job than the hassle that it usually is for less popular sports in a country. These sponsored events boast of a higher prize money and hence a better incentive for the players to participate.

The distant patron 

On the opposite end of the spectrum are polo aficionados looking to position polo as a seriously professional sport and hence call upon the polo fraternity’s patrons to step back from the playing field and invest judiciously in fielding younger players, the reason being that the younger player’s vibrancy can significantly ramp up the speed of a game of polo thus changing the imagery of the sport, different from the one at present which places polo as an ageing sport, more like a past-time for those who have the deep pockets.

They view the participation of patrons as just individual luxury entertainment and nothing else which is downplaying the seriousness and professionalism with which the game ought to be played for one can’t expect a sport wherein patrons and professionals are co-starring for a team to be having a champions league style world series, built along the same lines as the UEFA Champions League which has made football so popular. 

Class apart: Argentina has production line of young talent

Antony Fanshawe, polo manager at Guards Polo Club questions the inactivity of current bunch of patrons with regards to signing younger players with a handicap of 6-8 goals, “If you can't beat the Cambiasos and the Facundo Pieres of this world with the players you have at the moment, who have never beaten them, it's time to look for new players who can challenge the status quo. That's the thing about young players - they have no fear, maybe through ignorance. But it doesn’t matter. Or it's just arrogance. A combination of the two is what makes a great sportsperson.” 

These polo aficionados call upon the fraternity to pay heed to the newer bunch of talented polo professionals who are young and raring to go. The sport’s dynamics are worked in a way that the younger players are priced lower than their more experienced counterparts, even though their handicaps tell a different story. 

In the most notable high goal tournaments around the world like the Gold Cup or the Cartier Queen’s Cup, the patron frequently features in the line-up of the four players that step out onto the field. A patron is no more weakening to a team’s strength than the patron playing on the opposite side.

Many would be content with the fact that a balance is achieved between the two supposedly weak links in both the team. Nevertheless, ardent admirers of the sport would view the presence of the patrons on the field as compromising the standard of play. 

Limiting involvement 

A radically altered polo structure is in the offing if the patrons sacrifice their involvement on the field and step aside for the younger bunch that is effectively the future of the sport. Those advocating this transition are claiming that high goal polo is the avenue for effecting this transition.

The money needs to be driven behind the horses and the players. The utopian scenario in the polo sphere would be to see a team composed strictly of professional polo players who are playing the game without having to worry about the finances that will drive their polo club ahead, courtesy a selfless patron who monetarily aids the team and yet, limits his involvement to that and only that! 

Positives of status quo

Those advocating the status quo point out that the most attractive feature of polo to patrons, as opposed to other sports is that they can play and participate in the experience they are funding which is a huge plus. “Patrons bring in a lot of benefits for the sport at large in the country as their entry has brought the sport out of the exclusivity of the army,” says Col. Narinder Singh, the yesteryear international polo player for India who has played over 280 international matches.

“The patrons bring in their own teams which enhances competition, they hire foreign coaches and are willing to give ample opportunities to rookies to make a mark. Taking away their right to participate in a match might rob them of their interest in the game at large which will be detrimental to the development of the sport,” he added. 

Another incentive of the current structure of polo is the fact that it allows the patron to handpick players for his team which permits younger and upcoming players to work their way up the ladder. An elimination of the patron’s role in the sport would mean that the sport will be characterized by an absence of dynamism.

The sport will be stuck with an ageing load of players, the former 10-goalers who are well out of their prime and yet, their authority remains unchallenged simply because there would be no mechanism which would allow a rookie to rise to the top by succeeding at successive levels of the hierarchy that is commonplace in any sport.

You see it in football where the Champions League is preceded by the Premiership which in turn is preceded by varying stages of division level football. The current structural arrangements of the sport don’t allow this bottom-up approach and hence, the abundance of patrons is a boon to the sport, rather than the bane it is being made out to be. 

Polo’s handicap system of ranking wherein each player is ranked in terms of number of goals with -2 being the lowest and +10 being the highest permits the formation of this unlikely quartet on the polo field wherein a 22-goal tournament permits the team to accommodate the best player in the line-up, say with a handicap of 10 goals.

Two more players of a fair standard of play are fielded say with a handicap of +5 and +4 respectively and then comes a patron, with a maximum handicap of +2 but often fluctuating between 0 and +1, someone who can barely swing the mallet but is most skilled when it comes to signing the bank cheques. 

Traditional revenue structures 

In many ways, this structure is immensely beneficial for the sport of polo which is still lacking the conventional revenue structures that have been long been adopted in other sports such as the bidding for rights of television coverage, the advertising and the sale of tickets in the stadium amongst other things.

Polo with its negligible media coverage still hasn’t been able to tap into the conventional revenue structures that other sports have incalculably tapped into. Hence, the fact that there are patrons willing to foster the development of the sport is a beneficial factor which is crucial for the sustenance of polo today.

Patrons playing alongside seasoned veterans in polo teams might even be a welcome factor considering that players with varied skill sets playing together might perk up the team’s performance. So in a 20 goal tournament, fielding a patron allows the team to play with a 10 goal player because patrons in all likelihood are ranked between +2 and -2 handicaps. 

The sport, when surveyed with a fine tooth comb in terms of its revenue making potential falls short of the requisite amount needed to eliminate the significance of the patron. In all likelihood and barring a few exceptions, one is likely to be watching a sport if they have experienced playing it.

One might have played football professionally or as a hobby and that is what is likely to translate into an interest in watching Champions League matches. However, the opposite version may apply as well, wherein watching a sport that has been alien to one until now could arouse one to pick up the sport.

Yet, the experiment is simply not permissible owing to the dearth of sponsors willing to pick up a minority sport to be showcased on television. Those willing to come in are the luxury sponsors and brands and that happens courtesy the presence of moneyed people, their targeted consumers at the sporting venue and hence, polo reportage is often centred around who wore what to the game, although elegance is part of the charm of the sport. 

Enter caption

Satinder Garcha, the Indian-born dot-com entrepreneur and now a property developer in Singapore is now among the highest ranked polo patrons in the world, with a handicap of +3 right now.

Polo for Garcha is an antidote to the overburdening world of business. “I only focus on the Argentine season, three months a year, and a little in India. Polo keeps me going, I can safely say. It's a de-stressing process when you play polo. Your focus is on the game, the strategy and playing well. It’s a completely parallel world to business which is very healthy. After a game, business is the last thing on my mind. It's a very positive influence."  

The necessity of patrons to the sport of polo remains unquestioned as long as the present structure doesn’t undergo a massive upheaval and an alternate one is developed in its place. Whether the patrons should become mere bystanders as they continue to dole out millions for their polo teams is a dilemma because if made to step aside for professional players, the patrons will likely be manifestly perturbed.

The move may even deplete their interest in the sport as the major motivation behind the patrons’ interest in polo is because it permits them to foster their involvement in their hobby, allowing them to join in the on-field proceedings.

“It’s the only sport in the world which allows the owner of the team to play alongside professionals of a higher calibre,” says the retired Major General M.S. Sandhu, the polo veteran from India’s famed president’s bodyguard featured regularly for India in the world polo championship matches in the 90s. “You take away their right to participate as a player in a match and you may run the risk of diluting their interest in their sport on the whole.”

Thus, professionals sidestepping the patron’s spot on the team might be inimical to the team’s finances. If the patrons step aside for the professional polo players with the objective of enhancing the professionalism of the sport, the patron has to reason within the self, as to what would be in the best interest of the sport’s advancement. Until then, the status quo maintains itself, for better or for worse!

Do you think the importance of patrons in polo can ever be phased out? Sound off in the comments below!

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