As much of the sports world
grapples to stay relevant in an age of digitalization, fast-moving media cycles
and shifting consumer preferences, a centuries old gentlemen’s game rooted in
tradition is quietly, and rapidly, garnering national acclaim. And it is doing
so by eschewing many industry trends.
Polo, the “Sport of Kings,” is
hardly a newcomer to the global stage. It was a featured competition in five
Olympic Games (1900, ’08, ’20, ’24 and ’36), and the oldest club, the Calcutta
Polo Club, dates back to 1862. Artifacts suggest rudimentary versions of the
game were played as early as 200 BC—though, by all accounts the modern form originated
in India in the mid-19th Century.
The sport’s notoriety spread
quickly throughout the late 19th Century and early 20th
Century, particularly among Europe’s nobility and upper social classes. It was introduced
stateside by James Gordon Bennett, a New York publisher, who hosted the first
game in the United States in 1876 after seeing a match during a visit to
England a year earlier.
Yet, for more than a century,
polo remained largely out of the mainstream in the U.S., receiving far less fanfare
than other equestrian sports like horse racing and rodeo. Its niche positioning
owed in part to the rigor of the game and significant costs, which made it largely
inaccessible to much of the public.
To be sure, the nature of the
game has not changed much. A physically demanding sport, both on horse and
rider, polo requires competitors to be in peak condition. It’s not uncommon for
a well-trained polo horse to cost as much as $200,000. Considering that riders often
change mounts at each of six chukkers, or periods of play in a match, to keep
their horses fresh—it’s easy to see how the cost of competitive polo can quickly
Even today, polo is not on the
same plane as most major sports leagues, which is due chiefly, still, to the
high bar to entry. Yet, the sport’s allure owes in no small part to that very exclusivity.
Traditions remain central to the game—think ceremonial sabrages, champagne
toasts and high fashion—which lend an air of sophistication that has drawn crowds
hungry for an elevated experience.
In many respects, polo as a sport
has shrugged off industry conventions. Rather than marketing to mass audiences,
leagues have catered instead to smaller, discerning crowds. Experience is tantamount,
which is evident in spectators’ own involvement in a match—like stomping the
divots to return a field to a proper condition.
At the same time, the game is expanding
its accessibility here in the States. Today, there are nearly 300 polo clubs in
the U.S.—the most of any of the 90 countries around the world where the sport
is played. Across the country, many clubs have launched programs that invite
new players to experience the game without the hefty costs historically
associated with the sport.
The result has been a steady growth
in the sport. While it’s difficult to track national stats, many leagues report
an uptick in participation and public engagement. At the International Polo
Club in Palm Beach, Florida, for example, local box office revenue increased
185 percent between 2012 and 2015, including a 133 percent year-over-year gain
in 2014, Forbes
It may shock some, too, to know that
women are polo’s fastest growing demographic. Female players made up a record 40
percent of membership in the U.S. Polo Association last year, and the number of
women’s tournaments has steadily increased over the past five years.
In Sheridan, Wyoming, at the base
of the Big Horn Mountains, polo is a staple of the community. Indeed, some of
the country’s first matches were played here after English royalty, and with
them thoroughbred horses, settled in the area in the late 1800s. Western
horsemen began adopting the sport in the early 1900s, when they began selling
horses to U.S. Calvary units, used the game as a training exercise.
“In those days, you could get
$165 from the Government for a cavalry horse, which wasn’t bad, but you could
get $300 for a polo pony,” explains Tommy Wayman, a Big Horn local who, in the
1980s, was the first U.S. player in 30 years to achieve 10-goal status, the game’s
“Those cowboys would get an old
mallet and they’d go out to the ranches, where they knew they could find horses
that were broke to the saddle. Then they’d swing the mallet on them for a
little bit, and the next day they’d be able to sell them as polo ponies.”
Today, on nearly any given summer
afternoon, one can expect to find a friendly match at the Big Horn Polo Club. Down the road
at the Flying H Polo Club, some of
the world’s best players train and compete.
Led by U.S.P.A.-certified
instructor Megan Flynn, the Big Horn Club now offers polo school to introduce enthusiasts,
young and old, to the game. It also started a margarita league, which offers
shorter games for novice players as a steppingstone to more competitive play.
“This is where everybody wants to
come and play polo during the summer,” Katie Connell, president of the Big Horn
Polo Club tells the Casper
Star Tribune. “Our polo keeps going. It’s an unbelievable success.”
Seated in cattle country,
Sheridan’s polo culture attracts many of the best players from around the world
each year. The result is a unique and indelible combination of Western and
English horsemanship, which puts a signature flare on the sport. It’s not
unusual to see pick-up games played in roping saddles, or for Budweiser to be
poured among spectators in place of customary champagne.
In many ways, Sheridan’s adoption
of the game reflects its reception across the country. While keeping a foot in
tradition, the sport is evolving to be more accessible to the public. It’s at
once shedding pretenses that kept some at bay, while still preserving the refinement
that contributes to its appeal.
“The best players in the United
States are no longer the landed aristocracy,” Alex Webbe, a columnist for the Palm
Beach Daily News told the New
York Times in 1981. That evolution seems to now be coming full circle. No
longer a sport only for society’s elite, polo has established its mass appeal,
which will likely only continue to grow.