You probably didn't know that the U.S. Open is going on right now in Wellington, Fla. Not the U.S. Open of golf or tennis, but of polo—the sport with riders on horses whacking a ball with a mallet.
It’s the 112th USPA U.S. Open, the biggest annual event in the sport, and for only the second time, it will be televised on NBC Sports. It will simultaneously live-stream at Chukker.tv. The tournament began with eight teams on April 2 and culminates in a final on Sunday, April 24. And the names of some of those teams (including Coca-Cola, Audi, and Flexjet—yes, those are the official team names) are a reminder of the business opportunities available in the sport to blue-chip brands.
Now the 126-year-old club that oversees the sport, the U.S. Polo Association (USPA), is realizing it needs to make those opportunities clearer to businesses, and make the sport more appealing to American fans.
The image people think of when they think of polo, acknowledges USPA CEO Duncan Huyler, “is Prince Harry, or pretty women and big hats and champagne… that’s something we’re trying to change. We’re trying to make polo a little more diverse and a little more accessible to more people in this country.”
Giving fans a place to actually see the sport is a good start at making it more accessible. Last year NBC Sports (CMCSA) televised polo for the first time. Then it entered a three-year contract to broadcast the sport's U.S. Open, East Coast Open, and Pacific Coast Open in 2016, 2017, and 2018.
In addition to the contract with NBC Sports, this year the USPA started live-streaming its games, and has streamed more than 100 of them. The NBC broadcast of the final game will not be live—it’s showing on April 30 at 5 pm, a full week after the game—which gives the live-stream the advantage of being the only place to watch it as it happens. Ideally, Huyler says, “I’d like to see a constant presence, like every Friday at 7 pm you can watch polo, whether it’s online or on TV.” The sport is getting close to that point, but still looking for ways to monetize the live-stream with sponsors. (Maserati shelled out to be the title sponsor of the U.S. Open in 2013, but this year’s tournament doesn’t have a title sponsor—a potentially disheartening sign.)
Huyler, an army veteran and former hedge fund CFO, is basically the commissioner of the sport. His big ambition for polo? “We’re trying to make the sport look and smell more like a sport in this country. Traditionally, it’s been a very niche sport for supposedly the elite of the country, the 1 percent.” (Rugby, which one could argue has the opposite target demographic, has had the same struggle with growing its popularity in the U.S., and even golf, a much more mainstream sport, has seen falling TV viewership and has turned to tech to attract new fans.) Making the sport seem like anything other than rich and elite is a tall, maybe impossible task: This is, after all, a pastime so refined that the term for when two players battle over a ball is “disputing.” They “dispute the ball.” The horses are called “polo ponies.” A game lasts two hours.
Growing the game at the youth level could be the key in bringing it to the masses. But the game is expensive to play, even at an amateur level (you’ll need ownership or access to a horse). The USPA has taken great pains to expand its middle-school league and its high school varsity letter program, so that high school players, Huyler says, “can get rewarded, hopefully alongside the football players, with a varsity letter. We want to make it friendlier to parents who are trying to decide whether their kids should be in football, lacrosse, or soccer, we want them to also consider polo.” Horses galloping at high speeds, with players leaning over to swing a long mallet, may scare some parents—but it looks positively benign next to the head-injury risks of tackle football.
More than 30 colleges now offer polo as a varsity sport, the USPA says, with more than 300 individual college-level players. That’s a tiny pool, to be sure, but one that has grown from just 200 in 2009. Cornell University, to cite one example, offers academic scholarships to polo players. (It probably helps that Huyler is an alum.)
And then there’s the polo clothing war. You’ve likely seen someone in a shirt made by U.S. Polo Assn., and mistaken it for a Polo Ralph Lauren shirt. The logo in each case is very similar: Ralph Lauren’s is a polo player on horseback, wielding a mallet, while the USPA's is two polo players on horses. U.S. Polo Assn. has been around since 1890 and is the legally protected, official brand of the sport, but that hasn’t stopped Ralph Lauren from taking legal action many times over the past few decades.
“There’s some interesting history here,” Huyler acknowledges, “and much of it has ended up in court. But we feel we’re the authentic brand of the sport.” U.S. Polo Assn. does $1.5 billion in sales each year globally, with over half its revenue coming from outside the U.S. Most recently, the brand got a win when a U.S. appeals court in Manhattan overturned a 2012 ruling in Ralph Lauren’s favor that the Polo Association could not sell sunglasses with its logo on them. But consumers are still likely to confuse the two clothing lines.
The USPA aims to relate its clothing brand to its sport at all times—which, if the clothing line can grow, could successfully bring the sport along with it.
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Daniel Roberts is a writer at Yahoo Finance, covering sports business and technology.