You might think that a sport that costs so much to play, at least for those with their own ponies to house and transport, would have been hard hit by the global financial crisis.
Yet according to David Woodd, chief executive of the Hurlingham Polo Association, governing body of the sport in about 30 countries, including the UK and much of Europe, the sport’s finances remain in relatively robust shape.
Polo has not grown rich on the back of a handful of lucrative television deals and sponsorship contracts, which spur rapid growth when times are good but can leave a sport vulnerable when things turn sour.
According to Woodd, most of the money that flows into polo – he estimates it is an industry worth £300m ($480m) a year in the UK – comes from the few hundred deep-pocketed patrons who finance teams to pursue their love of the sport. This includes competing in the sport’s top tournaments if their pockets are deep enough.
“Most of the polo in the country is played at the clubs, which are affiliated to us but completely independent of us from a financial point of view,” Woodd says from the HPA’s headquarters in Little Coxwell near Oxford.
“In the past two years, sponsorship has got harder to get for sure … Certainly at the club level, sponsorship has got much more difficult. But I wouldn’t say generally that sponsorship is a major income stream for the clubs. Their income stream is very much member subscriptions and entry fees for tournaments.”
In such circumstances, the number of players and matches becomes a good gauge of the sport’s financial health. The HPA figures show that the number of registered polo players in the UK fell from 3,253 in 2008 to 3,007 the following year – a decline of about 7.5 per cent. However, the trend flattened out in 2010 and appears to have been reversed this year.
“It takes you time to get involved in polo,” Woodd explains. “Once you are, you’ve probably got horses and perhaps a horsebox and a groom and stables. That adds up to quite a commitment, so when the recession hits, you scale down rather than stopping.”
He adds: “If they had a team of three paid players, they would say, ‘I’m going to get rid of one of you and pool the costs of the team with someone else.’ I think most patrons have pretty much kept going, while reducing a bit.”
Woodd says that Cowdray Park, one of the country’s leading clubs, has played “20 per cent more games this year than last”.
He notes that the number of teams competing in the Gold Cup this year has fallen from 20 to 18. “But the Queen’s Cup, which had 14 teams last year, had 16 this year, so they are two up. So it’s about the same. The top end of the sport, where it’s big money, has not been seriously affected by the recession,” he says.
To get a better idea of how much money is involved, I ask Woodd how much it would cost to put together a Gold Cup team.
He replies: “If you said you wanted to play in the Gold Cup and you wanted to enjoy yourself and have a chance of doing reasonably well, I would say £500,000. If you said you wanted to have a chance of winning in a year when you can get the players in without breaking contracts, I think I would ask for a cheque of £4m.”
In spite of such substantial figures, few people, with the possible exception of the top international riders, are making their fortunes out of polo in the UK. There is no official betting and no prize money.
“It is a one-way ticket, money-wise, for the guy paying,” Woodd says. “Can he get his money back? No, absolutely not.”
He continues: “It is a sport of getting hooked, really. The clubs don’t make money. Most of the clubs are run by somebody who is an enthusiast, probably has got sufficient resources to fund some of it and whose main aim is to run a club and break even rather than make money.
“Guards Polo Club makes money. Cowdray Park probably makes money.
“Most of the small clubs might be in the black at the end of the year, but nobody is walking away with big bonuses.”