US Polo's Chris Green on the Sport of Kings
Promoting the game and competing abroad
As one of the oldest organized sports on the calendar, polo made its way to the American landscape in the latter part of the 19th century, enjoying a golden era in the 1920s and 1930s.
Originally a pursuit of the affluent elite, the mallet-swinging equine game has expanded beyond its traditional roots, embracing diversity at home and winning matches abroad.
Sports History Weekly asked Chris Green, COO & In-House Counsel of the United States Polo Association (USPA), to shed light on the sport that has historically been played under the radar and in clubby surroundings.
The USPA was founded in 1890. Tell us a little about the early days and how the sport of polo made it to the shores of America.
Polo is considered among the oldest organized sports ever played and was first introduced in the United States by way of England in 1876.
On a trip to England, James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald, saw his first polo game. Early in 1876, he returned to New York with mallets, balls and a copy of the Hurlingham rules.
It didn’t take long for America to take a liking to this game and assemble their own loosely structured matches.
As players and teams propagated, the development of the sport demanded a governing body, and in 1890 the USPA, originally known simply as The Polo Association, was formed.
Has there ever been a ‘Golden Age’ of polo?
The golden age of polo in the United States took place during the 1920s and 1930s when some of the most historically well-known players were competing and the sport was represented in the Olympics and in international competitions. During that time, big tournaments drew tens of thousands of spectators.
Who was the greatest American polo player of all time?
There have been numerous top American players that held a 10-goal rating for a long period of time. A 10-goal rating is the highest handicap a player can achieve in polo.
Players such as Tommy Hitchcock, Cecil Smith, and Mike Azzarro each held the rating for many years and have been inducted into the Polo Hall of Fame.
What is the profile of the polo player today?
Horses are the equalizing factor in the sport of polo, allowing a wide range of participants. Polo players come from all walks of life and backgrounds and include both men and women of all ages and levels of commitment.
They include weekend warriors, team sponsors, intercollegiate/interscholastic (I/I) athletes, professionals, and everyone in between.
How many programs/colleges are involved?
The USPA’s I/I programs introduce the sport of polo to student athletes in a safe and affordable environment and continue to see growth year after year.
They provide young people the opportunity to play with their peers while also exposing them to the polo community through travel.
Today, each of the I/I branches boasts 30-plus established programs across a wide range of academic institutions in the U.S. and Canada.
All interscholastic teams must be affiliated with a USPA registered club and can either consist of all boys, or a combination of boys and girls for the Open division, or an exclusively girls’ team for the Girls’ division.
How does one become a professional polo player?
Historically, the majority of professional players grow up in the sport and are immersed in the culture from a young age.
However, in modern times, regardless of a person's background in the sport, mentoring with seasoned players and acquiring a string of polo ponies along with transportation are generally the first steps to establishing a professional career.
As with any sport, ultimately, compensation for your skills and contribution to the team are the defining factors between amateurs and professionals.
How does the sport make money?
Individual USPA Member Clubs generate revenue through multiple avenues including membership and tournament fees, ticket sales, food and beverage sales, special events and sponsorship opportunities.
How are the horses trained compared to thoroughbreds at the track?
The main difference between training horses for polo and training for the racetrack is a polo pony must perform numerous and ongoing athletic skills, including fast stops, physical contact, high speeds, and acute turns.
A racehorse must only focus on speed and finishing first, while polo ponies need incredible amount of endurance, agility and flexibility, not just to run but to maneuver side to side.
How has the game changed over the decades in terms of its popularity, its rules, its participants?
The game is very much tied to the economic and political environment of the times and its popularity can ebb and flow accordingly.
While initially established by an affluent elite, the game has shifted over the years to become a more widely diverse and inclusive sport and one of the only sports where both men and women can compete on the same field and amateurs can compete alongside professionals at the highest levels.
The rules have also evolved over time to better ensure the protection and safety of the horses and players and to improve spectator experience.
In addition, the USPA has implemented modern technology that includes instant replay for officials, livestreaming and broadcasting of top tournaments, and a website that tracks tournaments and player statistics.
How does the U.S. national team perform?
Advancing to the final of almost every international competition over the past three years, the U.S. has been a tough competitor across all levels of the sport.
In the spring of 2022, we made an historic statement in the first Federation of International Polo (FIP) Women’s World Polo Championship. Though we lost to Argentina in the final, we displayed a strong defense in front of 5,000 spectators in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Later that year, in the fall of 2022, more than 3,500 fans filled the new National Polo Center in Wellington, Florida for the final match of the XII FIP Polo World Championship. We fell to Spain in overtime at the final, but we upset tournament favorites Uruguay and Argentina in bracket play and semifinal play, respectively.
The semifinal against Argentina saw Hope Arellano become the first woman to represent the United States in the final stages of a competition. This roster adjustment resulted in the USA entering the semifinals with two pairs of siblings: Agustin and Hope Arellano and Lucas and Nico Escobar.
Early in 2023, two elite teams travelled from the U.S. to face-off against Great Britain. The USA claimed the Intercollegiate Challenge Cup in a stellar comeback and put forth a valiant effort in the Bryan Morrison Trophy.
We made history again later in May of 2023 with the inaugural FIP Arena World Polo Championship held in Argentina. The USA impressed with a stellar semifinal, taking down the home team, Argentina. Paralleling the tough FIP World Polo Championship result, we lost to France in overtime.
What's next for American polo?
Last year, the USPA purchased 161 acres including the core assets of the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington, Florida.
Every January through April, the Florida high-goal season attracts the world's leading polo organizations, highest-rated professionals, and top horses.
Widely regarded as the winter hub of world-class equestrian competition, Wellington has played a critical role in the development of the sport of polo in the United States and abroad since the 1970s.
The facility will secure the future of winter and spring polo in South Florida, which many of the sport’s key participants from throughout the country rely on as a major source of their annual income.
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