On the Saddle With US Polo CEO, Bob Puetz

Posted 8/30/20

As one of the oldest organized sports on the calendar, polo made its way to the American sporting landscape in the latter part of the 19th century. Originally a pursuit of the affluent elite,

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On the Saddle With US Polo CEO, Bob Puetz

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As one of the oldest organized sports on the calendar, polo made its way to the American sporting landscape in the latter part of the 19th century. Originally a pursuit of the affluent elite, the horse-riding, mallet-swinging game has become more diverse and inclusive in recent years. The "Sport of Kings" enjoyed its golden era in the 1920s and 1930s, but today it is experiencing a resurgence with 41 different colleges around the country offering polo in their athletic programs. On the professional level, top tournaments are streamed live to millions of viewers around the world. Sports History Magazine asked Bob Puetz, CEO of the USPA (United States Polo Association- USPolo.org), to shed new light on the game 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 United States Polo Association (USPA), which was originally known simply as The Polo Association, was formed.

The last time polo was played in the Olympics was in 1936, but more recently it was accepted as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics. What's driving the resurgence?

The 2018 Summer Youth Olympic Games were held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and it was only natural that polo be added as a showcase sport because it is so popular throughout the country and surrounding areas. Argentina is also home to many of the highest rated players in the world. The USPA along with many other countries have been spearheading a move to get polo into the 2023 Pan American Games, which could pave the way for polo’s return to the Olympics.

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, the sport was represented in the Olympics and international competition was at its height. 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 since the USPA began 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 in the Polo Hall of Fame.

Is the game played on the college level at all?

Yes, the USPA’s Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) Program is available at schools around the country, currently represented in 41 university programs. I/I polo is played in the arena with both men’s and women’s intercollegiate teams competing in separate divisions across four regions, all vying for a chance to win the National Intercollegiate Championship. Regardless if a player started in the Middle School League, Interscholastic program (high school) or National Youth Tournament Series, Intercollegiate polo is an opportunity for new players to have their first polo experience. There are a variety of resources available for parents and potential players located on the I/I programs page and bookshelf on uspolo.org.

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 your background in the sport, mentoring with seasoned players and acquiring a string of polo ponies along with transportation for them 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 for polo and training horses for the racetrack is a polo pony must perform numerous and ongoing athletic skills while on the polo field. Their abilities include fast stops, physical contact, high speeds and acute turns performed at all speeds. 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 maneuver side to side.

Historically, how has the U.S. national team performed on the international stage?

2019 was a landmark year for American international competition! Returning the historic Westchester Cup to American soil for the first time since 1992, USA defeated the English in a pulse-pounding overtime chukker to claim the trophy 9-8. USA also dominated in the Junior Westchester Cup with a second consecutive win, having raised the trophy in 2018 in England. Also, claiming the eighth annual USA vs. Britain International Intercollegiate Challenge Cup, the U.S. now leads 6-2 in the series over Schools & Universities Polo Association (SUPA) Britain. Reigning Champions USA dominated during the 2019 International Arena Showcase, defending the Townsend Cup and winning the inaugural Churchill-Roosevelt Cup. USA also took home 2nd place in the XI Federation of International Polo World Championship in 2015 in an overtime game to the host country Chile.

The United States Polo Association, USPA Global Licensing and Empire Polo Club are pleased to host the XII FIP World Polo Championship in 2022 with the U.S. Polo Assn. as the official apparel sponsor in Indio, California.

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 it’s popularity can ebb and flow accordingly. For example, polo was not played during either of the world wars. 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 evolved over time to better ensure the protection and safety of the horses and players and to improve spectator experience. The USPA has implemented modern technology that includes instant replay for officials, livestreaming and broadcasting of top tournaments and providing a website that tracks tournaments and player statistics.

What's next for American polo?

Established in 2019, the GAUNTLET OF POLO® has created an elevated experience for players and fans. Introducing the richest prize in the sport, the GAUNTLET is the ultimate test of endurance and horse power. The team who wins all three of the USA’s most prestigious tournaments (C.V. Whitney Cup, USPA Gold Cup®, U.S. Open Polo Championship™) will receive approximately $1 million in prize money and the title of GAUNTLET champion. In 2019, the Gauntlet had 16 teams participate which was a record for high-goal American polo. The U.S. Open Polo Championship® Final was aired across five networks, including CBS Sports, CBS Sports Network, Eurosport, DSport and TVG Network, and was distributed to more than 260 million households reaching over four million viewers.

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