The music pumps as the players gallop past spectators, high-fiving them on their way back to the line-up after a goal. The scene at the Heineken Urban Polo NZ events is not your average day at polo. The field is ringed by houses, where residents can be seen barbecuing and sipping a Heineken while watching the game. Event founders Simon Wilson and Sam Hopkinson are bringing polo to the middle of New Zealand's biggest cities, many of which haven't seen the sport in over 100 years.
Wilson brings a wealth of event planning and polo experience to the table, having run the New Zealand Polo Open for nine years at the Auckland Polo Club before creating an event that makes polo more spectator-friendly. His new format gives the public a memorable, raucous experience and has attracted a new demographic to polo. But how do you make a sport that requires so much land happen in the middle of a city?
The partners developed a field system that packs into a container and travels around the country with them. They build a wall around the field that Wilson describes as “beer height.” At the first event, he said, spectators crowded up against the wall to get a closer view.
“I've never seen that before,” he said. “People are usually walking around, drinking champagne and having a lovely time and ‘Oh, there's some polo in the background.’ We have portable grandstands now that we use because people actually want to watch the game."
The response to these events has been resoundingly positive. In fact, it’s been so positive that the organizers are expanding the tour series from the original two locations to four in 2018.
"One elderly woman turned up to the location as we were setting up at our first Auckland event and asked to speak with the organizer," Wilson said. "I thought I was in for a lecture, but she said, ‘We live in this house directly beside the field. Will we be able to see the game? We have invited the whole street to our place to have drinks and watch polo.' We see hundreds of the locals having parties and watching the games, which I am personally very excited about."
Wilson largely credits the enthusiasm to the high level of polo they showcase with professional players.
"The business would be nothing without good polo. We're lucky in New Zealand that the level of polo is really high. We had 6- and 7-goal players our first year,” he said, adding that Hopkinson is the key to maintaining the standard. “We want to showcase the event as a sport, not just as a fantastic party. Sam is a 6-goal player and has played all over the world, including in other alternative formats, and has his eye focused on ponies and players."
While their focus isn’t specifically on growing players from these events, Wilson believes exposing the general public to polo will create a stronger sport in the long run.
"I don't know whether that whole idea of getting lots more people playing the game really works because [new people] turn up for five minutes and then you never see them again, but maybe their kids will play," Wilson said. "If someone comes to the event, they might have missed the boat on their own polo career, but we have people who want their kids to start playing. That's really what we want. That's the idea around strengthening our game."
The Heineken Urban Polo NZ series will be visiting Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Wellington in 2018. For more information, visit www.urbanpolo.co.nz.