POLO, probably the most luxurious sport

When polo ponies thundered across the fields of Persia in the fifth century BC, the sport was largely a training exercise for elite troops. Over time it grew into Persia’s national sport, enjoyed exclusively by the nobility, men and women alike.

Fast-forward more than 2,000 years and polo continues to remain largely the domain of the wealthy and the influential. Yet it has also become a globally ­recognised sport, attracting serious sponsorship and investment. The exceptional skil of the players lies in their relationship with the horse, the bond being essential to achieve high levels of performance.

Argentina is undoubtedly home to one of the most famous polo competitions worldwide Argentina Polo Open, which takes place from November 19th to  December 10th 2011 and gathers world class players and wealthy visitors. Rolex, Ralph Lauren and La Martina are among several international luxury brands sponsoring the Argetinean event.

After Hungary, Russia and Poland, it is Romania’s turn to host a major polo tournament in March, Carpathian Snow Polo European Championship, in the mountain resort of Poiana Brasov, with a main prize of 100.000 euros and over 20.000 tourists expected to attend the event. The event is organized by Royal Polo Club RâÅŸnov between 2-4 March 2011 and it is the first such major polo competition to take place in Romania.

“Polo is very glamorous,” says Andrew Murray, polo manager at Asprey, the UK luxury goods group. “It has always been associated with royals and it was the game of kings. It is very fast and it is very sexy.” He continues: “Polo is becoming more commercially viable because the game has developed. It used to be amateur, but it’s now much more professional. Players fly in from around the world and the game is drawing more commercial interest. The days of it being an amateur game for the gentry are changing.”

Asprey is one of a number of luxury brands that invest in polo by sponsoring teams and tournaments and by developing lines of clothing and accessories that tap into the sport’s exclusive image. It has sponsored a polo team since 2007 and designed a line of professional polo equipment. “We are very serious about polo. Our involvement is not gimmicky,” Murray insists.

The biggest polo tournaments offer sponsors valuable exposure to an affluent clientele as well as sought-after product associations. Like other sports such as tennis and rugby, the game is an attractive vehicle for corporate hospitality. It even has its own celebrity players, such as Argentine 10-goaler Adolfo Cambiaso.

Yet top-level polo is expensive to support. The costly nature of the high-goal game means it relies on sponsors and wealthy players, the patrons, to fund the teams and pay the professionals. It costs between £50,000 ($80,000) and £100,000 a year to sponsor a low-level team, while a medium-level team costs £250,000-£500,000. At the top of the sport, the cost of sponsoring a team can be between £1m and £2.5m a year.

Other luxury brands making significant investments in polo include Jaeger­LeCoultre, the Swiss watchmaker famous for its Reverso, a watch developed in 1931 for British polo players in India. “We have a special relationship with polo and a multiformat presence,” says Jérôme Lambert, chief executive. According to Lambert, polo’s various sponsors pump up to €20m ($28m) a year into the sport.

Richard Mille, the Swiss watchmaker, not only sponsors the polo team that bears its name but is also working on a modern interpretation of a player’s watch. “The skill, speed and endurance needed in polo make it for me an exciting sport to be involved in,” says its eponymous founder and chief executive.

Luxury jeweller Cartier, meanwhile, has been involved in polo for almost 30 years and remains one of the sport’s most significant sponsors. “[Sponsoring polo] was the opportunity to support a great sport that we believe is very much within the realm of our brand’s culture. Our patronage is substantial enough to make an influential contribution to the development of the sport,” says Arnaud Bamberger, executive chairman of Cartier UK.

The company has, however, decided to end its long-running sponsorship of the International Day at Guards Polo Club, which will have to find a new sponsor for the 2012 event. It has been suggested that Cartier was concerned the event had become too celebrity focused and was no longer attracting the clientele with which it wished to be associated.

“We felt it was time for us to change the formula of our patronage to one that is more tournament focused,” Bamberger says. Instead, Cartier has signed a three-year deal to sponsor the Queen’s Cup at Guards.

British luxury menswear brand Hackett sponsors the British Army Polo Team in the annual competition now entitled Hackett Rundle Cup in which the Army Team plays against the Navy Team. Hackett is also the main sponsor of the British Polo Day taking place every March in Dubai at the  Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club. Hackett is also a major sponsor of Santa Maria Polo Club in Sotogrande, South of Spain. In 2008, Hackett organized a highly successfull Elephant Polo Tournament in India in Mumbai. Further editions are expected in the next two years.

On Hackett’s online page dedicated to the Rundle Cup, it says: ”Despite its genuine reputability in the polo world, this event does not suffer from any delusions and does not aim to compete with the so-called, glamour and celeb infested Cartier and Queen’s Cups, but what it does have bundles of is…honesty and integrity. It all conspires to make it a great day out for all the family in a truly British setting, with an emphasis on fun, relaxation and just the right amount of military organisation.”

Yet it is not just luxury goods groups that are attracted to polo. Among the sport’s other backers areAudi, the German carmaker that sponsors the annual Audi Polo Awards, Veuve Clicquot, the champagne house, and Julius Baer, the Swiss private bank.

The returns, however, cannot always be measured in purely financial terms. When asked if the sums spent on polo add up to the benefits gained, Mille says: “Not always.”He adds: “But then it wouldn’t truly be a luxury product without some ­sacrifices.”

from FT.com, CPP