Polo clubs in china ride wave of popularity

Updated: 2016-02-12 08:26

By Zhu Wenqian(China Daily USA)

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Playing polo, or even just watching the sport, can be fun and help forge business relationships, say insiders

The popularity of leading polo clubs in China is growing on the back of a surge in interest in all things equestrian, according to the luminaries of the sport.

It was not like this always. For instance, in 2005, there was only one polo venue in China. Now, polo clubs are thriving in major Chinese cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.

The increase in the number of the polo clubs, and easier access to them, has made the ancient sport popular among the newly affluent.

The sport's origins can be traced to Persia (now Iran) and China, but it was the British who gave it a modern makeover. History has it that polo was held in great regard during the Tang (AD 618-907) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties.

There was a time when polo was the preserve of royals and the aristocrats. Now, more than 500,000 Chinese are involved in horse-breeding and equestrian sports, according to the China Horse Industry Association.

Ed Olver is the co-founder and director of British Polo Day, a global annual polo competition and exhibition. In Beijing, it is held at Tang Polo Club in September last year, to celebrate Britain's historic, sporting, business and cultural ties with China.

More than 30 sponsors from around the world, including major brands such as Land Rover, RJI Capital, and Royal Salute, backed the 2015 gala, which Olver described as a "new high watermark" for polo in China.

He is convinced polo's popularity will continue to rise in China. "(Well-off) Chinese people are pursuing an increasingly sophisticated lifestyle and are discerning in how they spend their time and money."

Polo, he said, offers a great opportunity to mix sport with business by way of relationships, which is just as well because sports and business are two great passions in China, he said.

"The world is leaving a Western epoch and entering an Asian paradigm. British Polo Day offers an unparalleled platform for elite engagement in emerging markets. Interest in polo is growing in China, in terms of partnerships, media coverage and enquiries from prospective members of clubs," he said.

Liu Shilai, one of China's most high-profile polo stars, opened Tang Polo Club in Beijing in 2010. He said polo still has a long way to go "to reach mainstream popularity".

But there is a strong interest from the general public, too, as awareness has risen sharply of late. His mission, he said, is to inspire more people to join or watch the sport.

"There are still relatively few polo professionals in China. We are promoting it both as an occupation as well as a lifestyle. We hope to help Chinese polo players to participate in more competitions around the world," he said.

Liu wants to emphasize the sport is not about personal wealth. Polo, he said, requires great skill and agility, and could be great option for a healthy lifestyle."

Since 2011, Liu has been organizing the annual China Polo Open Tournament at Tang Polo Club, a premier competition that is supported by the General Administration of Sport, which attracts top teams from around the world.

To be sure, polo involves big money as well-bred horses do not come cheap.

A home-bred pony used by professionals costs 200,000 yuan ($30,534) to 300,000 yuan. Imported animals are priced 400,000 yuan to 500,000 yuan each, according to the Tang Polo Club.

Polo clubs operate on a membership-only basis, but the profits are generally invested back into promoting the sport. Liu said the government's anti-graft campaign has not affected his business.

"Polo creates a platform for elite engagement and I hope to attract more players who want to pursue a green and healthy lifestyle."

Olver said despite the success of polo in China, challenges remain. For one, generating revenue is no easy task, and executing multiple events while keeping costs low even more so. Yet, polo clubs back philanthropic causes and manage non-commercial relationships.

In the next few years, Olver plans to launch British Polo Day in other emerging markets such as South Korea, South Africa and Brazil.

Polo at a glance: the basics

Each team generally has four riders; but in winter, when games are usually held indoors in arenas, or outside on snowfields, teams drop to three riders.

Players are armed with a mallet to hit the ball, and they score in the opposing team's goal.

A game is composed of four to six periods called 'chukkas', each lasting seven minutes.

Players rest for three minutes between each.

Once a team scores, the two sides change ends.

At half-time, it's customary for spectators to come onto the field and stamp down the grass mounds that have been kicked up by the horses.

There are 20,000 to 30,000 polo players in the world, and it is a sport often associated in the past with royal families, and the ultra-rich.

Times are changing, however, and the sport is becoming more popular with a wider audience.


 Polo clubs in china ride wave of popularity

Riders at Tang Polo Club in Beijing during British Polo Day last September.Sam Churbill / For China Daily

Polo clubs in china ride wave of popularity

(China Daily USA 02/12/2016 page18)