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Gauntlet of Polo Aims to Add Relevance to Niche Sport

The U.S. Polo Association has consolidated three major tournaments and upped the prize pool in an effort to sustain and grow the sport.

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When was the last time you thought about polo?

For most Americans, the answer probably has something to do with the logo on a Ralph Lauren shirt. But while the U.S. Polo Association doesn’t shy away from the game’s classification as a niche sport, it’s also working to sustain and broaden polo’s reach via consolidating a trio of prestigious tournaments into one lucrative event.

The Gauntlet of Polo, held in West Palm Beach, Florida, concludes this weekend at the U.S. Open Polo Championship with a whopping $250,000 on the line. There’s also an additional $500,000 at stake for Team Pilot, who have won the first two events and can claim the half-million if they are able to earn a clean sweep. The horse-back sport is played by a small number of Americans, with 300 clubs across the country supporting 5,000 players, according to David Cummings, the chairman of USPA Global Licensing.

“The USPA is motivated to grow the sport, not only in the U.S. but internationally,” Cummings said. “Our goal is to educate and grow polo. And if you’ve ever met a polo player, there’s nothing more he likes to do than talk about polo. We want to increase the amount people who talk about it.”

READ MORE: International Swimming League Wants to Give Swimming a Permanent Audience

There is a major barrier of entry to attracting new players: money. The sport has been played since 200 B.C. in Persia and came to the U.S.  in 1876, where it has remained a sport of the nation’s wealthy. According to Cummings, it can cost up to $4.5 million to field a team for all three tournaments. Those costs include paying the players, paying their travel and lodging and the care for the horses. Each of the four players on a team brings up to 15 horses, riding an average of 10 per game.

The potential million-dollar purse doesn’t cover those costs, so Cummings said most teams underwrite with sponsors. Those are often of the big-name variety, too, like Coca Cola and Cessna, the airplane manufacturer.

But the financial reward is similarly lucrative. Elite players play globally and make in excess of $1 million annually, Cummings said. The Gauntlet of Polo is the highest potential purse for polo with the new bonus prize.

The $500,000 bonus, paid on top of a $250,000 prize for winning the Open and $125,000 for the other two tournaments, is part of a larger plan to attract younger players and fans. The plan also drops team handicaps for the Gauntlet of Polo from 26 goals to 22, the collective total by a team’s four players. A lower collective handicap theoretically would allow more novice players to help make up teams — the higher the individual handicap, the better the player. So far, the plan has worked. According to Cummings, 16 teams entered the competition this year, up from six last year.

The hope is the injection of cash prizes could help change the trajectory of polo in the U.S., said Mark Bellissimo, managing partner of the Wellington Equestrian Partners and owner of the International Polo Club, the tournaments’ host site.

“In order to expand interest in the sport, it is essential that emerging players, as well as new teams, have the opportunity to participate in elite tournaments,” Bellissimo said.

The International Polo club is the hub of the polo community in West Palm Beach, the sport’s U.S. epicenter. The region has more than 75 fields in a 50-mile radius, and the Palm Beach County Sports Commission estimates an annual economic impact of more than $23 million from the sport.

With a not-for-profit base at the U.S. Polo Association, Cummings said a small staff as well as a volunteer chairman and governors keep a youth movement at the core of their mission. The organization does hold interscholastic and intercollegiate tournaments for the 30 high schools and nearly 50 colleges that field teams, a number they also hope to grow.

“Their motivation is to teach and instruct people play and get new people into the game,” Cummings said.

READ MORE: Jaguars’ Unique Arrangement Builds U.K. Audience

Likewise, in an attempt to attract more fans, the sport’s organizing bodies will continue their transformation into the digital age over the next few years through streaming more broadcasts and incorporating modern touches like Jumbotron videos and replays.

Time will tell whether polo sees in uptick in interest in the U.S., but Wellington has high hopes for the Gauntlet of Polo. He expects 12,000 people at the polo grounds on Sunday. Along with a live broadcast on USPolo.org, the tournament will be broadcast on CBS Sports on Sunday and Eurosports on Monday, potentially reaching 250 million households.

No matter the number of spectators, a team will be playing for the largest purse in polo history. It’s a bottom line everyone can agree upon.

Pat Evans is a writer based in Las Vegas, focusing on sports business, food, and beverage. He graduated from Michigan State University in 2012. He's written two books: Grand Rapids Beer and Nevada Beer. Evans can be reached at pat@frntofficesport.com.

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Meet the WNBA’s New Boss

Deloitte CEO Cathy Engelbert will become the first commissioner of the WNBA and the first woman to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

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Photo Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else.

For the first time ever, the WNBA will have a commissioner. Before now, all of the league’s previous leaders like Val Ackerman and Lisa Borders were given the title of president. 

Cathy Engelbert, the current CEO of Deloitte, will take control of the role on July 17th and will report directly to Adam Silver. 

What should you know?

1. By the time she is done at Deloitte, Engelbert will have spent more time at the company (33 years) than the WNBA has been a league (23 years)

2. Engelbert is the first female to lead a Big Four professional services firm in the U.S.

3. She is the fifth person to lead the league after Val Ackerman (1997-2005), Donna Orender (2005-10), Laurel Richie (2011-15) and Lisa Borders (2016-2018)

4. Engelbert has spent the past four years in charge of Deloitte’s U.S. operation.

Basketball is in her blood…

Although she might be an accountant by trade, Engelbert is no stranger to the game of basketball. 

According to Bob Hille of Sporting News, she played at Lehigh for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw and was a team captain as a senior. Her father Kurt also played and was drafted in 1957 by the Pistons.

What are they saying?

“Cathy is a world-class business leader with a deep connection to women’s basketball, which makes her the ideal person to lead the WNBA into its next phase of growth. The WNBA will benefit significantly from her more than 30 years of business and operational experience including revenue generation, sharp entrepreneurial instincts and proven management abilities.” – Adam Silver on the hiring of Engelbert

“I think that’s probably one of the reasons I was selected for this role, to come in and bring a business plan to build the WNBA into a real business and a thriving business, quite frankly.” – Engelbert to ESPN’s Mechelle Voepel

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Adam Silver Wants More Gender Diversity

The NBA commissioner states his desire to get more women into the sports industry. The NBA currently has a 31.6 percent ratio of women in team management.

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Photo Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

*This piece first appeared in the Front Office Sports Newsletter. Subscribe today and get the news before anyone else. 

If Adam Silver has his way, 50 percent of the new incoming NBA officials will be women.

That number applies to coaches too, Silver said speaking at the Economic Club of Washington.

How do the leagues stack up?

The following numbers, outside of MLB, come from 2018 reports put together by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida. MLB is the first league to have a report done on it this year.

1. NBA – 31.6% of team management are women / 37.2% of team professional admins are women

2. NFL – 22.1% of team senior admins are women / 35% of team professional admins are women

3. MLB – 28.6% of team senior admins are women / 26% of team professional admins are women

4. MLS – 26.5% of team senior admins are women / 31.6% of team professional admins are women

5. WNBA – 48.6% of team VPs and above are women / 58% of team managers to senior directors are women

6. NHL – No report done

Quotes from Silver… 

“It’s an area, frankly, where I’ve acknowledged that I’m not sure how it was that it remained so male-dominated for so long. Because it’s an area of the game where physically, certainly, there’s no benefit to being a man, as opposed to a woman, when it comes to refereeing.”

“The goal is going forward, it should be roughly 50-50 of new officials entering in the league. Same for coaches, by the way. We have a program, too. There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be coaching men’s basketball.”

That’s not all Silver wants to see change…

Silver, who has been adamant about getting rid of the one-and-done rule, provided some clarity as to when that might be achieved.

According to the commissioner, the 2022 NBA Draft will likely be the first one since the 2005 NBA Draft to allow high school players to go straight into the league rather than playing a season in college first.

Citing “active discussions” with the NBPA, Silver noted that they are still “a few years away.”

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“I Thought This Was a Good Deal”: AAF Vendors Speak Out

Amidst the spring football league’s collapse, countless vendors are still waiting to get paid for services rendered.

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Ultimately, it was the little things that best told the story of how dire things had gotten for the Alliance of American Football (AAF), an ex-team social media manager said. Starting in Week Five, social media managers no longer traveled with the team for road games. Even before, they’d doubled up on hotel rooms. The final bit of penny-pinching was the most bizarre: For the eighth and final AAF game, social was told Getty’s photographers would not be in attendance. Instead they would have to rely on “generic images,” making the job vastly more difficult.

Less than a week later, on April 2, the chaotic, short-lived lifespan of the spring professional football league, launched in March 2018 by filmmaker Charlie Ebersol, the son of venerated TV producer Dick Ebersol, came to an abrupt end. A little over two weeks after that, the AAF filed for bankruptcy, as first reported by Front Office Sports.

In the aftermath, stories like the social media manager’s have become ubiquitous. A  former player was sent a medical bill for treatment received during training camp. Scores of others reportedly had to cover their own airfare or were sent four-figure bills for hotel rooms. There was the class-action lawsuit filed by two players, claiming that ownership misled them about the league’s long-term fiscal solvency. Founders pointed fingers at one another after the debt-ridden league came crashing down. All manner of now ex-employees, from team officials to players,  learned they were out of a job thanks to social media.

The league’s bankruptcy filing revealed that $48.3 million was still owed to a variety of creditors against a $11.3 million in concrete assets, a scant $536,160.68 of which remained in the league’s bank accounts. Moreover, the AAF informed the thousands of creditors that any attempts to recoup their losses would be pointless right now, because, per Sports Business Journal, its coffers are entirely bare… “If it later appears that assets are available to pay creditors, the clerk will send you another notice telling you that you may file a proof of claim and stating the deadline,” the filing states.

But like the social media manager, many of those selfsame creditors began to suspect the AAF was on rocky financial ground long before the league officially pulled the plug.

Shortly after Tom Dundon, the majority owner of the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, who built his financial empire on the backs of subprime auto loans, bought a majority share of the financially-strapped league, he started to cut corners, looking to pare down expenses by any means necessary according to a report by Sports Illustrated. “As soon as Dundon took over, our f——— expense reports were getting approved out of Dallas,” where Dundon Capital Partners’ office is located, a former mid-level AAF employee told the magazine. (Dundon did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent via the Carolina Hurricanes. The form to contact Dundon Capital Partners on their website was removed at some point in the past few months )

With the AAF bleeding millions each and every week it remained in existence, per USA Today, Dundon deemed it necessary to scrimp and save wherever possible including on the margins. So vendors—companies that supplied locker room supplies, traveling equipment and more—were approached hat in hand and offered less than the full amount owed by the AAF.

READ MORE: AAF Files for Chapter 7 Bankruptcy 

While AAF officials served as the point of contact, two sources involved with the negotiations told Front Office Sports that the debt-clearing plan was conceived and ordered by Dundon’s financial team. If that meant exploiting AAF officials’ pre-existing relationships with vendors and playing on the faith placed in the league, so be it. As one former AAF official told Front Office Sports, it was “just a shit situation.”

Some of the companies did take the lowball offers, but others refused to accept less, insisting on full payment. It didn’t matter. Both paths led to vendors getting stiffed by the AAF. Dundon’s financial team kept stalling, promising the equivalent of “the check’s in the mail,” right up until the moment when the AAF closed its doors for good.

Now those vendors have been reduced to poring over the bankruptcy filings. They know all too well that, despite being out five or six figures, they’re way at the back of the line, trailing giant conglomerates like MGM and Aramark which are owed millions. And they’re not happy about it.

“I definitely feel scammed,” one vendor said.

(more…)

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