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Playing the regal game

V Krishnaswamy | November 29, 2003

It's the new four-letter sport in the corporate world's lexicon. First it was golf and now its polo. And it looks like they are happy to co-exist, considering their patrons and clientele are somewhat alike.

Juxtaposed with the dilapidated Delhi Race Club course, the Jaipur Polo Grounds, hub of all polo activity in the Capital, becomes a centre of major attraction every winter.

None of the high-profile fans, players and sponsors mind driving their Mercs, Rolls and SUVs through the mud tracks that lie between the DRC and the makeshift VIP parking area adjacent to the polo grounds.

The polo ground itself has little except the huge playing ground and the marquees set up for each event. In the background, a commentator tries his best to liven the proceedings.

Polo was once a game restricted to royalty -- only they could afford the huge stable of horses required. As the princely states decreased in number, the role of the Army, which had the grounds and animals, became crucial. Now it's the turn of industrialists to be the modern-day patrons of the game.

Big corporate names like the Oberoi Group of Hotels, Hyundai, Jindals, ABN Amro Bank, LG Electronics, Akai, Seagrams, Merrill Lynch, McDowell and Omega among others have been regularly seen at the polo grounds.

New names to join this elite group are Rabo India and Reid & Taylor. While Reid & Taylor supported the Indian Open, Rabo India made its first foray into polo by sponsoring the 14-goal Maharaja Hari Singh Memorial Cup.

There are many others like Samsung, which are testing waters with gentle steps in the form of co-sponsorships.

Sports management and marketing companies are looking at polo as a big avenue for the future.

In a crowded market like that of cricket, polo seems to offer some kind of exclusivity in the form of a higher-profile clientele. One of the first to notice polo's potential was Maj.

Adhiraj Singh, a former Asian Games medallist in equestrian sports, who runs a company Equisport, which manages and conducts a number of polo events.

"It is a regal sport and companies get tremendous value through their association with polo," contends Adhiraj.

Another new entrant is Tiger Sports Marketing, which till now has concentrated on golf.

"We are running the Rabo India Maharaja Hari Singh Cup in association with Samsung Mobiles. The response has been good and we also supporting the Royal Kashmir Polo Team led by Yuvraj Vikramaditya Singh," says Digraj Singh, director of TSM.

Rabo's entry into polo was clearly stimulated by TSM. The bank has had an earlier association in golf and polo seems to have been a logical extension.

"Polo blends regal elegance with 'edge of seat' excitement. Its sublime graces not only hold the promise to regale the connoisseur and commoner alike but also to attract the much-sought-after tourist dollar.

"Unfortunately in India, it has been confined to a very privileged few and its potential is largely unexploited," says Rana Kapoor, managing director, Rabo India, who may as yet not have started riding but certainly plays a mean round of golf.

Now, new patrons have emerged. Some like Navin Jindal of Jindal Steel and Vikramaditya not just support the game but play themselves.

"Polo requires a lot of things. Good players must have good ponies, which cost a lot. A pony from Argentina, which has the best, could cost anything upto to Rs 700,000 to Rs 800,000," says Vikramaditya. Then there is the cost of hiring high-handicap foreign pros.

Jindal maintains his team, as do the Oberois, while Adhiraj gets his team supported by McDowell Signature and Vikramaditya has had the backing of Rabo for his event.

Otherwise, teams are often backed for one or two events and the rest of the expense has to be borne by the people or clubs or patrons running the team.

The travel industry is now looking at its possibilities by getting people intothe game.

Some privately owned polo facilities have come up like one in Shikarbadi at Udaipur and another just outside Jaipur.

Boarding schools have once again begun offering riding lessons. With its aura of exclusivity, don't be surprised if polo is the new game of the corporates in the next few years.

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