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East County Wednesday, Jun. 2, 2021 11 months ago

Community Support energizes Sarasota Polo Club owners

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James Miller says he can't wait for the 2021-22 Sarasota Polo Club season
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It was 2018 when East County residents wondered whether the events at the Sarasota Polo Club were going to disappear.

A sale for the facility had fallen through and it wasn't clear if anyone was willing to take on a formidable project.

Then Lakewood Ranch's James and Misdee Miller came into the picture.

The Millers bought the facility and began sinking their money into the project to preserve one of the nation's most prestigious polo complexes.

All the hard work and capital improvements were expected by the Millers. The COVID-19 pandemic was not.

Jay Heater: Side of Ranch

The last month (April) of the 2020 polo season was wiped out in Lakewood Ranch. The entire 2021 season was played with the pandemic looming in the background. That meant fewer spaces were available along the field for Sunday competitions in order to allow for social distancing.

"It was kind of like being in a heavyweight fight, and COVID came out and threw a punch like Mike Tyson," James Miller said. "No question, we've taken our punches and have gotten through it. If anything, I think we are more invigorated. People have responded in support by showing up. People are coming up and thanking us for what we are doing."

After the third season, James Miller said he isn't having any second thoughts about buying the polo club.

"We always wanted to make this a place for everybody," he said. "We wanted to preserve the art and sport of polo here. We didn't want to lose a public, green gathering space, and we are the only polo club on the west coast (of Florida)."

Unfortunately, James Miller said, the pandemic stopped the momentum built at the club after two seasons of hard work. He said the hardest part of the 2021 season was trying to know the right things to do.

"Like any business owner, we were trying to weed through the rhetoric," he said. "What would we be facing? What would we need to have in place?"

The Millers didn't know if they need to invest in plastic shields to force social distancing or whether they could have the season at all. James Miller said he felt like the business was treading water all summer before the 2020-21 season was getting ready to start, and that annoyed him because he felt they had made progress since buying the club. 

Perhaps the most irritating part for James Miller was needing to delay improvements he planned for the club. He had interior space development planned, but he knew his fans would want to be outside. His outdoor improvements had to be delayed because the pandemic made some materials unavailable.

He said the Sarasota Polo Club, which ended its season the final week of April, was fortunate to be located in Florida, where the governor worked to keep businesses running. Even so, he knew an important part of his revenue stream — large groups who attend Sunday matches — would be nonexistent.

"When we changed presidents, that was another wrench thrown into it," he said. "We knew what we had in Donald Trump. Fortunately, we operate under state laws."

Before opening day in December, James Miller decided it came down to a health issue and that people knew how to take care of themselves. He figured if people thought it was a danger to attend polo, they wouldn't come.

"People needed to decide whether to come or not," he said. "At that point, it was not up to me."

Attendance dropped off 25% percent from the previous year. James Miller said the Sarasota Polo Club was fortunate.

The 20-week season lost just one Sunday due to rain. Approximately 45,000 people attended the matches.

A Thursday evening Sunset Polo Happy Hour was a hit, averaging 600 people over the six weeks. 

Ranch Nite Wednesday at the Sarasota Polo Club in partnership with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch and MVP Sports and Social averaged 700 people over the 15 weeks. That event featured cocktails, food trucks, cornhole and music.

The club continued to host many charitable causes, such as “Vegas comes to the Ranch” hosted with Sisterhood for Good, “Champagne & Chukkers” with Children’s Cancer Center, “Polo for a Cause” with the Lakewood Ranch Community Fund and “Kid’s Day at Sunday Polo” with John’s Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

At the “Easter Eggstravaganza at Sunday Polo," the club dropped thousands of easter eggs filled with toys and candy from a helicopter.

Through it all, anyone who felt unsafe at a polo event was given their money back.

"In the end, I was happy with my decisions," James Miller said. "I feel people who enjoy polo were happy with my decisions. We had a great season. There were certain types we didn't get, such as large groups, but as the season went on, the numbers continued to come out. People started to loosen up."

James Miller is looking forward to the 2021-22 season, although he isn't sure how much he can accomplish in terms of some of the improvements he planned. 

"Our supply chain has been whacked around the globe," he said of building materials. "It's crazy chaos."

But it's chaos he will continue to handle. In his eyes, the community has embraced the Millers' efforts and that keeps him excited.

"COVID is not going away," he said. "You see what is happening in India and Brazil. We will have other strains and Americans should continue to be cautious about being ill. But I will help them to continue their normal lives. Congregating is a normal thing and it's our nature to get together."

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