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East County Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020 3 months ago

Sarasota Polo Club ready to open in a pandemic world

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Sarasota Polo Club owners hope fans will buy tickets in advance to help safety planning.
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

When Lakewood Ranch's James and Misdee Miller purchased the Sarasota Polo Club in 2018, they knew it might be somewhat of a money pit.

They also knew it had carved out a unique place in the sport.

It drew fans, by the thousands.

James Miller, who plays at clubs all over the world, said the atmosphere generated by the fans in Lakewood Ranch is unmatched, even on an international level.

However, the Millers probably never expected the sport's popularity here might present problems as well.

When the Sarasota Polo Club's 30th season opens Dec. 13, the worry isn't that fans will stay home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, the Millers worry that too many fans might show up.

"COVID-19 is the most uncertain thing in my lifetime," James Miller said. "Every move we have planned for here, almost all the improvements, have been put on hold until we know what we can do and what it will mean. There were a lot of things I wanted to do and I thought COVID-19 would come and go, but it didn't."

In his travels, he has seen how other clubs have handled social distancing, but those clubs typically deal with a few hundred fans. The Millers are dealing with thousands.

James Miller knows the Sarasota Polo Club's opener will be well attended because of pre-sales, but how well attended is another uncertainty. The club has been urging polo fans to purchase tickets in advance so it can perfect a plan for social distancing.

Already, the Sarasota Polo Club has expanded its season ticket packages, usually confined to the south side of the field, to the entire south side and half the north side. Knowing how many people are going to show up helps with planning.

Those who show up game day without tickets still can set up their tailgate party on half the north side, and other areas will be open past the ends of the field, but the premium tickets will be more limited on game day during the pandemic.

"It's going to look a little different this season," James Miller said. "We're just trying to determine how we get people in and how we keep them comfortably distanced."

James Miller believes people who have been isolated by the pandemic want to attend an event if they can do so in a safe manner. He said the nature of the sport, which is played on a 10-acre field, leaves the Sarasota Polo Club better suited to keep fans socially distanced.

He said each person has to make up their mind whether they want to attend an event that could draw hundreds of fans. But if they do decide to watch polo, James Miller said he wants to make sure they are comfortable and safe.

"I don't want people to think we aren't respecting the virus," he said. 

He is hoping the fans take responsibility for keeping themselves distanced.

"It comes down to people respecting each other's space," he said. 

While James Miller has been disappointed that some of his additions to the facility have been put on hold due to the pandemic, he was excited about the addition of a new director of food and beverage, Tony Maniscalco.

Cramming at the sidelines at the Sarasota Polo Club to greet players won't be possible this season.

Fans will have the ability to preorder food and beverage packages and have them delivered to their space or tailgate. James Miller said hiring a food and beverage director was an important "next phase" addition that needed to be done immediately. He said Maniscalco will enhance the food and beverage choices immediately.

Another upgrade that will be completed before the season begins will be the instillation of a 60-foot by 12-foot stage at midfield on the north side. The Sarasota Polo Club will use the stage for a higher level of seating that will be just behind the premium Adirondack chairs seating that already exists there.

He said the stage could be key to hosting other events at the Sarasota Polo Club.

"We can set up the stage for theater groups for the families who come to our Ranch Nights," he said. "When we have tools like that, it creates opportunities for other groups. Heck, you could do a graduation ceremony here or a speakers series, an outdoors corporate presentation. You could social distance people easily."

He also is contemplating some kind of bleacher seating for those who want to watch the polo but might not want to set up a tailgate.

While the Millers are dealing with the pandemic from the perspective of polo club owners, they also have experienced the disappointment from an equine competitors' standpoint. They had made a trip to the Netherlands to compete in a combined driving competition and had all kinds of challenges in trying to ship their horses overseas in October. Then, five days before the competition, it was called off.

He was asked if there is a worry the Sarasota Polo Club will have trouble featuring the world class talent that comes to Lakewood Ranch each year for the polo season.

"I would say 60 to 70% of our players come for the entire season," he said. "We have so many events that it is just more efficient. And many of the clubs do offer the variety of events that we do so people can come and stay. It's great for us because we don't have players coming and going. We have an insular group of athletes."

James Miller said the economic impact from COVID-19 will have more of an impact on the teams than traveling woes. He said most of the team owners have businesses that allow them to spend money on polo. If their business isn't doing well, polo could be affected. 

"This is a professional hobby sport," he said. "The owner has to fund the operations of the team. What makes our sport so unique is that we are the only sport where the owners and amateurs can play with professionals."

The season runs through April 25, so James Miller is sure changes will be made all along the way to make those who attend more comfortable.

"If we get too many people, and there is not a way to distance them, it creates problems," he said. "One of my more recent thoughts is to utilize our bleachers more and socially distance the seats. If people aren't comfortable, you go to the next step."

He again stressed the importance of buying tickets in advance.

"We have to know you are going to your place, as opposed to jump roaming," he said. "We are trying to figure out ways to manage this situation better."

But he does expect a big crowd on opening day.

"People want to get out of the house and experience the excitement of something going on and I don't think the impact of COVID-19 is going away. People are going to be shy about having group gatherings. I am hopeful people will realize we're outdoors."

He said opening in the face of a pandemic does keep his mind spinning.

"The most unfortunate part of it is the mornings I wake up at 4 a.m. and can't get back to sleep because I have to think about all these worries," he said. "But I also feel fortunate that I haven't had to shut down. Polo can be a saving grace for people who want to get outside and interact. People are tired, cooped up, irritated. I hope we are providing an opportunity to heal, to define some happy moments."

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