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Owners have more goals at Sarasota Polo Club

James and Misdee Miller thrilled with public's support after first season keeping polo alive in Lakewood Ranch.

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If the grass is, indeed, greener on the other side, James Miller knows why.

After James and Misdee Miller purchased the Sarasota Polo Club in June, 2018 in an effort to save the facility, James Miller spent much of his time studying grasses, irrigation and bugs.

While the terrific polo crowds turned out for their first season, the Millers might most remember the work need to upgrade the polo surface.

"We are maintaining 90 acres of Bermuda turf 365 days a year for five months of polo," James Miller said. "Golf is the easiest analogy.  A typical course has about 75 acres of fairways that only get divots at most a quarter-inch deep from a 225-pound Tiger Woods wannabe. Our turf must hold up under horses and riders."

Miller said he needs "five Carls from 'CaddyShack' to work on repairs and maintenance after horses racing at 30 miles-per-hour tear up the turf. He said the roots have to be deep and strong, and that was not the case when they took over.

Phil McClellan, a noted polo turf specialist, was brought to the Sarasota Polo Club to study the grass and decide upon a plan of attack. This summer the plan continues as the Millers complete an in-ground irrigation system that will cover about 75% of the fields. The irrigation system will conserve water and allow the Millers to put their money into other areas of the club.

Overall, the Millers are looking into ways to increase their revenue at the club. "It takes the right number of resident amateur members mixed with professional level events that draw outside competitors, spectators and ultimately, broadcast revenues," James Miller said.

Miller said polo struggles to draw any media revenue due to the complexity of the game and a playing surface the size of nine football fields. He said drone technology and On Demand streaming has helped in that area and noted the Sunday matches were streamed worldwide this past season.

In terms of upgrades that affected the members and players, he said success in the first season could be measured through the improvement of the training and competition facilities, such as the training track and stalls. He said he received universal positive feedback in those areas to justify the Millers' expenditures. They spent $1 million just on the training track.

The Millers did face some unexpected challenges during the season, such as nine inches of rainfall in December, a month that averages about 3 inches. They had to cancel three Sunday matches, which meant lost revenue.

Is there anything the Millers can do about the flooding?

"Stop climate change," James Miller said.

The bottom line is the Millers made it through their first season with the feeling the club can be sustained for years to come.

"Over the past 20 years, we have seen many agricultural and equestrian communities be consumed by growing development sprawl," James Miller said. "Thirty years ago when the club was built by SMR, most would have bet on the Cubs to win a World Series before they would see Lakewood Ranch grow the way it has. Development is part of our culture in Florida. It was only a matter of time before SMR had to decide between maintaining a polo club versus doing what it does best, development."

Manuel Ontiveros comes to a quick halt during a match. The turf in polo takes an incredible beating.
Manuel Ontiveros comes to a quick halt during a match. The turf in polo takes an incredible beating.

James Miller said SMR President and CEO Rex Jensen, along with the Uihlein family, wanted polo to remain part of the community but with someone else accepting the responsibility of running the Sarasota Polo Club.

"Misdee and I are helping them and our community retain something that makes us amazingly unique, doing something we love and know, while allowing SMR to move on and do what it does best. We couldn't ask for a better community partner."

More challenges, such as finding room for spectators or adding more events to the schedule, lie ahead. Miller notes the club was near full general admission capacity at every Sunday match. He credited Ron Trytek, the new director of sales, for growing the corporate and private event side of the business and noted he is confident that area will continue to grow.

More Friday night matches could be in the club's future and the Millers are looking at seating options that would allow greater capacity without hurting the fan experience. A possible "Wednesday Night Experience" could be a future promotion with Lakewood Ranch Communities. Food trucks, live music and children's activities would be part of the show.

The focus will continue to be on polo, he said, until they perfect it. In the long run, equine competitions in other disciplines could be in the club's future. However, he did say activities that give back to the community will be considering as they come along. An event hosting the Budweiser Clydesdales benefitted the Sunshine Kids this past season.

Guillermo Aguero greets fans before a match at the Sarasota Polo Club.
Guillermo Aguero greets fans before a match at the Sarasota Polo Club.

While other enhancements will be added to the club this summer, Miller said they won't be noticeable to fans.

The Millers are traveling this summer, but they are looking forward to a return to Lakewood Ranch to begin preparations for the 2019-2020 season in December. 

"Misdee and I regularly discuss how driven we are by the community interest in the club and their interest in experiencing equestrian sports," James Miller said. "We enjoy the challenge of captivating an audience with horses. Keeping spectators and members happy will always be a challenge but somebody has to do it."

James Miller salutes the crowd on another packed Sunday at the Sarasota Polo Club.
James Miller salutes the crowd on another packed Sunday at the Sarasota Polo Club.



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