On the dusk of 2016, most of us were meeting up with friends and family to try to wring out a last little bit of joy in a year that many have seen as a year that just wouldn’t give the world a break. The North American Hardcourt Bike Polo association on the other had decided to use this time to drop a bomb shell.
They announced that for the 2017 North American Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship and the 2017 World Hardcourt Bike Polo Championship they would be abandoning the standard 3v3 formatting, and instead go with the up and coming 5v5 Squad format.
The announcement brought mixed emotions to the bike polo Facebook world, so we thought it would be important to sit down with the new NAH president, Alias Tagami, and talk about their decision:
3-2-1: So anything you don’t want to talk about? (I’m not a real journalist, that’s just something I’ve heard them say on House of Cards and Veep)
ALIAS: Well, there’s a lot going on right now in the poloverse. The new NAH team is up and running. I’m very proud of how driven the group is. This is my third year involved with the NAH, and this is the best communication and coordination I’ve ever seen.
We have an ambitious 2017 and some projects that will go beyond this year.
3-2-1: That’s definitely exciting. I loved what John, Ben, and Joe did, but with this larger group, it seems like things are getting more organized, which is great.
Let’s jump right into it. I’m going to start with the obvious question: Why Squad?
Slightly more specific, why does the NAH feel that squad is the future of bike polo?
ALIAS: Squad as a format is pretty young. It was thought up in late 2014 by Julian of The Guardians. At the time, the Bench format was already in popular use, but had serious logistical problems with scalability.
In the last two years, the NAH took an interest in the format because it solved some of the problems of Bench and 3v3.
3-2-1: What problems did 3v3 have that you see squad fixing?
ALIAS: Most polo players might be surprised to learn about the problems of 3v3, but the key stakeholders of bike polo (companies like Fixcraft) who had approached other companies with offers to partner found that the short format was a barrier for investment.
The damning quote was that polo was cool, but “it’s like watching two innings of baseball.”
The sport as is had a high player return on investment for individual players, but the structures that support the (modest) infrastructure of global polo were underwater.
That’s the worst thing that can happen as the community started to age and sales of bike polo products tapered.
So what is wrong with 3v3?
Nothing in the game sense! I don’t think 3v3 is dead or anything. It just isn’t a format that will provide growth.
I’m positive that the majority of polo events in the North America in 2017 will still be 3v3. But we’re hoping that clubs and regions will schedule more Squad events.
The NAH believes that this move for the two majors that will be hosted in North America in 2017 is our best opportunity to “promote the sport of bike polo” which is our charter.
This is by no means our only effort on stimulating growth and pushing for greater inclusion in bike polo.
3-2-1: How do you conclude that the structures that support the infrastructure of global polo are underwater? What specifically about 5v5 will help bring them out?
ALIAS: It’s an easier product to sell. Longer matches with larger teams create greater visual interest and the game has more opportunities for ebb and flow.
Sports are transactional, but they are most compelling when their is narrative.
The NAH learned a lot from efforts like Fixcraft’s PHBP, and what media interest it got as an experiment. We feel that the change offers an opportunity to get bike polo new exposure, and an audience greater than other polo players.
It’s hard to see bike polo in the third person. We’re bike polo enthusiasts! We are players, and when someone asks me what I like about bike polo, I want to say “EVERYTHING!”
So then when the NAH gets critical feedback from outside of the polo echo chamber, it’s important that we process it seriously.
We already know polo is great.
The next great challenge is to invite the public in as fans and share something special with them.
This might sound like the business of bike polo being more important than the community, but I assure you it’s quite the opposite.
3-2-1: So is it fair to assume that your saying that it’s the NAH’s understanding that the structures that support the infrastructure of global polo will remain underwater unless there is more exposure by both media and audience?
ALIAS: This is our understanding, yes.
So the NAH thinks media exposure to a broader audience combined with club level support and outreach is the best strategy to right the ship.
We want someone who discovers bike polo to have the shortest path from A to B. Bike polo needs as many entry points as possible.
3-2-1: How far under water do you think things are at this point? I mean we aren’t getting the sport on ESPN or even in cycling magazines, but there is still growth all over the world, and Timaru showed that 3v3 could be exciting for an audience. I guess I’m missing how the switch to squad is going to fix most of these problems (outside of potentially getting the TV media more interested).
ALIAS: As for how underwater things are, I’d say that looking in North America alone, we’ve seen a lot of polo operations close shop. St. Cago? Northern Standard? Eigthinch?
There’s specialty operations like Rustbelt or Fleet Velo, but those are not very good entry points for people new to the community.
You’re making the Enforcers which are very affordable, so I’m glad about that. Pake is still offering their polo fork which is good with the classic Rum Runner.
But in general, we don’t see a lot of new polo operations signaling community growth as much as sustaining the existing community.
We need to stimulate that, and we need to signal to people that bike polo is ready to grow.
Timaru did an amazing job with WHBPC 2016. I can’t say enough about how impressed I was with their operation.
They also had more time than any previous host to prepare. Something that the push for WHBPC to become a bi-annual event may lend itself to greater success for future hosts.
I believe that Timaru showed the world how far a little polish can go on polo’s rough edges. I hope the best for New Zealand, and I hope that the event will help existing clubs and new clubs in their country grow and thrive.
I’ll add a footnote here
One of the greatest regrets of the NAH is that we didn’t do this last year for the NAHBPC.
The truth is that what we know now about 3v3 and Squad we knew a year ago, but we failed to act. There was a mentality to “play a safe hand.” At the end of 2016, seeing low attendance at qualifiers and having a rushed NAHBPC, we had regrets about where effort went.
3-2-1: This big of a change would make sense in an off year (aka no WHBPC), so that makes sense to me. Why not wait until another off year to try it out and learn from Timaru to make 3v3 pop until then? Why the rush? Can we get some insight into the NAH’s decision making process for the change?
ALIAS: The question was raised again, and the same temptations existed. We sent correspondence to Aus/NZ and the EHPA. They replied with pros and cons. We were aware of the risks.
The most common piece of feedback was apprehension on this change occurring on a WHBPC year because the workload would be greater. The question then became about if we had the bandwidth to be successful. The team thought about it, and committed themselves. We also have established a working group for 2017 because of the scale of work. That working group is chaired by me, and will combine sponsorship and partnership details for both majors and work in conjunction with the host clubs.
None of the feedback told us that a Squad format would be wrong for WHBPC, but we were given advance notice that some players would object.
Lastly, we knew that at the regional level polo infrastructure wasn’t ready for the qualifiers to move to Squad, so the compromise was that this decision would be limited to the two majors which we would ensure had adequate infrastructure.
This aligns well with the last two years of NAH and region relationships in that the NAH gives the regions a lot of license on how they provide qualified teams to the NAHBPC.
3-2-1: Do you feel like this format could favor larger clubs with better infrastructure and make it more difficult on smaller clubs who only get 6? While they CAN play 3v3 in their region, I’d assume that most regions will try to go squad so they can practice for NAs and Worlds.
ALIAS: If larger clubs begin playing squad as a default form of pick-up to train, this is certainly a possibility. But there’s a bigger issue here and it is infrastructure. Large clubs exist in the first place due to established infrastructure. This is an advantage no matter what the format of the game is.
The NAH is eager to provide services, data, and media to clubs trying to build better polo infrastructure in their cities/towns.
3-2-1: Also a side question, do teams HAVE to have 5 players? Can they have 3 or 4?
ALIAS: Mandatory 5?
I got this question earlier today. I had to think about all the Squad events I’m aware of to answer it.
First off, no, you can have less than 5. This could occur in the middle of a tournament if a player is injured. There is no interest in punishing a squad that is down a player. Further, a “Squad” is 5 players dressed to play a match. People who serve as non-playing coaches would not count as a dressed player. Additional regulation may be written into the rules about players who are not-dressed for a given match but might switch between matches. The NAH has not made a firm rule on this yet.
3-2-1: Just from personal experience, playing a 45-minute game isn’t hard for a single player. There isn’t the opportunity to exert all of your energy like in hockey, where subbing is 100% necessary. I see this idea, especially for the first year, as a way to help smaller clubs.
ALIAS: You’re correct. A player can do 45min. But could 3 players match intensity with 5 over 45 minutes. Perhaps in some match ups. Also over the course of the day, playing a strategic resource-based game becomes more important. I think it’s almost always an advantage when possible to have 5 players dressed for a match.
It also allows for changes in skills which might change because of the momentum of a match. These are the sorts of exciting narratives that can develop in Squad play that we’re eager to bring to the world stage.
I’ll note that for smaller clubs, combining with singles from other clubs is already the norm.
For instance, if your club has 5 players who love to travel to 3v3 tournaments, 2 players are left kicking dirt or courting singles. That’s the reality right now. Squad and 3v3 aren’t so dramatically different in this respect.
A detail I’m excited for squad is that many mid-level players who are looking for a break-out opportunity have a potential opportunity in squad that they didn’t in 3v3.
I hope that clubs take advantage of this as a way to develop their talent pools.
3-2-1: Do you see NAs and Worlds as the appropriate platforms for developing talent pools though? Aren’t these tournaments supposed to show who are the best of best?
ALIAS: My response was about Squad in general.
ALIAS: With NAHBPC and WHBPC, I’m looking forward to seeing all the dynamic combinations of the world’s best.
I think it will be amazing
3-2-1: Going into last years NAHBPC, there were 5 teams that I could have told you would be at the top of tournament (and they were). There seems to be a hard line between the smaller group of teams at the top, and then the much larger next set of teams, do you think on the NAHBPC and WHBPC levels Squad will help blur these lines?
ALIAS: Yes, with a “but.”
The Squad format is great for adaptability so it gives opportunities for momentum swings. That is a potential way to get a more natural distribution of results. If a team can’t adapt, you’ll get blow-outs. But there’s a lot to learn about winning teams in blow outs. Are they leaving in their strongest line or resting them for their next match which could be more difficult?
The “but” is that events like the NAHBPC and the WHBPC can’t be events to showcase the world’s best if they are reduced to events of “who can get here?” We need to provide players a more stable and predictable calendar of events with long lead times so that the best of the best can afford to travel to destination events. This more than any format will produce high caliber play.
On that note, anyone reading this, start saving up today!
The NAH is not solely focused on the majors. We *must* provide support and resources to players and clubs.
Only a tiny sliver of bike polo exists at tournaments, and only a tiny sliver of that are these championships.
Where bike polo will always exist most is at the club level.
3-2-1: On that note (and the fact that this is getting real long! haha), what more does the NAH have in store for 2017?
ALIAS: I’m glad you asked.
Expect a new NAH website this spring. It should have lots of useful resources. We’re setting it up as a portal for all things bike polo. Shopping guides for new players, micro-economic data and FAQs to give to cities in effort to build more polo courts, links to instructional resources like Bike Polo Drills, popular media links, everything.
And we also plan to do a 2017 NAH Census.
You may recall the old LOBP map of all the clubs. Well, we know that map is no longer accurate. We have a new map that will allow visitors to get useful regional data as well as points of contact in clubs, and where polo is actually played.
The census is important for another reason: Representation.
The organization may evolve in it’s structure over time, but we need real ground truth on the state of polo every 12-24 months.
We need to know how many WTF players exist, and how many are participating in polo events.
We need something to base our state of health on, and I’ve got a volunteer working on this as we speak.
Future initiatives on inclusion cannot happen without this hard data, and we cannot intelligently target areas of need without knowing where they are.
Most of all, we are excited; I am excited.
I think there is so much to look forward to this year and beyond.
The NAH is always looking for passionate and driven individuals ready to do work. And my motto for the year is to make polo special for someone else. There is no higher return on my personal investment than to see others having a great time with the best people on earth.
Thank you for staying up late and chatting with me!
ALIAS: Of course
I love talking about polo
Polo is the best!