England polo star Malcolm Borwick on the future of the sport
Borwick shares his plans for world domination while celebrating Royal Salute’s new Polo Edition
Malcolm Borwick is one of the best-known names in polo. His 20-year career has seen him captain of the England team, play beside royals including the Duke of Cambridge for charity and Prince Harry at his Sentebale Cup, and forge a 10-year ambassadorial partnership with Royal Salute scotch whisky that has seen him supporting polo around the world with the aim of bringing it to a new audience.
Speaking to Tempus at the launch of the premium scotch whisky brand’s Limited Polo Edition, Borwick shared his big dreams for international polo, his views on the young players changing the game within the Sport of Kings and, naturally, how he takes his whisky…
Malcolm, how has polo’s popularity changed over the years?
With inner city events and big events like Sentebale pulling in press interest we are definitely seeing a new generation of polo fans. But my thinking is, it’s a little like the church – you’ve got to convert the masses one person at a time. Attending events like Polo in the Park or the Sentebale Cup is engaging for fans because it’s a fun day day, but to keep people interested, to really convert someone, they have to touch, feel and live it. A Royal Salute Polo Clinic or coming down to the stables for an interactive lesson is how to do it. And actually, booking your first block of lessons is no more expensive than booking a golf lesson. It’s progression within the sport where it starts getting expensive.
What do you think of up and coming players in the sport right now?
We’ve got some fantastically talented young players coming through, though I think their road into the sport may be difficult in some ways with old farts like me and my team still hanging around and winning tournaments. We were the first generation to really be truly professional polo players, and as long as we’re still in physically good shape and we’ve got the tactical experience on the pitch, that sets us at different level in some ways. There are only so many slots on a team so it’s hard for younger professionals to come through and replace us.
So how do you see polo evolving as a sport?
I think, as soon as somebody’s imagination gets captured sufficiently and can come in with X number of millions, we could create a world tour. Drop the circuit into six countries around the world with a realty well directed press and PR vehicle and create a professional world circuit. The gap between breaking away from the current nature of the sport – where we’ve got one amateur on the team with three professionals – to a purely professional sport will be difficult, and take a visionary with real control of the sport. But I am confident that in 15 to 20 years we’ll be looking at a very different version of polo. It’ll be the Royal Salute Scotland team against the La Martinas Argentina team. >>
You’d like to see a move more towards national teams, then?
Definitely. At the moment, team owners can call their teams anything – name them after their companies or their children – but it’s unrelatable. People relate to international matches more far more because they can stick a flag in the ground and say, ‘that’s my team’. A truly accessible sport would be London versus New York or England versus America. Then you can generate information about the players, the horses – create a fanbase, just as other sports have done.
What keeps you in love with the sport?
The fact that you can never have a perfect game. You can never come away from a polo match truly satisfied. There’s always the question of what would’ve happened if you’d made that shot, or if that horse had gone a little better. It just keeps you coming back again and again. For me, I love the complexity of the sport. There are so many levels – you’ve got multiple horses, your teammates, the degradation of the field over a match, complex tactics and adrenaline. It all keeps you coming back for more.
Tell us about some of your professional highlights?
The first has to be playing for England – putting on that shirt for the first time in 2004. Then there’s winning the Coronation Cup, which is the zenith of an international sportsman’s career. It’s like winning the Americas Cup in yachting. Then there are more personal highlights, for instance playing in Argentina. In Argentina, all four of you are professionals, sharing the responsibility and costs. We do it for the love of the sport. It makes for a very different dynamic, because by taking out the amateur you’re dramatically changing the tactics and scope of the game. On one occasion my friends and I formed a team and took on the Argentinians in their home city, in one of their major tournaments, and won a game in overtime. No one expected us to win – it was such a challenge. It's a much purer version of the game.
You host Royal Salute Polo Clinics for fans to learn the rules of polo. What is the biggest draw, do you think?
The benefit of those clinics is that they really break down the barriers between the audience and the match itself. We want to try and increase engagement and the clinics have had incredible repercussions actually. I think it builds on people’s respect for what we do, so people can understand, ‘Wow this is a really hard sport to play’. That fires up peoples imagination.
You’ve been an ambassador for Royal Salute for many years. What makes the partnership so effective?
For me it’s a really natural fit between my biggest passions. My great love is polo, and having grown up in a Scottish family, whisky was always part of my life. I’m a wet whisky drinker: one finger of whisky, two of water, no ice. The new Polo Edition is beautiful for an early evening drink because its designed with a much lighter palette in mind. Post-dinner I like the Royal Salute 38-Year-Old. It’s unbeatable. What I love about our nine-year journey is seeing how Royal Salute has helped the polo world. Often you have brand partnerships where it’s almost a one way street. What’s happened with Royal Salute is that we’ve chosen to drop polo into places where it hadn’t been before, or really support fledging clubs and run events that boost polo in those places, so I’ve seen it as a really symbiotic relationship between the brand and the sport.