Polo puts Hammersmith & Fulham on the world stage

By Sharon Lea | 13 May 2024

After years of grinding austerity, local authorities are now hugely reliant on using our public spaces and events to generate much-needed income.

Here in Hammersmith & Fulham, we’ve found a novel way of staging a world-class sporting event with the support of our valued local residents, businesses and sports community.

For more than a decade, we’ve worked closely with events company Sportgate to stage Polo in the Park. Held in Fulham’s leafy Hurlingham Park, the event attracts the biggest names in the international polo scene every year.

Central London hardly seems the natural terrain for polo. Yet it attracts 28,000 spectators over three days – along with a huge amount of investment and commercial goodwill cultivated with local businesses.

The story of our park and polo is extraordinary. It’s where the ‘modern day’ rules of polo were written in 1875. Later, it hosted two Olympic Games for polo and it has given its name to the governing body of Polo in UK – The Hurlingham Polo Association. 

In its heyday of the 1920s, Hurlingham Park was the home field for the Maharajas of India to play polo during the European summer and it was the local tournaments that first introduced polo to the USA.

More than 100 years later, we’re working together to make the deal work for everyone. The first hurdle was to ensure that the organisers pay an annual fee to use the park. Currently set at £150,000, this helps towards the park’s annual maintenance costs and towards our Parks team.

Hurlingham Park is a busy hub for families, rugby teams, socialising, tennis and football. This high level of usage – particularly with winter sports fixtures – means that the turf has a fight on its hand to survive and remain healthy and strong for events. 

That’s why we’ve negotiated an additional annual fee of £100,000 for repair and reinstatement work, ensuring our local teams have some of the best sports fields in London. An independent expert is used to help support our own landscaping team.

The organisers have also spent over £1.3million improving the park, helping us earn a prestigious Green Flag along the way. Working with residents, they’ve also funded improvements in the children’s playground, refurbishment of tennis courts, and re-planting of the rose garden and additional planting of saplings around the park perimeter.  Most recently, the organiser has also invested £20,000 in refurbishing the park’s pavilion building.

Every year, we give away 2,000 tickets to local residents, council volunteers, charities and NHS workers – looking to benefit those that would not normally be able to afford the event. Working with Chelsea FC’s charity arm, they’re welcomed on a Family Day full of activities for all ages.

We also connected the organiser with a beloved local children’s charity in Sands End in south Fulham. Without their financial support, it’s very possible that the charity would not exist today. Last year, organisers introduced a local developer to the charity – resulting in a £60,000 all-weather play area being constructed at no cost to the organisation.

Julie Cavanagh, manager of the SEAPIA charity in south Fulham, said: 'Funding from the event organisers has made a huge difference. Their network has attracted additional funding which was crucial during the pandemic.'

Polo in the Park organisers also works with nearly 150 local businesses with the aim of helping them benefit from the increased footfall. The organisers talk to local cafés, bars, restaurants, pubs, clubs, hairdressers, dress shops – anyone with a database who can benefit from extra business. We also targeted support towards the local hospitality sector after they suffered so badly during the pandemic.

Our budgets never could have stretched to covering all these improvements without help. But this on-going support is key to keeping it a special place in our residents’ hearts.

The event is now seen as the biggest festival of polo in the world. And it now even hosts an annual International Polo match for the England Polo team – finally returning the England polo team to where it first played.

I hope that this helps as a blueprint to how major events can create long-term revenue streams, improvements to local facilities, increase local charitable support, improve relationships with local business, offer free tickets to audiences unlikely to afford it, and improvements to the lives of our residents.

With the polo, the Boat Race on our stretch of the Thames, Queen’s Club tennis and three professional football clubs, Hammersmith & Fulham is well-placed to be the capital’s most sporting borough. We aim to deliver as much social, cultural and economic benefit for our residents as we can with such an enviable lineup. 

Sharon Lea is chief executive of Hammersmith & Fulham LBC

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