Polo In The Park

 In Feature

So did you miss the tournament? The big North American championship tournament in Washington Park? Back in 2012?

Yeah, I missed it too. I don’t think many of us knew anything about it. “Big” applies to its significance for the participants, not to its status in community awareness. But it is a unique and interesting activity: Bike Polo. Ever hear of it?

P1020989I hadn’t until I was asked to write this article. That’s when I got to meet Jake Newborn, who filled me in on the details. Jake is the head of the Milwaukee Bike Polo Club, LLC, which includes 25 people who play against each other on their own teams plus against teams from other cities. Jake is employed by the Wisconsin Bike Federation, where he teaches bike safety to MPS students and works with the Heights’ own Dave Schlabowske, the federation’s deputy director.

It all started about eight years ago when Jake, a UWM student at the time, was hit by a car while riding his bike in River West. While Jake had no broken bones, his bike was totaled. During the process of purchasing a new bike, he was invited to play bike polo, and the rest is history.

So how does bike polo work? In short, it’s pretty much like hockey on bicycles. There are three people on a team; the mallets are ski poles with high-density round tubular plastic heads, and they hit a street hockey ball, not a puck. This necessitates the placement of walls made of wooden boards, four feet high, surrounding the court to keep the ball in bounds. Games run for 12 minutes or until one of the teams scores five points.

You might recall a news story from a few years ago where some cyclists were arrested in the parking garage at O’Donnell Park for playing bike polo there. While Jake was not arrested, that was his group. With the help of a pro bono lawyer they all got their citations dropped, and the Milwaukee County Park Commission agreed to find a suitable site for bike polo. Of the three locations offered, Washington Park was by far the most preferable, since its tennis courts were both large enough and smooth enough. (Due to lack of use for tennis, the MCPC had no longer been stringing nets on these courts.) Bike polo can be played on any open, hard, smoothly paved surface; tennis courts – two adjacent courts are the minimum size – are a common but not essential selection.

P1020978Bike polo began in the early 1900’s. It was an “exhibition sport” at the 1908 London Olympics. Its modern form, “hard court” bike polo, started in Seattle in the late 1990’s. Since then it has grown into an international sport, with around 5,000 players in the US on teams in all major cities, plus others in Canada, Europe, Japan and Australia. The North American Bike Polo Championship Tournament at Washington Park in July 2012 involved 48 teams, with about 250 people present. Besides that annual tournament there is also an annual international tournament, most recently held in Montpellier, France. The next one is scheduled for January 2016 in Timaru, New Zealand.

But the sport is not highly professionalized or financed. Scores are kept on make-shift scoreboards, and referees use simple stop-watches. Players and referees are all unpaid volunteers, and they cover their own transportation and lodging costs for tournaments.  There is some minimal commercial sponsorship, such as from Pabst Brewing Co. and the Milwaukee Bicycle Co., which provides for jerseys, court maintenance, construction of the walls (with their ads on them at times), and the web site, but that’s as far as it goes.

Bike polo has been garnering increasing media coverage. AP recently did a story, as did Fox 6, and Pabst has produced a promotional video. You can see and learn more on their web site, www.milwaukeebikepolo.com, as well as by liking them on Facebook.

Bike polo and you? Even if you don’t think you’d ever play the sport, you can definitely come and watch this “niche” game in action at around 2pm every Sunday afternoon from March through October, weather permitting, for free, on the bike courts in Washington Park.  See you there!

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