As Fans of Polo Check Out One Another, John Cole Checks Out the Chukkers
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At the Bridgehampton Polo Club’s VIP tent, competition for attention is intense.
The men are checking out the women. The women are staring down each other — when they’re not ogling the Argentines. The bartenders are splashing out the Grey Goose. And everyone’s looking for the cameras. But who’s watching the polo?
John Cole, that’s who. He’s the official announcer — and he wants attention, too. “I consider it a challenge to get that VIP crowd involved,” he said. “The paparazzi will still get your picture if you’re watching the game. And how much cooler will you look with polo in the background?”
The ruddy Mr. Cole, 43, has been announcing at Bridgehampton for four seasons, and he has been on the polo scene — as a college player, paid player, and Yale team coach — since the late 1970s. Now, as the guy with the microphone each Saturday for six weeks (until August 26), he runs up and down the sides of the field describing each hit, pass, and turn with the passion that Joe Madden brings to football.
“Most polo announcers sit above the crowd, in the booth,” he said, adding that he rejects such formality.
For half of the match, Mr. Cole follows the action on the side of the field with the VIP tent, where the invite-only scene is packed with socialites and guests of sponsors such as Mercedes-Benz, Intermix boutiques, Coca Cola’s Gold Peak, and Grey Goose. Then he switches to the other side, where polo enthusiasts and fans congregate on the bleachers and sidelines. Though the polo matches at Bridgehampton have been defined by tales of the VIP area, the polo-lovers side is a pretty good deal: For an entry fee of $20 a car, anyone wishing to watch the game can pack a vehicle with tailgating fare and sit just feet from the field.
The contrast between the two sides is immediately noticeable — and Mr. Cole was warned about it before taking the job. “The guy who hired me said, ‘Forget about all these people, they’re not paying attention,'” he said.
He’s determined to change that by boosting the excitement level. Not only does he announce the game as if it’s the most dramatic show in town, he introduces the players with Queen’s “We Are the Champions” playing in the background. “My credo is that I’m there to entertain the crowd, not inform it,” he said. “If polo is going to be a sport that people go see on Saturdays, it needs to be exciting.”
Though Mr. Cole does have a day job, in real estate, he has the smooth voice and expert knowledge of a professional sports announcer. Part of his quickness simply comes from being on the scene for so long. “I coached at Yale, the men’s and women’s teams, so I know many of the players already. And because I’ve been an instructor, I can pick out their style of riding,” he said. “I can tell the player by the play they made.”
When the action gets intense — but the socializing crowd persists in its vodka-soaked oblivion — Mr. Cole isn’t afraid to scold. One weekend, during a particularly competitive moment, he let loose on the revelers: “I was like ‘Are you guys actually here?’ It was sudden-death overtime, there’s no way you couldn’t want to watch it!”
And his ultimate satisfaction comes when the crowd makes some noise. “The players love when the crowd cheers. We all play better in front of crowd,” he said. “In Argentina, the crowd is like a soccer crowd.”
So is Mr. Cole’s approach effective?
It worked for Simona Gasalberti, who has come with her husband and son for several seasons. “Initially, you come to socialize. But now we come to watch polo. Our son loves it,” she said.
Others are skeptical. “Everyone is watching the girls,” a Southampton house owner, Robert Cleva, said.
“Everybody is looking to see if they look better than everybody else,” another spectator, Robert Morely, said.
Mr. Cole, though, is not discouraged. As part of the marketing association for polo, he has a professional obligation for optimism: He’s leading an effort to have polo televised on cable networks and included in the Olympic games. A native of Greenwich, Conn., he’s an unrepentant horse nut, having been involved with fox hunting, show riding, and then polo while at the University of Connecticut. (He even named his son, age 7, after a famous show horse trainer, Emerson Burr.) Mr. Cole now resides in Rappahannock County, Va. “It’s paradise on earth. I am so happy that I moved out of the Northeast,” he said.
But traveling back to the area for polo is quite all right, especially because he’s driven by a desire to change the perception of polo. “Most people think polo is a la-di-da, Hamptons thing. But it’s fast and furious and exciting.”