Polo set feels the crunch

19 December 2010 - 03:12 By BOBBY JORDAN

South Africa's most swanky event - a polo tournament famous for fancy cars, fast horses and guests arriving by helicopter - has been scrapped due to the economic downturn.

Tournament director, Clive Peddle, confirmed this week that the prestigious Kurland International Polo match, held at the five-star Kurland Hotel outside Plettenberg Bay, has been cancelled

The annual event, the highlight of South Africa's mink and manure calendar, does not have financial backing after the withdrawal of main sponsor BMW.

The tournament had been unable to attract another major sponsor, Peddle said.

"With the economic climate as it is ... it's quite difficult at the best of times getting a sponsor. It is a big disappointment for sure.

"I don't think we can point fingers at BMW," Peddle said.

"They have been excellent supporters of South African polo. Obviously in hard times I guess they do have to cut back. It was just disappointing that they cut this one."

The canning of Kurland is the latest in a series of sponsorship withdrawals in recent months as corporate South Africa re-shuffles its spending priorities due to economic pressure.

Last month Standard Bank announced it would not renew its sponsorship relating to cricket as well as of soccer giants Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.

Earlier this year Sasol announced the end of its sponsorship deal with Springbok rugby.

The global economic downturn has seen some of the polo estates outside Plettenberg Bay plough up their fields and switch them to vineyards.

And the withdrawal of BMW is seen as yet another bad omen for the capital-intensive sport - where top-performing ponies cost around R1-million.

However BMW insisted this week its withdrawal was a strategic decision unrelated to economic hard times.

Guy Kilfoil, general manager of group communications and public affairs, said: "We diversified some of our sponsorship properties. But we will be spending more money on sponsorship than we have in the past. We have taken on two golf events and we'll take on another sport next year in which we've never had any involvement."

He said the branding value of the Kurland event no longer justified the R1-million-plus price tag. "It had become quite pricey over the years for what it was - ultimately just a big party," Kilfoil said.

"In December it is really hard to make very clear brand statements. Ultimately the crowd are coming for a party."

He said BMW would continue its involvement in other polo events, including the Durban and Johannesburg international matches.

South African polo legend Buster MacKenzie this week said the sponsorship drought was a sign of the times.

"I guess it is just part of the economic situation at the moment," he said.

"It is a reality. There are some big sports sponsorships that are currently either being reduced or being put on hold."

The Kurland tournament in the foothills of the Tsitsikamma mountains earned a reputation as one of the country's most glamorous events in its 10-year history.

It has had its share of controversy: four years ago former Miss South Africa Claudia Henkel and socialite polo player Nicky van der Walt were involved in an ugly brawl which resulted in criminal charges against Durban businessman Chay White, who had tried to get Henkel's autograph.