[In the background—a dog barks and a ball hits a chain link fence]
Woman 1: You can even like hit the ball around first with the mallet. Kind of get a feel for it.
[In the background a dog barks]
Woman 1: You’re pretty comfortable riding a bike?
Woman 2: Yeah.
Woman 1: Okay, let me get a ball for you.
Narration: That’s Shelley. She’s teaching Rose how to play Bike Polo. It’s like regular polo—y’know the game on horses. But swap out the stallions for bikes and put it on concrete tennis courts.
[In the background—a sharp “CRACK sound as a mallet hits a plastic ball]
Rose: All right. I’m going to try with the mallet and then I’m going to try and come back for the ball. Oh my God. It’s very intimidating …
[Roses voice and the conversation of onlookers fades into the background]
[A bike polo game–the sound of mallets hitting balls and players shouting—can be heard further away]
Narration: Shelley is part of the NYC bike polo club. Rose has never played bike polo before. And she’s too nervous to join a game. So Shelley’s trying to show her the ropes on an empty court.
Rose: I should get used to like, not putting my feet down. Right? Cause that’s …
Narration: Rose makes a couple of figure-eights around the court trying to keep control of the ball. She taps it along with the mallet and when she misses she curves back around to try again.
[A low thunk—a ball is hit]
[A mallet scrapes along concrete and lightly taps the ball several times ]
A Bike Polo Player: (Shouts from further away) Yeah! Nice!
Shelley: Yeah, that was really good. It usually takes some new player a long time to get to that point.
A Bike Polo Player: (Shouts from further away) That was amazing!
Shelley: That was really—Oh my God! I’m gonna cry.
Narration: Turns out, Rose is a natural.
Shelley: Do you want to get in a game?
Rose: I don’t know how confident I feel to play today. I don’t want to disappoint you. There are Newbie game days, the next few Sundays, right? Maybe I’ll play around here and come back for that.
Narration: Newbie Night and Newbie Games are part of the group’s efforts to get new players into the club.
James: So at the beginning we’ll teach them the rules. We teach them the basics. We let them poke around with the mallets for like 10, 20 minutes. And then we just put them in a game.
Narration: That’s James. He’s been organizing Newbie Nights for the last few years. Getting new players is difficult. James has been playing for three years, and he still calls himself new.
James: Bike polo is such a weird game that not a lot of people want to play. If you don’t get a lot of people, you won’t have anyone show up after Newbie Night. Like some will come and then they’ll never come back.
Narration: James really cares about getting new players. He held a virtual meeting with club members to figure out how to recruit people. They came up with a to-do list–things like reaching out to potential players after they come to an event and connecting with other bike groups on Instagram.
These efforts might not seem like a big deal, but a defining quality of bike polo is how chill everybody is. There’s not a clear leader of the club. And a LOT of decisions are made by random chance or through pretty unofficial channels. I mean, the locations of national tournaments have been chosen by Facebook poll.
I ask about trying to get different types of players, specifically people who aren’t cis, white men. In bike polo speak that’s WTF players or women, trans, femme players. Looking around a practice, the team is mostly white and about three-quarters male. How do you get different types of people to show up?
James: Some clubs have like specific nights for women. We have Newbie Night, that’s just, everyone can come. We actually try to market our social media towards women.
You know, the funny thing is Newbie Night is less about teaching skills and more about saying, come hang out with us.
Narration: And polo players are really good at hanging out. Any random Sunday afternoon at the court sounds something like this—
[In the background—A dog barks and soft acoustic guitar music is played. A bike polo game can also be heard—bike wheels spinning, the crack of the mallet hitting the ball and players shouting to one another]
Bike Polo Player 1: I have the projector screen. I just don’t have the projector.
[A ball thunks against wood]
[A dog barks]
Bike Polo Player 2: I gotta Nintendo WII, but my new TV…(indecipherable speech)
Bike Polo Player 1: I wanna get one of the…What are they called? Uh…Ooh!
[A loud CRACK of the mallet hitting the ball hard]
Bike Polo Player 3: My other rat is called Jupiter Disco, because she kind of dances like this all the time (fades into background).
The club holds practice for tournament teams around noon and pickup games start after that. People order food and drink beer. There’s music and usually at least a couple of people bring their dogs. On the days I visited, someone slung a hammock up above the doorway to the court.
Another thing to know about bike polo–everybody sort of knows everybody, even though the community spans far beyond New York City. People travel to competitions around the world, and stay on each other’s couches. When they move to a city and join a new polo club, they’ve often already played with the players there. There’s many bike polo couples, and a few bike polo marriages.
Shelly and Rose are connected through a mutual friend Dylan.
Rose: He used to play, move to Hong Kong. Cool. Yeah, he’s been like for probably like three years since I’ve known him been like, ‘You should go. You’ll love it.’
A Bike Polo Player: It took me like two years of people being like, ‘you’re going to love it’ for me to come and now I’m obsessed. I was like, this is fun. But then it took me a while to actually come out. So I feel like coming out the first time was a big step.
Rose: I did like three laps around because I was like, I’m like a little intimidated to just go in and I was like, just do it. You’re going to regret it.
Shelley: You did laps around here?
Rose: Yeah. Oh, yeah!
Narration: I get it. I hesitated to come into the park when I showed up too. During practice, there are usually 15-20 players, lounging around the court. They fill up the nearby benches and picnic tables. Their backpacks and bikes lying around the grass and sidewalks. During practice, that corner of the park feels like their space.
Rose: This is such a like remnant of like not feeling cool in high school where you’re like, Oh, those people, like they already know each other. And it’s like a cool thing. Like bikers are cool.
And I think there’s also like, there can be like a very douchebag man biker in New York. Like, like Lycra bros.
Narration: Most people aren’t wearing Lycra in bike polo, but there’s definitely some of bro-y behavior Shelley’s a veteran on the bike polo scene. She’s been playing about 12 years and even competed at the World Championships a couple of times. But she’s still felt the pressure of being the only woman on the court.
Shelley: I always felt like I had to be on, I had to prove that like, like I can play the sport is as good as the men, you know?
Narration: She’s struggled to find teammates for tournaments.
Shelley: There was this one person that I think I asked if you wanted to team up probably like five times. And you know, I, I finally just got the hint.
Narration: And she’s faced mansplaining and aggression on the court.
Shelley: He came up to me and he was like, if I’m attacking the ball, you have to come attack it with me. He was like, don’t, you know, like this, this is what we have to do. Okay, you just like, have no faith in me and my skill. It felt like he was trying to be like the hero on the court.
And he really was getting aggravated. He started having a temper tantrum. He got off the court. He got off the court and then I didn’t, I didn’t move. I hadn’t had that feeling in a long time.
Narration: Shelley says the culture has changed for the better over the years, and most of her experiences are positive. Still when she tells me things like this, I wonder why polo players don’t understand why some WTF individuals might be hesitant to join. Maybe they can’t see it because they already know that bike polo is fun and mostly positive.
And some WTF players ARE able to jump in feet first. The newest players on the team say they were welcomed with open arms.
Zoe Stiel has been playing for about a year. Em-Jay, who’s a nonbinary player, started 8 months ago. They both say they walked right in.
Zoe: Everyone said, hello.
Narration: That’s Zoe.
Zoe: They were just like, here, grab a bike, grab a mallet. But I’m pretty comfortable on a bike so I felt ready to get on the court pretty quickly. Then I just hopped in and people kind of watched out for me the first couple of games. That was the beginning of it.
Narration: Em-Jay also said they feel safe and secure in their identity within the club too.
Em-Jay: I feel like I can be myself in every sense of it without fearing that someone might say something or think something. There’s no gatekeeping to this community. Shelly and James, like reached out and spoke to me—what can we do to make you comfortable or to feel welcome?
Narration: James thinks any group is tough to break into.
James: I think the whole community is in circle. Like when you come to polo at first, you might be hanging out with people who’ve known each other for over a decade. Because of that intimacy, it’s going to, you’re going to feel like an outsider, unless you make an effort to engage people, get to know them.
Narration: But I think there’s more to it than that. Zoe and Em-Jay say jumping into polo was no big deal. But it takes effort to show up. And I wonder if that’s a litmus test for new players. What about players that need to be eased into it? What about people who are unsure about who or what they might find?
When I opened the gate to the park for the first time, and walked into the middle of the group, I waited a few beats but nobody approached me. So I chose someone who looked like a woman in her 20’s Zoe. I found someone like me.
James: About 15 to 17 people showed up. I went over the numbers this morning. There were about a third women. Two-thirds man, or at least my perception of the gender breakout…
Narration: That’s James again. He tracked the demographics of Newbie Night. He says the event was definitely a success.
James: When you came and you were asking about the demographics, I started to get nervous. And I started saying, all right, we need to do something about this. But you do your best to have an open group where anyone feels welcome coming and the chips are gonna fall where they may. And if you tried, that’s the first step.
It’s a social club, essentially, in my opinion, that’s how I view it. And setting goals for diversity is usually not the first priority for a social club, but that has become something that we think about and talk about.
Narration: I try to push James. Why not make diversity a goal? He says he’s worried about tokenism.
James: Can you try too hard to make things diverse? You want to be part of it for who you are, not for your exterior shell. They want to know they’re there because they’re wanted for their personality, I think.
Narration: He says it would be great to hold special recruitment events for WTF or nonwhite players, but doesn’t think it’s his place to host it.
And he doesn’t want to ask someone else to take on the work of putting it together. And it IS a lot of work.
Shelley has organized several WTF events in the past. Her last event was a regional WTF clinic back in 2019.
Shelley: I know that there’s a lot of people who feel uncomfortable playing in front of men, CIS men.
I really intended only people to come from Boston, Philly. People came from Florida, someone came from Seattle. I felt really passionate about it, I was trying to get other people to run it in their regions, so that WTF players didn’t have to travel across the country. But it didn’t really take off.
Narration: Dracaena is a genderqueer player in California. They’re a friend of a friend of a former New York City polo player. They played for three years from 2016 to 2019, and are hoping to get back into it after COVID.
Dracaena: I always had trouble fitting into polo. I never felt unsafe, but I never felt like I was from the same box of puzzle pieces. When you’re on the inside, it’s warm and fuzzy and everyone’s vibing and having a good time. But from the outside, it’s really intimidating.
Most of the men who play polo are not trying to make a lot out of it other than like, have it be a fun social experience. I can understand that perspective, but for those of us who, it takes a lot more effort to get involved with it and it takes effort to get other people like us involved with it’s not so casual.
[The sound of bike wheels spinning grows]
Narration: It’s her first night on the court, but Rose kept practicing on her own for nearly an hour. It takes a lot of encouragement from Shelley, but eventually she decides to play in a game. It’s only been about two hours since the first time she ever even held a mallet.
[The ball is hit]
Narration: I watch the match from the doorway of the court with a couple of regular polo players. I conveniently fit beneath the hammock.
[Mallet dragging against concrete]
[The sound of wheels spinning grows and fades as polo players maneuver around the court.]
Shelley: Yeah, Rose?
Shelley: Nice. Good touch.
[A dull thud—the ball hits wood]
Narration: I can tell the more experienced players are trying to set Rose up for small victories. One player drags the ball up in front of her and leaves it for her to take.
[A mallet drags against the pavement]
A Bike Polo Player: Yeah! Nice tou—Nice touch!
[A mallet taps against a ball]
Narration: She taps it down the court a few feet until someone steals it from her.
[A sharp crack—a mallet strikes the ball]
A Bike Polo Player: (disappointed) Awww!
Narration: Another teammate tells Rose to ride up toward the goal so he can set her up to take a shot.
A Bike Polo Player: I’m gonna come close to the net and I’m gonna pass it to you.
[The ball is hit scrapes against the pavement]
Narration: But the ball flies past her and bounces against the wall.
[The ball hits wood]
Bike Polo Player 5: Nice try. It’s hard to hit it from that side.
Narration: A few minutes later though she blocks someone from scoring.
[Two mallets hit against one another]
Rose’s Opponent: (frustrated) Ughhhhhhhhhh!
[Several players cheer]
A Bike Polo Player: Oh! No!
Another Bike Polo Player: Yeah, Rose!
Rose’s Opponent: (frustrated grumble) Erghhhh!
Spectator 1: Good playing, y’all.
Rose: (in a sing-song voice) Oh-yeah! Let’s go!
Narration: Eventually someone yells—
Spectator 2: (shouts) One more, last point!
Narration: —which means the next point wins. Nobody’s been keeping score.
[Sounds of players coming off the court and mallets clinking together]
Narration: Good job, everybody
Narration: When Rose comes off the court she’s beaming.
Rose: Okay. That was so fun. I feel good. I’m glad I did it because I’m like, okay, that wasn’t so scary. I think that’s based on like the people.
Reporter: What did you think it was going to be like playing before the game?
Rose: More like a, like an intense coach movie where they’re like, hit, slam, pass. No, do this. It was much more like good pass. Like go up left, I’m going to set you up bros. I’ll come back for sure.
Shelley: (from the background) She better!
[Conversation fades into the background]
Narration: Shelley and Rose recap the game for a little while longer. Later, when Rose is getting ready to leave, Shelley hands her a mallet and an extra ball. She’s loaning them to Rose so she can practice on her own.