Michael Redding-Sporty CEO

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At the relatively late age of 24, Michael Redding had to make a choice: play professional polo or follow family footsteps into the retail clothing industry. He chose the business route, yet managed to integrate polo with it, helping revive a flagging public interest in the game along the way.

The family clothing brand Scapa was already well established in the Belgian market. Redding quickly decided to eschew the more traditional classic look marketed by his parents, founding Scapa Sports to cater for the casual sportswear trend that took hold in the 90s. “One of the reasons for starting Scapa Sports was to attract young people to our shops,” says Redding, adding: “I had the great advantage that the name Scapa was already available.” But the rest he had to do himself, starting out in 1999 with a tent on the parking lot of the Scapa showroom in Antwerp.

“It was always my ambition to join the company, and with polo I knew I was only ever going to be a four or five goaler because I had come to the sport late.” (Polo players carry handicaps expressed in goals, going up to ten for the best in the world; the team handicap is worked out by adding the individual rankings of the four players on the team.) Polo figures large in his company’s promotions, with Scapa sponsoring and organising a major tournament every year, the next one planned for June 23 and 24 at the former Olympic polo grounds at Kapellen, near Antwerp. Scapa Sports also organises a polo tournament every Whitsun on the beach in front of the casino at Knokke.

 LISTEN AND LEARN

Redding, now 38, says he spent his first 18 months working at Scapa assiduously listening to everyone in the company from designers to shop assistants before deciding to start Scapa Sports. “I make the decisions, but I always like to listen to people, get their feedback and approval.”

He first suggested using the sports handle for a new venture started by his parents when he was 13, but it was never used.  Between 2005 and 2007 Scapa Sports became almost too popular for  its own good.

“Maybe our marketing was too effective,” says Redding. “The good thing when that happens is that you have amazing turnover and everyone is wearing it, but the bad thing is that after a while people stop wearing it so the brand loses its cachet.”

A dip after the boom years is now in reversal; Scapa Sports customers are growing older, today in the 25-40 year age range, so the company is attempting to attract a younger clientele.

“We are going for a niche market among younger people,” says Redding, citing the junior membership of golf clubs and hockey clubs as an example of the intended target.

A former first division field hockey player himself in his teens, Redding was encouraged to try polo during a holiday in Uruguay. At the age of 19, never having ridden a horse before, he was hooked. He subsequently trained in Argentina, where the breeding and training of polo ponies is a big industry, and the game has been a fixture in his life ever since.

“For three years I played nothing but polo. In the beginning I fell off quite a lot, but having played hockey I could hit the ball quite easily,” says Redding, who regularly competes against the world’s top players.

TROPHY

The Scapa International Polo Trophy is now the top fixture of the year in the Benelux and Germany, attracting up to 14 teams; Redding always fields a team and often wins it. The tournament is played on the same field where matches were held during the 1920 Antwerp Olympic Games, when polo was still an Olympic sport.

Originally known as Scapa of Scotland, the company took its name from the Scapa Flow, one of Britain’s most historic stretches of water located in the Orkney Islands off the coast of Scotland.

Redding’s Belgian mother Arlette Van Oost and his father Brian Redding, a British engineer, started by selling knitwear made by women in the Orkneys working from home, later setting up a factory there. “Because of the name, people always thought it was a Scottish brand,” explains Michael Redding, who drew inspiration for the Scapa Sports logo from the national flag of Scotland. His mother started Scapa Home at around the same time as he started the sports division.

With shops and franchises across Europe and in Japan, the combined businesses turn over approximately €45 million a year; Redding owns Scapa Sports outright, as well as 50 percent of Scapa with his mother, still active in the business, holding the other half.

PASSION

Ever passionate about polo and with 30 horses stabled at his home near Antwerp – some young, some retired, some at the peak of their game – Redding says he tries to ride out as  much as possible, a minimum three times a week. He has a break in winter when the horses rest from the end of September to the beginning of March.

The horses – they’re referred to as ponies in polo but are actually horses – as well as the grooms employed to look after them all come from Argentina, Redding’s favourite steed a 15 year old called Arquidia. The horses are backed but often young when they arrive, Redding explains, so he never knows if they will prove to be top horses.

“The best age is between eight and 11, but most of our best horses only play for two months a year,” he says. “Those playing at a lower level, or with fewer horses, play their horses six months a year. But the more care you take and the less they play, the better their chances of having a long career.” Every player on a team needs at least three horses to play a full game. Most have more  – up to six mounts or more. Games are divided into six sections called chukkas, or chukkers, each lasting seven-and-a-half minutes. One horse will play in one or maximum two chukkas. The players have a few minutes to change horses during the breaks between chukkas.

“We take care of them as if they were babies, and they are the most important part of the sport. A good player can make a difference, but the horse makes up 70 percent of a player’s worth.” Polo players need guts and they have to be fearless. It is a fast moving game, and potentially dangerous. A full-size polo pitch is bigger than three football pitches and the polo ponies gallop short distances as fast as racehorses running at full pelt.

“It is very important to ride very good horses, it gives you much more confidence,” says Redding. “You really need to become one with the horse. If you ride a horse you can’t control, you put yourself in danger and you are a danger to other people and that is not the idea of the sport.”

WINNER

When he plays high goal games Redding brings in the professionals. “I am the only amateur on my team,” he says. “I can only mount myself and one other person, so I need to have two other players who have their own horses,” he explains. Apart from the Scapa Polo Trophy, the other big event in Redding’s polo calendar is the high goal Gold Cup  played in August in Sotogrande, Spain. It is the most prestigious polo event in Europe after the big English trophy games, the Gold Cup and Queen’s Cup.

His team won the Spanish event once, and once got the silver, but lost last year in the semi-finals. “Last year we beat a big team who were the favourites and they had a ten-goal player – there are seven in the world,” Redding enthuses. “They have the big budgets but with a well balanced team you can still surprise the big shots.”

It is not uncommon for top players to travel with their horses to different countries, flying them backwards and forwards from England to the US, but Redding draws the line at travelling with them to once or twice a year to Spain.  “The horses stay at the French-Spanish border close to Bordeaux.” Most of the time he is stick-and-balling, the polo term for personal practice, and playing practice games with friends, often followed by a barbeque Argentine-style, known as asado. The family has forged strong links with Argentina over the years. “We enjoy the practice games and the asados just as much,” says Redding. “My mother still goes to Argentina every year in the high season to watch the Argentine Polo Open Championship at the end of November. It is really an amazing experience.”

Redding regrets that he’s only been able to make it twice in the past ten years – running a business as well as a polo team takes its toll. And a new passion has recently entered his life – Redding’s partner Anse recently gave birth to a daughter, Emma, so now he’s a father. “It changes your life.  I’m very proud.”