IN decades past, polo players in the Philippines were generally “born into the game,” which their fathers, grand fathers or great grand fathers took on after American Governor General William Cameron Forbes first introduced his favorite equestrian sport to the country in the early 1900s.
The outdoors exercise, whose object is to move a polo ball downfield to score a goal—all while on horseback—mostly drew a following from the country’s elite.
After all, one would need to be part of an exclusive sports club to be able to play on a field that measures 300 yards long and 160 yards wide. As sportpolo.com notes, the space, which this team game requires, is considered to be “the largest field in organized sport.”
And then there is the necessity of horses, stables, and stable hands, among many other requirements.
Nevertheless, there is one skilled polo player in the Philippines today, who, though never born into the sport, has brought a new kind of energy and national attention to the equestrian game. This, even as he only took up the sport in 2011.
His name is Michael “Mikee” Romero, and this is how he conquered “the game of kings.”
With just over three years of taking up polo, 42-year-old business tycoon Michael “Mikee” Romero, PhD, is credited for organizing “one of the biggest polo events in the country in [the last]50 years.”
As the playing team owner of Globalport polo team, which he named after his multi-billion-peso Harbour Port Centre Terminal, Romero triumphantly mounted the “Globalport Philippine Open 2014” in March, bringing enthusiasts of the equestrian game, past and brand new spectators, and more significantly renewed national attention, to a two-day tournament in Calatagan, Batangas.
Bigger than the usual two- to four-team polo cup competitions held in the country, the first Philippine Polo Open had a roster of six teams, which included his Globalport-Pilipinas, Iñigo Zobel’s San Miguel Corp.-Philippines; and international teams from the United States, China, Thailand, and Brunei.
Romero’s team landed at the tournament’s second spot, proof that if a person sets his mind to conquer anything, he can do so with passion, perseverance and triumph.
Known to be an all-round sportsman since his college days—from basketball to martial arts—Romero, is considered both a rising star and proponent of polo in the Philippines today. In fact, in a matter of days after this exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, he and his Globalport Pilipinas teammates will be flying to London to compete in the Billingbear polo field in Sussex.
Be it in sports—and especially in his business ventures—Romero is clearly never satisfied with mediocrity.
He acknowledges his maternal grandfather, Atty. Miguel Lagman, for igniting his competitive streak early on in life.
“My love for sports started with the influence of my Lolo Mike. My lolo was the one who taught me how to play basketball at age of five; gave me a horse at six; and allowed me to fire a shotgun at seven. From then on, a love for sports just kept growing in my DNA,” Romero recalled as he sat on one of the plush alcoves at his wife Sheila’s hotel venture, The Oracle, in Quezon City.
Throughout the years, he became a varsity and national player in the fields of baseball, basketball, track and field, martial arts, jet skiing, and pistol and shotgun shooting.
But now, Romero has chosen to concentrate—and further succeed—in the game of polo.
‘Old boys club’
Touted in many circles as a “sports leader,” Mikee Romero set foot into the polo community in 2011 armed with unyielding determination.
Although he has enjoyed riding horses at an early age, it was one of his business consultants who happens to be a polo aficionado that encouraged him to get involved in the sport, which set off a whole new excitement and passion in the sportsman.
From then on, he set his mind to become one of the most competitive polo players in the country, and within a few months of training with foreign coaches, Romero established the Globalport Philippine Team in 2011.
In the very same year, he joined first-ever international competition, leading his team to victory at the Korea-Philippines Invitational polo match in Jeju, South Korea.
“I was afraid I’d fall off the horse,” he laughingly revealed. But then again, falls, cuts, fractures and bruises are all part of polo.
“I’ve fallen off a horse about10 times,” Romero shared thoughtfully. “There was one time an opponent and I slammed so hard at each other that I literally flew off my horse, with one leg hanging on the horse’s head and half my body on the ground.”
Even as polo is considered the second most dangerous sport next to the Formula 1 car race, its risks never seemed to cross Romero’s mind. Rather, they pushed the all-round athlete to master the game.
Physical injuries, however, were not the only difficulties the new polo player had to deal with. His biggest challenge, in fact, had little to do with playing the actual sport, but to gain acceptance in the highly aristocratic community associated with polo.
“Polo is really an ‘old boys club’,” Romero explained. “And at the time it was difficult to go into competition, because they were intimidated by my reputation as a sports leader in different fields.”
Just as he faced the physical risks of polo head on, he braced himself “for the love of the game,” eventually penetrating the “old boys’ club,” and establishing himself as one of three major polo patrons in the country today.
“The game of Polo has a very small community,” related the rookie who gained that community’s confidence and respect. “The three of us who are considered ‘patrons’ of the sport have the task of keeping polo afloat in the Philippines, because if we don’t give the game our full support, it might end up as a dying sport in the country.”
Along with Romero, the “Godfathers of Polo” are Iñigo Zobel and Bobby Aguirre, who are also among the most prominent businessmen in the land.
A sport like no other
Despite the reputation of polo as a sport enjoyed by rich and powerful, the self-effacing Romero believes that the “technicality and physicality” are the aspects that make it interesting.
“Polo is one of the hardest sports I’ve ever played,” confessed the longtime athlete. “Spectators think that it is an elitist sport but inside the polo field, the game is very physical—even more physical than basketball. I can compare the sport of polo to rugby but of course with horses, mallets and whips.”
Polo involves physical strength, upper body movement, coordination, and mental tactics all at the same time. With one hand on the reins and while clutching the whip, the other keeps a tight grip on the mallet, while the player focuses on the ball, tackles incoming opponents, and communicates with his teammates. Of course the whole thing comes to play in high speed.
Besides being a “very intense contact sport,” Romero further reveals that the competition can even get personal on the field. For while spectators merely see figures of high society mounted on beautiful stallions, charging at a lone white ball, they remain unaware that foul exchanges often take place on the grass.
“It can get very personal on the field, with swearing, cursing, and threats among opponents. But part of the game is intimidation, you see,” added Romero. “And the good thing about it is that it all stays on the field.”
What he also likes best about polo rules is that a team owner can also be a player on the team.
“In polo, the owner of the team can also play, unlike with other sports. I own the Globalport Batang Pier team in the PBA [Philippine Basketball Association], but all I have is ownership. I watch and enjoy the game, but I can’t play.”
With eight interchangeable players in Globalport, Romero usually plays fourth in competitions. He also maintains a low handicap so that the team can play with international opponents.
“The sport of polo taught me first how to be one with the horse, and how to use the magnificent animal to your own advantage. Likewise, putting all your motor skills in coordination as each hand and leg, the head, neck, and other body parts are in movement doing several different things all at the same time,” Romero enthused.
But as he continues to push the sport that has challenged him the most in the best possible direction for the Filipino polo player, he never forgets to assess his game and identify his weaknesses on the field.
“I want to improve on my maturity in the sport so I can become more of a captain and leader,” Romero acknowledged. “I’m not a very vocal person, and I’m learning to communicate better now. Polo is a mind game at its core, so I have to become more of a tactician, and more importantly, I have to be more assertive so I can direct my players the best possible way in every game.”
In all his years as an athlete in different fields of sports, Romero has always been the quiet type. He describes himself as a “doer more than a talker.”
“I have to be both in this sport,” he realized. “I don’t go into a sport half-baked; I’m always all in so I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Beyond the polo field
As with every sport that Mikee Romero took on since the age of five, he always has a bigger goal beyond the game. That is, to raise awareness about the sport, and more importantly, the standards of the field in the country.
For polo, his goal is to build a Filipino audience that would better understand and appreciate the sport as he does.
“I hope someday to televise some of the big yearly games we have in polo, so that the ordinary Filipino can watch it and enjoy it,” he expressed.
The “doer” in Romero has already taken the first major steps in this direction, first with his very own Globalport polo field in Calatagan, Batangas, where he plans to organize even bigger tournaments in the near future.
More importantly, in his bid to open the proverbial “game of kings” to more Filipinos, Romero is set to open a polo academy in Calatagan this November.
Looking at the bigger picture and further into the future, he hopes one day to see a sports department in government that will address the problem of corruption and politicking in the local sporting industry.
Under this department, Romero sees the need for government to commission sports leaders, international experts, and economists to come up with a 25-year plan, with a subsequent execution plan. The agency should focus on sports where Filipinos excel, such as boxing, weight lifting, shooting, chess, and track and field.
“Politicians should not be in sports,” he opined. “I try to be a sports leader, but the system is so corrupt and politics is everywhere,” he lamented.
For the record, Romero has more than enough experience both as a player and manager in sports to support his ideas and statements.
Among many other achievements filed, he led the 11-man Philippine delegation team that competed at the 2012 London Olympics; pioneered the first professional Asean Basketball League, and made history in Philippine basketball’s amateur ranks by winning the Philippine Basketball League (PBL) championship for seven straight years from 2005 to 2009; and also served as manager of Philippine National Basketball Team when it won the Southeast Asian Games and the Southeast Asian Basketball Association tilts in 2007.
A winner’s mindset
At the age of 42, Mikee Romero is one of the youngest entrepreneurs included in Forbes Asia’s “The Philippines’ 50 Richest” in 2013. He placed No. 26 with an estimated fortune worth $490 million.
With an extraordinary business sense inherited from his father, construction magnate Reghis Romero 2nd; the affability of his mother Lilibeth (Lagman); the competitiveness his Lolo Mike had nurtured in him; a good head above his shoulders, was success always within easy reach for the man?
“No, because you have to have determination to reach your goals. You have to constantly challenge yourself and set impossible targets. You have to acknowledge your weaknesses and turn them into strengths,” he replied with passion.
For the youth who would like to succeed in their future endeavors—whether in sports or business—Romero advised, “Identify your goal, and see it through all the way to the end of the tunnel.”
A man of many titles, Mikee Romero ended this interview with The Sunday Times Magazine by calling himself an “out-of-the-box visionary.” For indeed, accepting norms, age-old methods and traditions will never make a person a winner like he is.