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The ball is still a favorite way
to raise funds for the sport,
but only in South Florida

by Bob Alman
photos courtesy of the National Croquet Center
layout by Reuben Edwards


RELATED LINKS
National Croquet Center website


A correspondent in England described the croquet culture in America as "absolutely looney" for its reliance on big-ticket balls to support the sport. But the founding strategy of Jack Osborn is still working. Public media continue to describe croquet as "a sport for the elite class." It made sense in Palm Beach in the 70's, and even though the sport has expanded into public parks and now attracts middle class and younger players, the image persists, along with a favorite way to raise money: the ball! It not only funds the sport, but also allows the ladies to show off their costumes and jewelry to their best advantage. Does it matter if the men would rather be at the race track? Not really. Chairing a major ball is an important social achievement in Palm Beach. Major balls--the Cancer Gala, for example--can bring in more than a million dollars in one evening. Elite business groups from the Breakers and other prestigious hotels will often choose an "elegant" offsite locale as the highlight of their Palm Beach adventure. The National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach fills the bill, for groups of up to 600--and that's without even using the upstairs ballroom.

An important element of the ball as a fund-raising strategy is the corporate wealth endemic to the American way of life in the 2020s. Palm Beach is a much-favored destination for business conventions, and "serious croquet" is high on the menu for incoming travelers.

An elegant venue like the National Croquet Center in West Palm Beach is a natural; "serious croquet" will be a memorable adventure for most of the out-of-town attendees. It doesn't matter whether there are croquet lawns in the cities they come from, and whether those lawns are in public parks or in private clubs: The SPORT of croquet will still be a novelty, and the game they learn will be Golf Croquet--which is quick and easy, even with a mallet in one hand and a cocktail in the other.

The pandemic has come at a fortunate time for the hospitality industry in South Florida, at the end of the Palm Beach "high season," when summer spectaculars are few and far between, even in normal times. By March, many of the calls to the National Croquet Center were to cancel (or postpone) their huge events in the spring, but also in the fall of 2020. Few of them made even tentative plans for alternate dates. (Now the phones are ringing again, for Christmas events and conventions in 2021, as Florida's movie theaters and libraries are re-opening.)

"It's like having a party in your own private mansion"

The National Croquet Center has long established itself as a popular destination for incoming corporate groups, and can handle up to 600 people in its downstairs social spaces alone. The upstairs ballroom can seat more than 200 and is sometimes used for dinners and parties with music and dancing, but most clients much prefer the many downstairs social spaces. The Center's main building is designed and arranged ideally as a site for a great party in elegant--but surprisingly intimate--settings.

Those spaces include not just the dining room and the club room, and the main hall, and the veranda, but also the broad lawn apron around the veranda, which can be tented to ensure dry outside dining, and sometimes the lawns themselves, where party goers can learn Golf Croquet within minutes--under lights after the sun goes down.

Weddings and birthday parties are done mostly during daylight hours, and a "main event" may last until late at night.

The elegant parties can be sit-down dinners, or they can feature a more casual style of dining, with "food stations" at strategic points around the party spaces. And of course, there's likely to be a dance floor and a band of fine musicians.

There may be formal speech-making, especially if the more formal upstairs ballroom is used. That would be an occasion tailor-made for wealthy donors to rise and announce lavish gifts for the worthy cause.

Other ways to raise cash at the gala

SPAIN IS AN EXCEPTION

The one other country which has grown croquet--very quickly--by pitching it as a sport for the elite is Spain. In the last 10 years Spain has gone from being an associate member of the World Croquet Federation with only a hundred players to a full membership with many times that number of members. Most of the development seems to be in very up-market and exclusive sports clubs. Our correspondent played at some of those clubs several years ago and reported that "they made Hurlingham look cheap and shabby!" Perhaps the trick is to start building the game that way, then once it has some critical mass and resources, begin to expand out into the wider population. I gather that is something like what happened in America.

The balls and the galas might also incorporate a "silent auction" of many, many items (some quite esoteric!) for sale by attendees. There are bidding sheets with every item, which allow participants to check their items regularly and to bid on others' treasures by making an entry below the previously high bid. Such a display often complements the entertainment at the reception and adds to the income.

(The author at one such event wrote down a bid for a Roman head early on, expecting to be quickly outbid. It turns out, however, that a friend much later in the evening saw the bid, and thinking I wanted it, made the winning bid on his/my behalf! The head sits on a stand in my front hall, now used as a reminder of everything to be done "next" and wearing a mask, with other masks hanging from his ears and perhaps a book on his head, or tapes to be returned to the library.)

Besides the indoor activity, members of the National Croquet Club are often recruited as volunteers to teach these corporate elites to play Golf Croquet--quickly and easily done, even when you're holding a cocktail in one hand and a heavy mallet in the other.

The clubhouse is perfectly scaled for events both huge and small, with a series of intimate spaces into which one may easily retreat, in normal times. Weddings and birthday parties are done mostly during daylight hours, and "main event" may last until late at night.

When will there be normal times again? No one knows. You might want to wait until 2021 to schedule your incoming corporate group of 600. But you don't have to wait for "normal times" to enjoy the National Croquet Center for yourself, for a small dining group, a family wedding or a birthday party.

THE WAY IT'S DONE IN BRITAIN

British croquet is community-based, and clubs are run by volunteer members for the benefit of other members. In short, there's no one to organize an elegant soiree, and no one would pay to attend if there were.

The nearest most clubs would get to the American standard is an annual dinner: pay £20 for a plate of homemade stew in the clubhouse, and do a raffle afterwards. It's a world away from the American model, but this doesn't mean that clubs are penniless.

More so than in the USA, there's a culture of grant giving in British society. The English Croquet Association Development Committee awards small capital grants for member clubs, and regional and national governmental bodies hand out larger amounts. Sport England is the main donor in the Croquet Association's domain, so a UK fundraiser's main role is the filling in of lengthy application forms.

At the same time, costs in community-led clubs are lower. By far the most effective way of conserving money for a club is not to pay the people who coach beginners, or do the catering, or mark out the boundary lines. That's part of the deal for belonging to a club, and the reason why subscriptions [membership dues] aren't much higher in cost, equivalent to an American club in the municipal park, just a few hundred pounds at most.

However in Britain, grants are not that easy to obtain and, when they do come through, they normally provide up to 50% of the money required. The club needs to find the rest. Grants from the English Croquet Association work the same way; the club is required to raise half the amount themselves.

One of the advantages of being a registered Community Amateur Sports Club (CASC) is that such clubs can obtain tax relief on gifts: If someone donates £1000 to the club and is a low rate (20%) tax payer an additional £200 will come back from the government. If the donation comes from a taxpayer in the higher tax category (40%) then the club gets back £400.

So a typical club in Britain operates very much like an American club in a municipal park.

The National Croquet Center is again accepting reservations for groups at the Center, and organizations are making inquiries again about parties. Callers are told they can reserve for outside only--including the veranda. Phone-ins have begun again for mostly local groups, for holiday parties at the National Croquet Center. No one knows when commercial flying will again be deemed "safe" by most corporate inbound travelers. Dining for members only on the veranda has worked well for the members and the staff, ever since the lawns reopened for members only in mid-summer. Non-members may reserve luncheon parties on the veranda by phone for the days when Cafe Croquet is open--usually Tuesday through Saturday.


 
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