Bench Format: Is It Really That Great?

Guest post by Nick Kruse

(featured photo credit:

I want to know what’s really great about bench format… really.  I need someone to hash this out for me.  To the believers out there in the community, those who champion bench format as the future, I want to make clear that I’m only raising some points and asking some questions.  In the end, I like that people have fun playing bike polo and it doesn’t matter much to me that certain styles are on the rise.  I’ll get my fun, you’ll get your fun.  Deal.

I still want to know, though.  I can’t help but feel like bench format is an example of Bike Polo (The royal “Bike Polo”! You know, the editorial…) trying to modify another sport to fit our own in a way that seems unnatural and clunky.   It’s in the back of my head, a pressing doubt of the style’s authenticity.

I started skateboarding when I was 13 years old, and if there’s one thing I know in life, it’s that there’s nothing worse than being a poser.  So someone needs to tell me what we are getting at, here.

MenaceIt’s interesting to me how Bike Polo arrived so conclusively at this place – where bench format has become a mainstay, where you’re hard-pressed not to find yourself in a bench game at some point through the season.  My first summer playing bike polo was the summer of the first Bench Minor in New York City.  This is where it started.  It started in New York, it started with a tournament named after a penalty in hockey, and it started with one person.  Menace(

I met the guy only once, four years after the first Bench Minor.  I stood outside Vanessa’s dumplings in Chinatown and listened to him lament about how Bike Polo was already ruined.  It’s over.  Go home.  Still I think you would have a hard time finding someone whose input has been more pervasive in the game as it is played today.  We have a rule set that was partially started by him, and the organizing body of our sport has just released a sanctioned tournament that will be played in bench format.  The format he made PDFs about and advocated for constantly. His format.

Is bench format right for bike polo?  Is it solid?  Does it make sense?

More to my overall point, though, I just want to leave it noted that this was all started by a former player that polo’ed in a hockey sweater and named the first big time bench tournament after a hockey term.  A name that was so addicting to those that learned of it that everyone kept calling this format “Bench Minor” for three years.

Anyone that plays polo knows that in the time since this first bench tournament, the format has been a staple of our sport.  It has been filled with drama and upsets and fights, it has pitted cities against cities; overall it has been a pretty good time.  I get all that.  I really get it.  I’ve played in two Bench Minors, I’ve played in the battle for the Midwest in Mankato, I’ve witnessed the excitement of a draft, I’ve gotten in a fight, I’ve won and lost at it.  Still, I am concerned with authenticity.  Is bench format right for bike polo?  Is it solid?  Does it make sense?

More specifically, I have two questions.

1) What is the value of on-the-fly substitution?

In the course of writing the rules, and in my interest in sports in general, I like exploring how the defining characteristics of different games evolved.  Why did basketball include the over-and-back rule?  How did they determine how many players should be on a soccer team?  Why is American football the most complicated and lovable game in history?  Stuff like that.

subsThe question that is relevant to my thoughts here is this:  Why does hockey have on-the-fly substitution?  And the answer can be found by anyone who slaps on a pair of skates for five minutes.  It’s exhausting.  Skating is like, so hard.  Professional hockey players are in incredible shape and they’ve found that the most efficient length of time to be on the ice is 45 seconds.  In hockey, if you go faster, if you go harder as a team, you increase your odds of winning.

It’s not uncommon for a polo player at the top of their game to be able to put up 40 outstanding minutes without a need for substitution

I truly hold that being faster at bike polo is a huge advantage, and I don’t think you’d find many that disagree with me on that point.  However, there are many instances in polo where being hard on the forecheck or blowing out an opponent with speed is a negative characteristic.  In 2013, slowing the ball down, drop passing at least twice and creeping the ball past half once the opponent had pulled off of the forecheck was a proven recipe for success.  It’s not uncommon for a polo player at the top of their game to be able to put up 40 outstanding minutes without a need for substitution, and throughout the entirety of experimentation in the world of bench format thus far, it’s unproven that a substitution for that top player with one who is less skilled will result in a pay-off due to a reduction in fatigue.

tiredhockeyThe nature of Hockey as a sport demanded on-the-fly substitution, due to sheer exhaustion, and the game accommodated this need by playing 5v5 with a full time goalie, and running a set offense and defense.  Line changes on-the-fly were a characteristic of the game borne out of necessity, not one implemented in the shadow of another sport to feign legitimacy.

Maybe in time, bench format will prove to me that the best strategy for winning is not to just leave your best 3 players on the court the entire game, but I consider this point unproven.  In the Bench Minors I’ve played and in all of benches I’ve been a part of, substitution has come because that’s what you’re supposed to do.  Because that’s the format.  I cannot help but feel we are playing pretend.

The truth is that an on-the-fly substitution in a game that is played three on three, without a goalie, is a risky prospect.  It is a risk that is void of advantage, and it is a risk we take because we want to believe it makes sense.  We should be weary of making connections to games that mirror ours but aren’t quite the same.  Bike polo is like hockey in many ways.  It’s unlike hockey in many as well.  Show me the impetus for substitutions in our game because I don’t believe they’re necessary.  All you have to do is quote the world champions themselves:

BBoys“You see these guys who eat frozen pizza and smoke joints all the time,” Dillman says. “They’re just huffing and puffing. We just keep on going. We could do it again another time.”

Say what you want about Dillman’s appraisal of the physical shape of the bike polo community, but the Beavers lost one game all season.  He’s not bullshitting.  If you want to see the best polo played by the best players, how does an argument for bench play coincide with that?  The form of play is all about taking your best players off the court.

2) How does bench format open to door for a higher level of competition?

There has been a pretty obvious migration of polo players to the west coast over the past couple years.  Some have moved to play polo, some have just happened to look for jobs in areas where good polo is played.  Some just want to live in Seattle, San Francisco, Portland – I mean, fuck it, coming from Philadelphia they sound like nice places to live.  I don’t aim to analyze why people are moving or how it can be stopped, but I mean to say that this migration has been pretty harmful for the sport.  We’re looking at a talent distribution in bike polo now that is absurdly weighted.  85% of the best players in the country are now based in two cities, and that’s a real statistic.  I made it up from real things…

When you start considering what a national competition for bench format polo would look like, the bleakness of this fact amplifies.  Who is going to win the North American Bench Championship?  If you’re from Eastsides, Northsides, Southeast, or the region formally known as the Midwest, I think your response is “Seattle, San Fran, who cares.”

The arguments for spectatorship and for hometown pride on the national level, for the “I’m bringing the cup back to my city!” attitude… I think it meant a lot more when Joe Panizzo and Ben Schultz lived in Chicago, when Nick McLean and Jessi were from Kentucky, when the Beavers brought the trophies back to Milwaukee.

I think being the best on the East Coast still means something even if your city would get worked over by Seattle’s B team.

califI am happy those people are happy.  Hell, I’d probably move “there” too.  If we’re honest, it just dampens the enthusiasm and exhilaration of a bench format national championships when Seattle has to sit players that could walk through most of the other teams in the country.   How is that good for competition at the top?  How does it challenge the best to get better?  At the highest level of the game, bench format becomes predictable, and predictability in who resides at #1 is something that bike polo definitely does not need more of.

When moving forward on bench format, let’s think regionally instead of nationally.  I think being the best on the East Coast still means something even if your city would get worked over by Seattle’s B team.

Maybe there has been an emphasis on the bench format in the bike polo community because there is an underlying feeling that we need to keep the game fresh.  I understand that one, absolutely.  The game has to remain experimental.  We are seven or eight years in to a complete commitment to 3v3 tournaments, and watching the final game of tournaments play out the same way over and over has had an effect of dulling interest in competition.  Same old, same old.

fansBike Polo needs to think about what it’s going to take to keep the sport growing, to interest those who don’t play, to find a crop of kids that’s going to come in and wipe the floor with the players who have been dominating the podiums since the beginning.  Aspects of the bench format will help that happen.  There are things that are really cool about it… really.  I don’t aim to deny that.  I do, however, want to look at how we got into this and challenge how it has been laid out.   So let’s take a real look at substitution on-the-fly, and let’s take a real look at whether or not we need national competition at this point in the community’s evolution.

When planning the bench tournaments of 2014 and beyond, I want Bike Polo to be creative and I want to recognize that what’s right for hockey is not necessarily right for us.   Let’s make it up as we go.

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