The Online Poker Arms Race
Before I get started I wanted to take a second and thank Michael Jones over at Part Time Poker for bringing together three seemingly unrelated topics which I had been stewing on for awhile. Him mentioning all three in the same article sort of forced me to sit down and put digital pen to digital paper and get this blog post out.
I’ve mentioned it before but I don’t really see the value in building up a small army of pros to represent your company. PTP highlighted the fact that PokerStars has recently signed Andrew “Foucault” Brokos to their lineup and I couldn’t help but think, “Who is that?” I don’t mean that to be taken as a sleight. I really had no idea who he is. He’s not a household name. Apparently he’s had some deep runs in the WSOP main event.
But what is his value? Like I said, he’s not a household name so you’re unlikely to be bringing in new players and the kinds of people who live their lives on 2+2 and other poker fanatic poker forums that might be more familiar with his name are the people least likely to switch between poker rooms simply because a particular player is now sporting a PokerStars logo on his hat.
That sort of brings me to another topic PTP highlighted in their Hit and Run article, they linked to an article on Wicked Chops Poker that essentially said that despite the huge success of PokerStar’s PCA it is likely to do very little to get new players to sign up. The format is too boring and there simply aren’t enough strong personalities compared to young whiz-kids who sit there motionless for hours crunching complex problems in their heads.
Now, PTP didn’t mention it in this particular Hit and Run but I believe they covered it another one where PartyPoker’s Tony G is demanding a rematch against PokerStars’ Isildur1. Tony G has even offered to throw in an extra $50K prize money if Isildur1 will play the match on PartyPoker (the first game was played on Stars). But that match will never take place because it’s extremely unlikely Stars would allow Isildur1 to play on a competitor’s site (Why Tony G agreed to play on Stars is a tad baffling). PokerStars has already communicated to their pro players that they shouldn’t appear on Poker After Dark because the show’s strong affiliation with Full Tilt Poker.
How is this all related? Well, the more the online poker sites attempt to exert control over the poker industry the more the poker industry as a whole suffers. There’s already a shortage of colorful, strong willed, personalities in poker and if they’re going to be sectioned off and told under what conditions they can play it hurts everyone. When I think back to when I first got involved in poker I loved seeing the top pros talking trash to each other and having the clout and skills to back it up.
Now you’ve got PokerStars owning the PCA, EPT, NAPT, APT, LAPT, etc. Full Tilt has PAD plus a bunch of other programs that they either produce or advertise so heavily on that other sites don’t want their pros associated with them. PartyPoker has the WPT. Those are just the ones that rolled off the top of my head. I know there are a lot more examples.
The WSOP seems to be one of the only big-audience tournaments that isn’t affiliated with an online poker room (actually, not 100% true since Harrah’s has interests in a small online poker site). You could also make an argument that the WPT might fall into the same category as they haven’t overly done it as a PartyPoker tournament series nor has Party gotten too heavily into the sponsored pros arms race.
Could you imagine if the same thing was going on in other sports? What if sponsors held their representatives out of various events based on who had won sponsorship rights for the game/match? What if Rafael Nadal was told by Nike that he can’t compete in the US Open because Adidas had won out as the event’s official sponsor? Or what if sponsors got tired of having to compete for sponsorship rights and you starting seeing the Nike Tennis Tour and the Adidas Tennis Tour and only players who are representing them (or weren’t representing any of their competitors) were allowed to play in each tour?
Overall I think that it would be better for the sport if the online poker sites worked together. Why not co-promote the Tony G vs. Isildur1 matches? PokerStars hosts one and PartyPoker hosts one. Winner gets crowing rights and maybe you get the CEO of each company to agree that the losing team’s CEO has to be photographed wear the winning team’s logo’d t-shirt or something like that. Maybe the sponsor of the losing player has to donate $50K to a charity. It doesn’t matter what it is. It’s all just PR hype anyway.
But stuff like that doesn’t happen because everybody’s asking “Well, what’s in it for me?” “Why should I let my big name pro play on my competitor’s site and give them some free PR?” And as silly as it may sound, the answer is that maybe there isn’t anything in it for YOU. Maybe you do it to help raise poker, in general, in the public consciousness. Maybe it elevates the story beyond the normal poker press and into some national or international press outlets where people who don’t normally read the poker press. Maybe it shifts the focus from poker being just like any other gambling to poker is a competitive game where skill and intelligence are rewarded.
But that’s difficult to quantify. How can you measure the ROI on promoting the game of poker? Most marketing people only know that you spend X and you get Y. They do “branding” when they can get free tickets to a football match or wined and dined by people selling advertising space. They’re not really tuned into growing poker at the grassroots level.
That’s why they keep sticking with the tired methods. Buying ads in poker media. Doing AFP’s (advertiser funded programming – i.e. the poker rooms pay all of the production costs of bringing you some new poker television show). Working with only the top 5% – 10% of affiliates. Signing up poker pros and slapping ridiculously obnoxious patches on their clothing making them look like NASCAR drivers.
Meanwhile look at companies like Zynga and their poker application. According to some estimates they have 300K players online during their peak hours. PokerStars’ peak cash game numbers are only around 50K (according to PokerScout). Sure, Zynga is less profitable per player than Stars or Full Tilt but either of those companies could have and should have been the market leader in this area. They could have found a way to monetize those players, as Zynga has, and run it as a side business. Promote the sport of poker whether you play for free or for money.
That’s what drives a grassroots movement. That’s what legitimizes poker.
Unfortunately, everybody is so focused on looking out for their own self-interests that they fail to see the bigger picture.