More On Sponsorships

From the beating a dead horse department: I ran across an interesting article in eGaming Review regarding sponsorships at the WSOP. As you might recall I recently posted about this issue when speaking about the pissing contest between PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker regarding Poker After Dark and before that I wrote another post about the Tiffany Michelle / Poker News dispute.

The magazine points out how 2008 WSOP Main Event winner Peter Eastgate had sported Ladbrokes gear for much of the tournament and then suddenly appeared wearing PokerStars gear. The magazine notes how tales of players swapping out one sponsor over another for a little cash seemed to have increased this year.

The magazine brings up a very good point which is that Harrah’s may see online poker rooms being a little more shy about sending their players to the WSOP in the future. Harrah’s has all sorts of quirky rules about online poker sites sending players to the WSOP and many sites like Ladbrokes jump through hoops to make sure that they get the Harrah’s thumbs up. Meanwhile many other online poker rooms skirt the rules while Harrah’s seemingly turns a blind eye.

Perhaps saying that Harrah’s turns a blind eye to it is unfair. A better way of describing the situation is that the online poker rooms adhere to the letter of Harrah’s rules though they may violate the spirit of the rules. That means when Harrah’s refuses to allow certain poker rooms to set up hospitality suites in the Rio or other Harrah’s properties those sites simply rent out a suite across the street and advertise it heavily around town so everyone knows where they are. Harrah’s doesn’t control the other hotels and can’t ban an online poker room from advertising at the airport or on cabs so their ability to police the online poker rooms almost disappears.

Plus Harrah’s is walking a bit of a tightrope. While they can’t openly accept players from online poker rooms that accept US players one would have to be a complete idiot not to realize that PokerStars, Full Tilt, and other rooms are putting butts in chairs at the WSOP. So to some degree Harrah’s has encouraged this type of behaviour by demonstrating a history of wink-wink, nudge-nudge sort of dealings with the online poker sites.

But let’s not put all of the responsibility on Harrah’s. Many of the online poker sites that are complaining have had very liberal policy packages. For instance, some say that you forfeit your free accommodations if you don’t wear their logo during your play. Well, if someone is flashing $100,000 in cash in front of your face walking away from having the tab covered on your shitty double room at a B-level Vegas hotel doesn’t seem like a huge financial sacrifice. Plus nobody wins any PR points for suing their players.

However the online poker rooms need to get serious about their contracts and make it financially painful for a player to walk away from them. For instance, the terms and conditions might stipulate that you either wear the site’s logo or you forfeit your accommodations. But if you wear the logo of any competing online poker room you owe an amount equal to whatever you were paid plus any future benefits thus negating any financial benefit of jumping ship.

Of course, the poker rooms need to wrap their head around this new business model as well. They should advertise up front exactly what they’ll pay a player for making certain milestones. For instance, if you’re on a featured table then the poker room should pay the player a fee which would be approximately equal to a fair market price for the advertising. Same for making it late into the tournament, being featured in some way in ESPN’s coverage, etc. That would allow players to receive compensation and they can shop around which sites they want to qualify on based on who is paying what. Likewise, the poker room doesn’t get a free ride simply because the player qualified on their site. If they’re getting the PR and/or exposure then they should pay for it.

And while there are a lot of things Harrah’s has no control over, what they can control is what is allowed at their tables. They could stipulate that as part of you entry you agree that you will not wear logoed merchandise from anybody who is not on their approved list. Rooms and various product vendors could apply for inclusion on the list and Harrah’s would obviously have to decline many of the current worst offenders.

Some might argue that this might dissuade some of these rooms not to send players to the WSOP but the WSOP – at least currently – is still a big enough draw that the rooms risk a lot more by not sending players. Players want to go to the WSOP and will play where there are qualifiers. If Stars, Tilt, or other rooms didn’t run qualifiers then many of their players would go to qualify on rooms that did and they risk losing millions in current and future revenues (assuming many never come back).

In the end, cleaning up this whole sponsorship issue is vital to the continued growth of poker in the US and abroad. I don’t begrudge the players who accept the money nor do I blame the rooms who are offering it. Both are acting in completely logical ways given the incentives being offered. Players are having life changing amounts of money being thrown at them and the online poker business is ruthlessly competitive so they’re going to push the letter of the law as far as possible.

But you can’t allow the premier event in the sport to become so crass. The slap-on logos and shameless promotion detract from the sport and make it seem unsavoury. Would Tiger Woods ever wear a slap-on Nike logo?

And if rooms want to claim that they’re sponsoring a player then they need to actually sponsor the player. Paying for his accommodations when the cost is already covered in his prize package really isn’t sponsorship.

All sides, players, online poker rooms, and Harrah’s need to work together to come up with something that’s fair to everyone and showcases the WSOP as a premier sporting event worthy of respect rather than a money grab where people are bought and sold like cheap pieces of meat.

4 thoughts on “More On Sponsorships”

  1. I agree with a lot of this, and I think you are gonna see some changes in the way that the poker rooms deals with these contracts in the future. It sort of seems like things are moving a little bit more toward player representation at the WSOP…but I remember that they didn’t even show Kelly Kim’s K.O. hand, Im sure his sponsors were not too pleased with that.

  2. Ladbrokes have changed their WSOP package as a direct result of the Eastgate thing. Now they offer Vegas Holidays, without the main event buy in. They used to send 100+ players to the main event.

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