The Changing Business Model in Poker Media

Funny enough Hard Boiled Poker covered a topic I was pondering a blog post about.  I’ve written in the past about the poker media and how the fact that they derived a large percentage of their revenue from the very poker sites that they were covering tainted their motivation to dig too deep or ask too many questions.

Well a new trend seems to be emerging.  Hard Boiled focused on the sites that are going for subscription revenue but I think there is a lot more business model experimentation going on in the post-Black Friday world.  People are trying to find a way to turn their blogs, news sites, etc into revenue generation machines without relying on affiliate payments from the online poker rooms.

Even new sites are foregoing slapping affiliate ads all over their sites.  I ran across LegalPokerSites.com and it seems like a fairly new blog covering the legal side of poker.  Notice the complete absence of poker room advertising. Normally a new site can’t slap banner ads on there fast enough.

PokerFuse is another post-Black Friday site that has declared itself “independent.”  I really enjoy the coverage at PokerFuse.  It’s really solid reporting written by folks with real contacts inside the poker rooms who have fed them some great content.  In their FAQ section they explain their independent model:

The inherent nature of poker room affiliate programs means historically it has been difficult for the poker media to maintain its independence. By referring a new customer to a poker room, the advertiser earns a percentage of all rake generated by that player for the lifetime of the account. Long-standing affiliate contracts can be exceedingly profitable, providing regular monthly income for all accounts. So, there is a high risk in publishing unfavorable sites or networks; a loss of an affiliate account means losing all future earnings for referred players.

A regular media establishment always risks potential future advertising; but a poker affiliate risks guaranteed rake for all players accounts. This tips the balance and makes it very hard to maintain an independent eye on the poker world.

For that reason, pokerfuse from the outset has stated publicly that we will never accept advertising from poker rooms, networks, or rakeback providers.

Another site that really started to hit its stride in the post-Black Friday fallout was Quad Jacks.  They do feature some affiliate banners on their site but they’ve recently begun a subscription service where you can pay to access some of their content.

Wicked Chops Poker is taking a slightly different tact and publishing a completely separate product for which they charge a subscription fee for.  Wicked Chops Insider promises to share all of the dirt they can’t or won’t post on the free website as well as digging deeper into headlines with detailed analysis.

eGaming Review has put almost their entire site behind a subscription firewall.  The one advantage they have is that they’re more focused on gaming industry news which means that most of their readership is employed in the online gaming industry.  By advantage, I mean that it’s far more likely that your company will pick up a subscription than say to Wicked Chops Insider or Quad Jacks because many of the executives at your company were already regular readers of the print magazine to begin with.

The downside is that even though my company does have a subscription I typically can’t be bothered to login every time they send out their daily news headlines.  If I can find the same information on a site that doesn’t require a login I’ll go there first.  Only if EGR has a total exclusive will I go dig up that email with my login and password and read it on their site.  So either they better be cracking a lot of exclusive stories or I think their readership is going to take a bit of a hit.

But, whether any of these models works is irrelevant to me.  I just like seeing the experimentation going on.  Some of these models will work and some won’t.  Some will work for some sites and not work for others.  I really don’t care.  I think they all deserve some kudos for being brave enough to think outside the box in an industry of copycats.

There’s obviously still room for affiliates and I don’t think that every site has to rid itself of all poker room links but they need to be more transparent as well as keep a better watch on how the revenue side influences what gets written (or doesn’t get written).

For instance, a very, very big poker media site has their site review section with a page up about PokerStars.  Like most review sites they paint a sales pitch rather than an actual real review and conspicuously absent is any mention of the fact that the company is currently under DOJ indictment along with the site’s owner.

Are they really doing their readers right by omitting this important fact?  Maybe they might say that Stars’ legal situation has very little to do with the safety and security of player’s money as demonstrated by Stars’ ability to quickly pay back players after Black Friday.  But isn’t that being a tad presumptuous?  Who are they to decide what information I need to make a decision about what poker room to play on?  Shouldn’t they just review the site honestly rather than trying to sell me on signing up so they get paid?

We saw the same thing with both the Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet scandals.  Many of the top poker media sites were so married to those sites they refused to pull their affiliates ads and never mentioned the cheating scandal on their “review” pages.  I think a cheating scandal is material information and not including it borders on fraudulent advertising.

As the industry matures we need more news/media sites that aren’t being paid to turn a blind eye, to not ask questions, and to tell lies of omission in their reviews.  We need the independent news sites.

And since they need to make money in order to keep their doors open, at least consider whether or not their content is worth paying for.  Check them out.  See if they’re for you.  Even if you don’t think they’re worth paying for at least give them some feedback.  Maybe what they need is to tweak the model.  Maybe they need to totally scrap it and try something else.  Your feedback might help them cater their products to better suit your situation.

Because we’ve already seen the alternative and where that got us.

Bill Rini
Bill Rini is currently the Head of Online Poker for WSOP. He has been working in the online poker industry since 2004 and has held management roles at Full Tilt Poker and PartyPoker.