The Death of Poker Media?

I swung by Commerce last weekend to get in a little Omaha and, as is my habit, I picked up copies of CardPlayer and PokerPlayer magazines which are always available in the casino. It’s a habit that goes back for nearly as long as I’ve played live poker in the local Los Angeles poker rooms.

When I was a beginning player I loved reading the strategy articles. I always enjoyed Roy Cooke and the other authors handing over little tidbits of advice on how to improve your poker game.

After I got involved in the online poker industry, I started to pick up the magazines to see who was advertising what promotions. They became more like industry or competitor research. I still found the articles interesting but poker on the internet had exploded by that time and there was more poker strategy articles available than one human being could ever possibly consume.

As I picked up the most recent editions of these two great poker publications I noticed they seemed a tad light. Very light.

Of course, light is relative. The last time I was a semi-regular in the LA card rooms was back in 2006 before I left for Gibraltar. Back then a copy of CardPlayer magazine was pretty hefty. How hefty, I don’t know because I never really took the time to inventory the magazine but I remember it being thick enough that it was too big to fold up or easily slip into your pocket.

That’s not the case today. The Jan 25, 2012 (Vol 25/No 2) edition of CardPlayer that I was holding was a mere 68 pages (including front and back covers). I was able to fold it over twice and put it in my jacket breast pocket.

It got me curious so I sat down and really looked at what was in these 68 pages.

Front Cover: 1 page
Masthead: 1 page
TOC: 1 page
Advertising Index: 1 page
Tourney Schedule: 5.5 pages
Advertising: 28 pages
Content: 30.5 pages

Only four online poker rooms had ads in CardPlayer; Lock Poker, Poker Host, America’s Poker, and Carbon Poker. CardPlayer had a full-page ad for their own free poker site but I don’t really count that since it’s a house ad. In total, seven pages were purchased by online poker sites.

Ads for land based casinos made up 19 full pages.

The remaining two pages consisted of smaller ads for things like CardPlayer Cruises, CP Poker School, Kardwell playing cards, Poker Media Consulting, etc.

Before I go any further I want to make it very clear that I am not singling out CardPlayer. As I browse around online poker news sites I notice a scarcity of any sort of advertising. It’s an industry-wide issue.

Part of the problem is that many poker media outlets got too fat on affiliate fees and placement fees. The amount of money online poker sites were willing to shell out for premium placement of their affiliate ads on the biggest poker media sites (both print and online) simply couldn’t and can’t be matched by any other sort of advertiser.

Many print magazines just kept adding pages and pages to their magazines in order to accommodate all of the people who wanted to advertise. Online sites sold out their inventory and then began charging poker sites an insertion or placement fee for increased exposure on their site.

This left little room for any sort of diversification of advertising income streams. In other words, GM, Coca Cola, Budweiser, and any other non-poker related advertiser were priced out of the market. When Black Friday hit there were no unaffected advertisers on the poker media customer list. All their bets were on online poker.

Granted, selling online poker to Corporate America was never an easy task. Not only were they priced out of the market but there is/was the issue of associating their brands with something that was, at best, morally objectionable and, at worst, blatantly illegal.

But that raises the issue of cause and effect. Was Corporate America scared away from associating their brands with poker or were they scared away from associating their brands with poker media that closely associated itself with online poker?

One could make the argument that poker is already somewhat acceptable to Corporate America. ESPN has an entire section dedicated to poker. Many newspapers carry syndicated poker content. They don’t give this exposure to poker out of the kindness of their hearts. They do it because, in theory, they are able to make money from it. Some advertiser is buying an ad on that syndicated column which makes it, in theory, profitable for them to pay the author for the content.

In some ways it reminds me of the dotcom crash. I remember when Yahoo was commanding super-premiums just to get your ad on their website. And just a few years later their sales dropped like a rock wen the dotcoms crashed.

Was it because nobody was advertising online? Ehrm, well, sort of. The problem was that the stupid dotcoms, flush with investor cash, stopped outbidding each other for prime Yahoo real estate when the money dried up. Since that was the only type of business Yahoo had been accustomed to, their sales reps were unaware that the phones dialed out as well as in. Their sales reps had never courted customers before. They were order takers.

The dotcom crash hit them hard because they weren’t organizationally structured to go out, hat in hand, begging for business. Likewise, I think the poker world needs to wake up to the fact that ads aren’t going to sell themselves. If the phone isn’t ringing the sales reps need to be hitting the phones and the pavement selling the ad space.

But are any of them doing that? Not from what I can see. I visited several of the largest online poker news sites and they’re all running ads for online poker sites. Some, even though I’m accessing the site from the US, are running ads for sites that aren’t even available to US players. One news site, which shall remain nameless, still has links to Full Tilt, UB, and Absolute room reviews in their footer (in their defense, they link to 404, page not found, pages).

I find it difficult to believe that this ad space can’t be sold to non-poker related businesses. The demographic of poker players is a highly coveted demographic for advertisers.

Or has the poker media yet to come to terms with the fact that the days of easy cash are over? Are they holding on, waiting for US legalization, hoping to command those outrageous premiums again? Have they burned their bridges to the legitimate world so badly nobody in Corporate America wants to touch them?

Whatever the answer, the one thing I do know, is the market weeds out those that fail to adapt. There are plenty of flamed out dotcoms that could have survived if they would have read the writing on the wall. Now all we can do is sit back and see who is paying attention to the winds of change and who is doubling down on their bets.

11 thoughts on “The Death of Poker Media?”

  1. In one part of your post you talked about seeing ads for non US friendly sites when accessing a poker news site. Bear in mind that some (one of the largest I know for sure) of these poker news sites have chosen to no longer promote rooms that are US friendly. They don’t want the risk of promoting to United States players. Right after Black Friday some of them blocked US visitors from clicking through to poker sites.

  2. Late to the party but I will add my two cents regardless.

    I’m of the opinion that 2011 in many ways was a great year for poker media if you look beyond print. I can’t remember a year where more relevant, fresh and competent content covering more than just “guy wins tournament” has hit the airwaves. Even print wise I have for example found Inside Poker Business and e-Gaming Review more worth reading than before.

    Obviously it’s been a tough year to monetize content due to a lack of obvious advertisers, but at least the notion of what poker media should cover should be has been redefined.

    I think one of the possible solutions (and that’s what we’re seeing online) is a further convergence between B2C and B2B content that will make non-gaming companies more willing to associate with poker.

    B2B media is seen as less off limits and B2C has the (potential) readership.

    Does anyone know how the print ad situation looks in the regulated markets where one could argue that this resistance against being associated with online gambling shouldn’t exist?

  3. ” Inability or lack of interest in mining their audiences for the kinds of advertisers THE AUDIENCE would like to see. Suppose it would be of interest to the makers of Beats headphones if Card Player could say, “We have a circulation of 500,000 copies per month with a readership of 1,200,000. We have a database of 29,432 loyal readers who indicated they purchase new headphones two times per year and have opted in for us to send them special offers from vendors of our choosing. Would you like to have your offer in front of them via email or text messaging in 48 hours?”. Dare I say you might be able to get a “yes” to that question…”

    Right there is your answer. The lack of interest! When online poker took off, it was easier to just accept poker ads and use affiliate commissions for everything instead of actually creating a self-sustaining, diversified advertising foundation and now they are getting punished for their lack of effort.

  4. This is a great article and got me to think about a lot of things. I have a few things to add.

    I think you also have to look at the fact that most non-gambling related firms do not want to have any association with poker related businesses – which, to most people in the world, is gambling. I have a friend who works at Google and he told me that they do not like to advertize gambling companies too much.

    I think your comparison to the dotcom crash is suitable. The poker industry has grown so much that there are fierce competition in online poker sites, poker affiliates, poker magazines, advertisers etc. I think it’s getting to the point where many of these poker firms are way over valued, as the customers have so many good options to choose from. And more competitors are still entering the market everyday and I think profit margins will continue to decline (the exception is ofcourse the online site PokerStars)

  5. @Chris: So, so, so dead on.

    Advertisers want detailed demographic information. Nobody seems to have this. Not even the poker rooms. Few, if any, poker rooms have done any sort of analysis of their customer base other than the information they collect as part of the account creation (i.e. name, address, date of birth).

    Poker media is even worse since most of them don’t even bother to collect that much information. They just plaster their websites with ads and hope you click thru to the poker site so they can make some money.

    As to your point #3 . . . Exactly! I’ve asked every marketing manager I know that works in online gaming why they don’t exhibit at non-gambling expos or advertise in something other than poker media. I’ve yet to get an answer that satisfies my assertion that advertising in the same old poker media outlets is fishing the same pond over and over again. Everybody talks about wanting to recruit the “recreational player” but they’re not putting their message in front of recreational players. Recreational players don’t subscribe to CardPlayer or Bluff.

    The same works in reverse. If you know what your subscribers are likely to buy it’s easy to sell advertising. Hell, I would give it away free just to prove the concept a few times and then start charging premium rates for it.

    Poker players buy headphones, computers, music, etc. Any advertiser who sells to the poker player demographic and says they aren’t interested in buying advertising in a poker magazine is really saying they don’t want to buy for some other reason.

    Whether it be the prices are too expensive, the media outlet has no idea who the ads are going to be shown to, or whatever, they’re telling you that you’re not doing a good enough job to show them the value in what you have to offer.

  6. Bill,

    Interesting and thoughtful article. I work in the “traditional” media business and am responsible for our advertising effort. Challenges to poker media are not unique at all and they are now figuring out what some of us have been working on for awhile, namely, trying to broaden client base and monetize content in the form of selling audience. In my opinion, there are three reasons for this:

    1. Inadequate staff and structure to react to changes in business. You nailed this one.

    2. Zero knowledge of their audience. Ok, almost zero – they know we have an interest in poker. But what else? When we talk to Coke or Anheuser Busch, you can no longer just say “buy our sports section” or “buy this regional football game” because it’s sports and people who like drinks consume sports. They want to know ages, incomes, education levels, additional interests, frequency of consuming the content, locations of the audiences and even information about PREDICTIVE behaviors of those audiences. Suppose poker publishers have spent much money or energy collecting that info?

    3. Inability or lack of interest in mining their audiences for the kinds of advertisers THE AUDIENCE would like to see. Suppose it would be of interest to the makers of Beats headphones if Card Player could say, “We have a circulation of 500,000 copies per month with a readership of 1,200,000. We have a database of 29,432 loyal readers who indicated they purchase new headphones two times per year and have opted in for us to send them special offers from vendors of our choosing. Would you like to have your offer in front of them via email or text messaging in 48 hours?”. Dare I say you might be able to get a “yes” to that question…

    Someone will figure this out, it’s just a question of a notoriously lazy industry deciding to work at it for a change.

  7. Yeah, I noticed CP had actually slimmed down to 68 pages back in May 2011 (just after BF), although even before that it wasn’t much thicker. And even with just 68 pages they’d include 16 pages’ worth of “Card Player Classics” articles to fill out the sucker!

    I’ll sometimes pull out old issues from the “boom” days and marvel at just how much quality new content you’d get in each one. (Relatedly, I also happened to notice recently that CP is now charging to see old articles on the website.)

  8. I, too, find it difficult to believe that non-poker entities won’t advertise in poker magazines. From experience with one poker magazine in particular, though, there isn’t even an advertising department in place to attempt it. As you said, they let the advertising come to them – or, at the most, seek ads from card rooms or poker tour companies – and don’t make any effort to expand the advertising base.

    I hate to admit that print media is failing. As a writer, I’d love to see it thrive again. But personally, I can’t even write for poker magazines because of the low-to-nonexistent pay, the shoddy oversight and editing, and bad management all around.

  9. I’d actually put Bluff & CP on the same level in Europe. Bluff is a stronger brand in the UK, but I am not sure its reach goes that far beyond that.

    The magazines that are doing the best in Europe, imo, are ones which started in Europe – Poker 52, WPT Magazine, Poker Player Magazine etc and a load of country specific ones.

  10. It’s sad to see. It’s even worse knowing that had they taken a less greedy route they could have built a sustainable business.

    Yep, your side of the pond is playing out differently. I don’t think CardPlayer got the following overseas that it did here so I suspect that CP has less of a safety net with their European operations. Bluff, on the other hand, has more diversification and seems to be, at least for the moment, doing better in Europe.

  11. Died years ago I am afraid Bill. Life is much better on my side of the pond, the magazines are much fuller for content and advertising, but still dying.

    Print media is a dying industry anyway, now we are in the instant gratification era of twitter etc. I think your typical poker player is very tech savvy these days, so a poker print media death will happen quickly.

    Most poker magazines relied on PokerStars for about 60% of their ad revenue pre BF, and as the mags were usually given out free, subscriptions were low. The magazines are also no longer paying a great deal (and in at least one mag you mentioned, anything at all) to freelancers, which is why most of the content is carefully placed ad-copy.

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