A tale of three sponsored poker players

A tale of three sponsored poker players

The ongoing battle between PokerStars and partypoker is proving fascinating for so many reasons and in the last week or so the focus has been on sponsorship. PokerStars have parted company with four of their best known players – Jason Mercier, Vanessa Selbst, ElkY and Felipe Ramos. It has been abundantly clear that their marketing strategy has been moving away from the standard aspirational players and more towards mainstream celebrities and streamers. partypoker on the other hand are, as always, zigging where PokerStars zag, and have announced former PokerStars Pro Isaac Haxton and Phillipp Gruissem as their latest ambassadors. The Haxton signing in particular is curious because he has been particularly vocal about PokerStars since he left them and it almost feels like a wink to the serious poker community that they are doing the opposite of PokerStars (or indeed, everything that was popular about PokerStars before Amaya acquired them).

As a serious player I love this rivalry and the fact that partypoker are making online poker, and in particular live and online tournaments, competitive again. I think partypoker are the leader right now for live tournaments and by hosting the biggest online MTT in history later this year, they may narrow the online MTT gap considerably between them and Stars. I am, however, skeptical about the recent sponsorships. I’m hoping to interview some of the folks at partypoker very soon about this but until then I wanted to summarise the current state of poker sponsorship. In 2018 as I see it there are three types of sponsored poker player:

The celebrity outside of poker

It is not new for a poker room to slap a badge on somebody well known outside of poker. Just off the top of my head Shannon Elizabeth, James Woods, Boris Becker, Shane Warne, Teddy Sheringham, Tony Cascarino, Ronaldo, Carl Froch, Audley Harrison, most well known snooker players and many more names have all endorsed a poker room before, usually when they are at the end, or a quiet point, of their actual career.

The big change in this model has been more recent when we have seen some megastars at the top of their game endorsing poker rooms. Rafa Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar Jnr, Usain Bolt and Kevin Hart have all recently been sponsored by PokerStars at the height of their fame. This is not cheap and although Nadal, Ronaldo and Neymar didn’t renew their contracts it must have had a positive impact because PokerStars signed Bolt and Hart straight after.

It’s often annoyed serious poker players that less skilled celebrities earn endorsements but it is tremendously short sighted not to see the benefits of these deals. They reach brand new audiences. Real Madrid fans are more likely to play at PokerStars (or poker at all) after the Ronaldo sponsorship than they were before. Kevin Hart is an A-List celebrity and the right video of him botching a hand in a funny way has the potential to be seen by millions of people.

I have no idea how well these endorsements convert viewers into poker players but the name of the game in 2018 has to be reaching new audiences, there is no longer a steady influx of new players finding the game organically.

The content provider

Another relatively new type of ambassador is the talented player who also creates content for the poker room. This is mostly the case on Twitch and/or YouTube, but could also include things like podcasts (Like Dara and Dave on Unibet’s Chip Race Podcast) and blogs. Lex Veldhuis, Jason Somerville, Jaime Staples, Parker Talbot, Jeff Gross and Kevin Martin are all such examples of players who have earned (or kept) sponsorship because they have a big presence on Twitch and/or YouTube. Unibet have an interesting hybrid of this model and the celebrity model by inviting streamers from eSports (who are basically mega stars on Twitch) to special live poker events.

These are talented but not necessarily the best players, but they earn the nod over elite players because they do so much more for a sponsor. Not only are some of them streaming for 40 hours a week to large audiences, but they are also providing a fantastic display of the product they are endorsing. There is quite a bridge between seeing Fedor Holz playing a Super High Roller and embarking on your first $1 SNG on the poker room he endorses, but watching Lex Veldhuis play a PKO tournament on PokerStars is a great way for a new player to experience the product before they deposit. The good streamers are also the ones who answer each and every question a potential new player asks in the comments. In this respect, Twitch streamers are very much the ‘Infomercials’ of poker.

Once again if you are perplexed at why your favourite nosebleed player cannot get a sponsor for love nor money, but relative unknowns like ‘Fintan and Spraggy’ are signed by PokerStars, ask yourself this question. If you had $50,000 of marketing budget (Amount plucked from thin air, not based on anything I know or don’t know about party/Stars deals) would you rather buy a high stakes player into five EPT events wearing your badge or would you rather pay an enthusiastic player to stream all their online games for a year, showing off your site and answering customer questions? This is an extreme example and no doubt the high stakes player do some work for the site in interviews, during live events and so on, but you get the point.

The other huge benefit of the content provider model is that it is so much easier to measure a player’s performance as an ambassador. We have no idea if all those years that Jason Mercier wore a PokerStars patch was worth the investment, but I bet they can put an accurate dollar value on Lex Veldhuis over the last year. Everybody already knows his fantastic viewing figures from his Twitch streams and PokerStars will also know how much traffic he sent them directly and probably will have tracked how many people signed up to PokerStars as a direct result.

The player doesn’t have to necessarily create content for a poker room, but I think they have to expect to do something for the room other than play. For example, my old friend Patrick Leonard of partypoker may not be a big streamer but he does a hell of a lot of work behind the scenes getting customer feedback, answering questions (he put a hell of a shift in when there was a technical error during last year’s Online MILLIONS) and advising on promotions/structures/MTT series etc.

The good player

Which brings me on to the original sponsorship model since the Poker Boom and you have probably guessed by now that I am quite dubious of it. There was a time when anybody remotely well known could convince a poker room to buy them into events in exchange for merely wearing a badge. Poker was booming and the market was competitive. Then during the ‘November Nine’ era before Black Friday we started to see the actual dollar value of making it on a major TV table like the WSOP Main Event (We’d hear stories of $10,000 to any random person who made a feature table all the way up to millions for the November Niners themselves).

Especially after Black Friday that all changed and poker rooms’ marketing budgets became much more tight. Everyone knew the sponsorship model was dying and it was only the really elite players, or those who had an appeal beyond merely being good at the game, who still had the luxury of a sponsor.

My basic issue with the old sponsorship model is that the people who the elite sponsored professional appeal to have already decided where they play poker – they are preaching to the converted. Isaac Haxton is a wonderful spokesperson for the game (I’ve met him twice and he was an absolute Gent, and his appearance on the Joe Rogan Podcast was brilliant, if he can do more of them then he is a bargain for any sponsor) but everybody who knows who he is already has a partypoker account, and has already decided whether they will play there or PokerStars. Nobody is going to migrate from PokerStars to partypoker because Isaac Haxton told them to, and the players who particularly appreciate Ike for his stand against PokerStars stopped playing at Stars a long time ago.

When somebody sees Isaax Haxton crush a tournament they already are aware of their online poker options, the same can not be said for somebody who sees a viral video of Kevin Hart or even gamers who stumble on to Lex Veldhuis streaming a final table (I suspect that the 15,000 people who watched Lex at a PLO WCOOP finale were watching PLO for the first time).

There are some players who transcend the game so much that they probably have the ‘celebrity’ appeal already mentioned – Phil Ivey, Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu and now Fedor Holz come to mind. But even Negreanu is making YouTube videos for PokerStars and players like Liv Boeree routinely appear in the mainstream media, rather than just the poker press.

There are benefits to sponsoring players who have made their name in the game – it helps sell the dream of poker, especially that winners are rewarded, and it adds an element of credibility to a poker room where there may have been nervousness. But if the desired outcome of a sponsorship is that more people play on your site, then putting a patch on somebody because they are good at poker is at least difficult to measure the success of, and at worst appeals to players who long ago chose where they will be playing.

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