Poker Player Sponsorships in a Post-Black Friday World

by Brian Balsbaugh

In the middle of the poker boom in 2004 I had the highest ranking executive at Party Poker on the phone and he was on fire. He had a fever and the only prescription that could cure it: new depositing players. “Brian, I’ll allocate as much money as you want for any project as long as you can show me a positive ROI based on new player sign-ups,” he told me.

I’ve learned that one axiom about the online poker business has always held true: In order to be successful, an online poker room needs a consistent influx of new depositing players.

There are many different philosophies about how to attract those new players, but there is no question that one single strategy has been the most successful. Full Tilt Poker and Poker Stars captured roughly 75% of the online poker market by utilizing pro poker players to generate new customers.

At Poker Royalty, we’ve always believed that a pro poker player’s sponsorship value is determined by his or her ability to bring in new customers. Black Friday has changed our opinion on a lot of issues, but not this one.

High profile pro players create content, which is then broadly distributed and becomes a successful new player acquisition strategy. For example, PokerStars hired a team of poker players, purchased television time and paid for the production of its poker television shows. The show generates sign ups, site analytics allow them to identify a positive ROI and the project gets funded over and over. It worked in 2004 and it has worked every year since. That is the tried and true, time tested method of delivering that consistent influx of new depositing players.

Party Poker has managed to avoid hiring the team of pro poker players, but employs a similar strategy. Instead of allocating its budget to team pro’s, Party acquired the World Poker Tour in 2009 for over twelve million dollars and successfully gets high profile players to participate in its popular Party Poker Premier League. They are creating poker content to attract new customers. For that matter, the WSOP real money gaming site marketing strategy is similar as well- They are Selling the Dream of winning a title and becoming a rich and famous poker player.

In addition, the non-televised content created by high profile poker players is also a viable new customer acquisition strategy. To his credit, in 2001 my client Daniel Negreanu recognized the need to reach his fans and launched his personal website which hosts his blogs, forums and videos. That has proven invaluable to him and his sponsors over the years in attracting new customers.

Like Daniel realized in 2001, new media platforms allow greater connectivity and ability to reach fans–and potential customers. With Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, it’s easier than ever for poker players to reach the masses. Because of this, the potential ROI those players can bring an online operator is also greater than it has ever been.

Not all poker players bring value to an online poker room and that is why Poker Royalty has always only worked with the players who we felt could add new customers. Some agencies have taken a more “quantity over quality” approach to signing poker players to management contracts, but that didn’t square with our core belief. Yes, in the short-term Black Friday hurt a player’s ability to land a sponsorship deal. But in the post-apocalyptic online poker world, the pros who can attract new players will be big, big winners.