Who is the Perfect Sponsored Poker Player?
Following on from Vicky Coren-Mitchell’s amazing second EPT Win in Sanremo last weekend, and the outstanding mainstream media coverage that followed, I started to think about the future of Sponsored Poker Players, and their future in the industry.
With the industry changing post Black Friday, we have seen a reduction in the number of players online, and a number of different marketing strategies to try and attract some of the shrinking player pool to certain sites, with mixed levels of success.
Part of any poker site’s marketing strategy has been sponsored players, and this reaches back a long way in online poker history. During the Full Tilt/PokerStars war between 2006 and 2011 the sponsored pros were in the trenches with various players banned from playing in certain televised events based solely on whose patch was attached to their shirt.
But with the changes in the poker landscape, does the sponsored player idea still hold up? Do new players still identify with the players whose names are splashed all across the websites and marketing emails?
Lets have a look at the traditional sponsored player types, and see if they still appeal:
Traditionally, most sponsored pros have been either those who are well known names from televised poker games, or those who have gained a niche respect from the online poker communities such as 2+2 and Pocket Fives.
Players such as Phil Ivey, Gus Hanson, Marvin Rettenmaier, Daniel Negreanu and Chris Moneymaker are great examples of the first category.
These players have been around for a while, and have names that are recognisable by the majority of people who already have an interest in poker. Ivey is still considered the best all round poker player in the world, and is currently sponsored by his own play money site, Ivey Poker. With Ivey Poker not generating any rake yet as it’s just play money, its large stable of well known players seems to be out of step from its current income potential, but more on this later.
Gus was signed by the resurgent Full Tilt Poker following the acquisition of the assets of the original Full Tilt Poker by The Rational Group, who also own PokerStars. He falls into the first category with his WPT wins and previous appearances on the televised high stakes cash games and tournaments.
Gus hasn’t really been a poster boy for online poker, as his losses have snowballed since the return of Full Tilt, and he is currently over $17 million in the hole from playing online.
Kara Scott has been part of the poker media for more than few years. This very nice, funny and highly professional lady got her patch by working in the industry, being able to play at a reasonable level, and looking rather good sat at a poker table with a Party Poker patch attached to her chest. Kara’s appeal is mainly to those already involved in the game, or who catch some of her work covering the WSOP for ESPN.
Marvin Rettenmaier was one of the first of the High Rolling German superstars. For a while, it seemed to be hard to find a high roller that he didn’t win! His actual media profile isn’t that massive, but he does appeal to railbirds and wannabe existing players and his blog post tend to be interesting.
Daniel Negreanu and Chris Moneymaker are both very well known names in the industry, with Negreanu being the lead ambassador for the biggest online poker site in the world, PokerStars, and Chris having the boom following his 2003 WSOP Main Event win after satelliting in online. The resultant explosion in popularity ended up being coined as the “Moneymaker effect.”
These patched players have limited appeal outside of the poker world, as they aren’t really household names. Negreanu is probably the closest to having a mainstream profile with his appearances as an actor in several films, and his appearances in some reality TV shows.
Those who have gained respect as online grinders cover the full spread of the games spread, and include Randy “Nanonoko” Lew, Dale “Roxxuu” Philip, Adrienne “Talonchick1” Rowsome and Sin Melis Melin. All of these guys are currently signed to PokerStars or Full Tilt as these are the only sites really big enough to be able to offer contracts to this sort of player. They tend to put in a lot of volume at mid-stakes games, and make their money by grinding through some very nice bonuses that are only available to signed pros.
These players are pretty much unknown outside of the poker world, and if we’re honest, they’re not that well known inside the poker world either. They are there to keep the poker hardcore interested, and give them something to shoot for as these players are selected from those who are winning, and Full Tilt even runs a competition to select new online patched pros every 6 months.
So, it seems that most of the players who wear a patch are there to attract existing players. Their purpose is to try and grab a bigger piece of the pie from the existing player pool, rather than going out to find new blood for the games.
That leaves us with the sponsored players who don’t fall into the two main categories, or those that have outgrown the stereotypical boundaries of these categories.
I started this article talking about Vicky Coren-Mitchell, and how her second EPT Title had generated a buzz from the mainstream UK media. Vicky has many interests outside of poker, and she is known as a Journalist (she has several columns in national papers), she is a quizmaster for the hardest quiz show on UK TV (Only Connect, BBC4), she has written several books, and is the daughter of UK National Treasure, Alan Coren. Not only that, she has an army of non poker fans that follow her on Twitter, and read her blog on her own website as well.
People are genuinely interested in what she thinks, and what she has been doing. The EPT Live Stream had a massive influx of new viewers during the final table of Sanremo. They were active in the Twitter feed, asking newbie style questions, and getting interested in the game, and the new viewers were pretty much all non poker players being introduced to the game through their connection with Vicky.
The signing of Rafa Nadal by PokerStars follows the same vein as Vicky, even though he comes under the TeamSportStars banner rather than the TeamPro categorisation Vicky has.
Rafa has a large following outside poker, with some of his fans living up to the root of the word, and are pretty fanatical.
For those of you who have been living under a rock and hate sports, Rafa Nadal is the most dominant male Tennis player since Pete Sampras. He is the current World No. 1, former Olympic Champion and has won 13 Grand Slam singles titles. In short, Rafa IS a household name.
PokerStars have used Rafa’s inexperience of poker in the marketing plan built around his name. He has been seen to learn the game, has had a personal poker coach, and seems to have become a competent poker player. I’m not going to be staking him in a $100k super high roller anytime soon, but I’d probably trust him to not be out of his depth in a local casino cash game or mid-stakes tournament.
If I was put in charge of this marketing plan, I’d probably tweak it to get it seen more by Nadal’s fan base, and target it less at the already established poker community, but it seems to have been effective, and has also generated some interest in the mainstream media.
From where I sit, the goal of sponsoring players is to help in attracting new players to a site, and to also assist in making the site attractive enough to existing players to keep them playing on the site.
The two sponsored players I’ve already mentioned in Vicky Coren-Mitchell and Rafa Nadal clearly fit the first part of this brief. They have reach outside the poker market, and can bring new money into the games. The players with non poker profiles have an appeal that is far wider than the so called Ambassadors of the sites such as Daniel Negreanu or Gus Hansen. The more traditional sponsored player is only going to appeal to the existing player base and help a site carve up the shrinking player pool in its favour.
The online poker industry is maturing. It’s no longer new and shiny. What we have now is an established product, with a solid core of players. Now isn’t really the time to pander to the existing player base. By all means (and sites really need to) treat them well, but the majority of the marketing should be aimed outside of the current player pool. Sign more names like Nadal and Vicky, but find people who can talk to the media, already have a good fan base and interact directly with their fans. Sports stars are the first obvious stop to look for this kind of player, but it shouldn’t stop there. TV Personalities, music stars, authors and other people with a big public profile are prime targets for sponsorship. This doesn’t just bring more players to the game, it starts to erode the bad reputation poker has from those who don’t understand it. Poker is seen by a large segment of the population, in the UK anyway, as being a game only enjoyed by those who are degenerate gamblers. By bringing in known names and entities, poker starts to become a more normal pursuit, and the process to erode years of derision and bad PR can begin.
Primarily, what we need is to see the player pool grow, and bring more people in from the outside. That will never happen while sites continue to focus on the existing player pool. The sooner some of the industry wakes up to this, the better, for both the poker business, and for the players that rely on it for both a living and recreation.