Humberto Brenes

Sponsored Players Herd Being Thinned by Recent Cuts

humberto_brenes_mon9_d2wThe online poker world has seen many changes over the years as it has grown and matured into the thriving industry we know today. During that time, sponsored players have been the backbone of the site’s marketing drive, with these player’s images and social media being used to promote events, promotions, and games on the sites. This week has seen the ending of deals for seven professional sponsored players at various sites across the poker world, but they’ve not all been for the same reasons.

New Jersey- and Nevada-regulated site, Ultimate Poker, has apparently ended deals with four of its stable of sponsored players. This appears to have cut the fledgling “Team U” in half, with William Reynolds, Jeremy Ausmus, Phil Collins (not the guy from Genesis) and Bret Hanks all now without a sponsorship deal. Antonio Esfandiari, Jason Somerville, and the stars of the web series “Me vs U” Danielle Anderson and Dan O’Brien all still appear on the “Team U” Roster on Ultimate Poker’s site.

It seems obvious why Ultimate Poker is reducing its sponsored player base: they just aren’t doing well enough to support the drain on their resources. According to PokerScout.com, across both their Nevada and New Jersey networks, Ultimate Poker only has a 7-day average of 70 players. The company does have good media interaction with players through its YouTube channel, and if you haven’t been there, I strongly suggest you do. Tom Breitling’s video blogs about the first year on regulated Nevada gaming give a window into the process of running an online gambling company, even if they do occasionally make the odd factual slip. The more entertainment-based videos are also well produced, and well worth a watch if Antonio’s magic appeals, or you want to see poker players do silly things to win prop bets.

Antonio Still has a Team U Patch

Antonio Still has a Team U Patch

Where Ultimate isn’t doing so well is their software, or attracting players to the site. While they seem to have the best US-facing marketing videos, they have not been able to capitalise on this success and turn it into players at the tables. They developed their own software, which has meant they are having to catch up with sites who launched with established software packages, and players appear to be sticking with what they already know.

So Ultimate Poker’s decision to thin their herd of sponsored players seems to be purely financial. They just can’t afford them.

PokerStars on the other hand has no such problems in that area. The world’s biggest poker site has no issues with player numbers, or turning a profit. With the Amaya purchase now finalised, they are also looking to return to the US markets. PokerStars has a big sponsored player team, with players such as Daniel Negreanu and Chris Moneymaker leading the pack as standout names. But they also have players like Joe Cada and Lex Veldhuis who have very limited marketing appeal to most poker players, and even less to those new to the game (I happen to like both of these two, they seem to be nice guys, just not great for the marketing mill).

As the industry has grown and matured, the sponsored player has stayed with us, but recently there has been a move away from the unknown online players, and a move towards more mainstream ambassadors. So the release of several members of the PokerStars Team Pro roster wasn’t exactly a surprise. This month saw three PokerStars sponsored players hand in their embroidered sticky patches and join the ranks of those poker players without a sponsorship deal. Humberto Brenes, Nacho Barbera and Angel Guilen are the first in what I am expecting to be a growing trend for PokerStars. While all three of these players are from Central or South America, I don’t think that PokerStars are planning any real change in that part of the world. What we might be seeing here is a change in the policy of who they want as brand ambassadors, moving away from relative unknown poker players. There have been reports that PokerStars are reducing the number of sponsored players per country, with thoughts that only one spot on the team is available in most countries.

Nacho Barbero is no Longer Sponsored by PokerStars

Nacho Barbero is no longer sponsored by PokerStars

The other thought is that this is part of a planned change in the company’s marketing strategy. With the signings of Rafa Nadal and Ronaldo, PokerStars has indicated that they are looking to move away from trying to attract established poker player to the brand. This is probably because they know that the majority of them already play on the site. Instead they are trying to appeal to those outside the poker playing community. Nadal and Ronaldo have massive fan bases that have nothing to do with poker, but these non poker playing fans could be pushed in the direction of the game by good marketing to go with the endorsement of their hero.

It’s not just sports stars that PokerStars are interested in. Vicky Coren-Mitchell is a long established sponsored player. She has been playing for many years, and she is the only person to have two EPT titles, but she also has a massive fan base outside poker. She is a writer, TV presenter and personality in the UK, and her face is a common site on TVs around the country, and this is the reason she is so good as a sponsored player. Her public involvement in poker brings people to the game.

There have been comments on forums and social media that this is the first sign of a change of direction after the conclusion of the Amaya purchase of the site earlier this month. I honestly think it’s too early to see any changes to policy from the deal, there just hasn’t been enough time for the change to be put in place. This seems to me to be much more of a planned, gradual change in strategy away from the traditional sponsored player model. These players had come to the end of their contracts with the company, and either the renewal deal wasn’t enough to continue (as appears to be the case for Brenes) or they weren’t offered a renewal to their deal.

PokerStars seems to be adapting to the new circumstances of the global market place, and is adapting it’s marketing strategy accordingly. They already have the support and rake from the majority of non US poker players, so they are, reasonably, trying to find new players to swell their coffers. Ultimate Poker, on the other hand, is at the other end of the spectrum, and appears to be cost cutting to keep the doors open until the market grows enough to support them.

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