Now that Olympic mega-champ Michael Phelps will be scanning the want ads for a new career, it’s a more reasonable question than you might think.
Phelps has had a fairly lengthy, sometimes controversial relationship with poker, and elite athletes are quickly becoming the new must-have spokespeople for major online poker rooms (e.g. Nadal at PokerStars and GSP at 888). The first regulated online poker room in the US is set to go online as early as September 2012 and it now seems inevitable that at least a third of the country will follow by 2014.
On top of all of that, poker is clearly on Phelps’ mind as the Olympics wind down. His post-win tweets included shout-outs to poker players such as Jen Harman and Christian Harder; perhaps most interestingly, Phelps also suggested that working on his poker game remains a priority:
I love learning from
@magicantonio … Everyone has a style…
— Michael Phelps (@MichaelPhelps) August 5, 2012
(@Magicantonio being, of course, recent Big One for One Drop winner Antonio Esfandiari).
The timing seems right. Phelps likes poker, and poker likes Phelps. Online poker is about to explode – at least in terms of availability – in the US, where Phelps should enjoy a post-Olympic glow for years to come.
There’s a big gap, however, between someone who is a good ambassador for an online poker room and someone who can catapult a game like online poker back to mainstream status. So which is Phelps?
Comparing Phelps to Moneymaker
To say Moneymaker caused the online poker boom is a bit misleading; it’s probably more accurate to say he accelerated and amplified the boom. Semantics aside, Moneymaker (and his improbable story) had three critical impacts: Legitimizing online poker through the widespread coverage his WSOP win generated (and continues to generate), providing a relatable narrative to new poker players (the “hey, I could do that” effect) and finally lending a recognizable face to an inherently impersonal industry.
Phelps certainly has a recognizable face and would immediately provide a distinct (and familiar) identity for an online poker room. His Olympic credentials, along with the blast of media attention his endorsement would ignite, would also eliminate any lingering questions people might have about the legal status of online poker in the US. Those are two of the biggest hurdles facing a reboot (or reboom) of the US market, and Phelps provides a nice answer to both.
While an Olympic champion can’t really sell the same “it could happen to anyone” narrative of Moneymaker, Phelps could end up being far easier for potential poker players to relate to than it seems at first. A room could, for example, employ his lack of experience as a common ground between new players and Phelps (ala PokerStars’ recent “Teach Nadal How to Play Poker” marketing campaign).
Either Way, The Game Has Changed
My point with this article isn’t necessarily to assert that Phelps will definitely spark a second online poker boom in the US (although I do think he’s an intriguing possibility for a company like Caesar’s). The interesting thing to me about examining Phelps as a potential frontman for online poker is what it says about just how different a world online poker could be post-regulation.
No offense to James Woods or Pamela Anderson, but the US market has never really seen an online poker room backed by a top-tier celebrity If Phelps is an enticing hypothetical, what do you think a Michael Jordan-backed room would do for the growth of the industry? Or how about a Main Event final table appearance by WSOP.com room host Jay-Z?
For those who remember the days when Mike Sexton was the most famous person (by far) associated with an online poker room, the second coming of online poker in the US should make for some pretty interesting viewing.