NJ iGaming Weekly: Can the NJCOP Stop New Jersey’s Online Poker Downslide?

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Recently released revenue data from the DGE reveals that New Jersey’s online poker market grew slightly in March, with month-over-month gross revenue margins increasing from $3.1 mm to just over $3.2 mm.

Taken at face value, these numbers indicate a trend towards stability. But a look beyond the surface exposes an undeniable truth: the Garden State’s iGaming industry is slowly bleeding customers.

Given the current downtrend, for perennial market leader Party Poker / Borgata, the first NJ Championship of Online Poker could not be kicking off at a better time.

Yet, I’m hard pressed to believe that the NJCOP will be the catalyst that reignites pronounced, long-term interest in New Jersey’s regulated Internet poker market.

Cash game volume numbers paint a woeful picture

For the majority of March, cash game traffic remained relatively static, with only the All American Poker Network (888poker) suffering a marked loss.

However, during the last few days of the month traffic dipped considerably – a trend that outside of one noticeable spike has continued into April.

While it would be easy to chalk the traffic loss up to the change of season, global traffic has only dropped approximately five percent over the past month. By comparison, NJ-only volume has suffered a staggering twenty seven percent falloff, a great deal of which has occurred over the past 14 days.

To further exhibit this point, take a look at current 7 day cash game averages across all NJ sites, with March 31st figures in parenthesis:

  • Party Poker NJ: 169 (206)
  • WSOP.com: 125 (133)
  • AAPN: 89 (94)
  • Ultimate Poker: 4 (10)

Data provided by PokerFuse Pro via PokerScout.

Other signs that NJ’s poker market is suffering

The outlook for New Jersey’s poker sites appears even grimmer when you consider that March is three days longer than February.

More telling than month-over-month figures are daily gross revenue averages, as follows:

  • December: $93,062
  • January: $111,041
  • February: $111,043
  • March: $103,570

Were it not for the upcoming NJCOP, I would project April’s numbers to fall to December levels. As is, they’re difficult to predict.

One may attribute the stagnation of the Garden State’s regulated poker market to the state’s limited population. Yet, month-over-month online casino revenues clearly exhibit that there is still room for growth.

Case in point: Since January, NJ online casino revenues have ballooned from just over $6 mm to $8.67 mm. That’s a nearly 45 percent growth margin.

One final note: Turnout numbers for NJ Sunday Majors have hit a two month low. And while it’s certainly plausible that players are saving their tournament tickets for the NJCOP, going into the hotly anticipated series on such a low note does little to facilitate hype.

To further illustrate NJ’s poker woes, we compare turnouts for last Sunday’s majors to those approximately a month prior (in parenthesis):

  • Party / Borgata $50k Guaranteed: 280 (342)
  • WSOP Weekly $25,000 Guaranteed: 117 (138)
  • 888 Poker Big Sunday ($10k Guaranteed): 43 (56)
  • Ultimate Poker $20,000 Sunday Guarantee: 107 (119)

All in all, tournament volume is down 18 percent over the past four weeks. Given this, it would appear that NJ’s poker sites desperately need to address their player retention mechanisms.

The good news is that right now there is incredible value to be had by playing in NJ online tournaments, if only because most of them are consistently failing to meet their guarantees.

Can the NJCOP reverse the Garden State’s fortunes?

If I’d been asked a month ago if the NJCOP’s would provide NJ’s regulated gaming market with a much needed lift, and I wouldn’t hesitate to answer “yes.” These days, I’m not so sure.

Here’s why:

  • The NJCOP overlaps with the second half of the Borgata Spring Poker Open. This was probably by design, since a ton of out-of-state players are expected to be staying at the Borgata’s brick and mortar casino in Atlantic City this week and next. But so far Open players have been doing anything but spending their downtime playing online, evidenced by a marked traffic drop-off on Party / Borgata since the Open kicked off last week.
  • Party / Borgata dealt its 30,000,000th hand on Sunday. And while there were literally hundreds of NLHE cash-game tables running, the number of actual players online was more in line with what one would expect on a Sunday afternoon.
  •  Most NJ poker sites are dominated by regulars, which dissuades casual players from logging on.
  • Party / Borgata’s first $100k tournament drew a record-breaking 768 runners. Nearly a month later, the network tried to replicate its prior success by hosting a second $100k, but this one only drew 544. That was barely enough to eclipse the guarantee. Given this, who’s to say that the smaller NJCOP events won’t suffer from similar middling turnouts?

That being said, I fully expect the NJCOP Main Event, a $200k guarantee featuring a $200 buy-in, to at least come close to drawing the 1000+ runners necessary to meet the guarantee. But that’s one day – and one good day does not save a fledgling poker market.

Full NJCOP schedule here.

New Jersey poker operators need a long term plan

In order to retain players, New Jersey’s iGaming operators are going to have to do a better job confronting outstanding player concerns.

One could dedicate an entire series to the maladies that afflict NJ poker sites, but as an example, Party Poker NJ would likely grow its customer base by addressing a few issues, such as:

  • Reducing the number of client hangups. Right now, even logging on can take upwards of one minute or more.
  • Increase the viability of its mobile app. Currently, it suffers from abysmal geolocation errors.
  • Introduce a more varied daily tournament schedule that caters to players of all skill levels.
  • Allow for table selection.
  • Lower cash-game rake while offering more rakeback incentives.

Other NJ sites would do well to implement similar changes. And at this point it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea if NJ explored the possibility of shared liquidity with Nevada and Delaware.

Otherwise, I’m of the belief that the NJCOP, or any other tournament series, might not be enough to propel the Garden State’s regulated market back in the right direction.

- Robert DellaFave is a game designer and avid poker player. He writes for several publications centered on legal US online poker and the regulated online gambling industries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
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