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NJ iGaming Weekly: NJCOP Post-Mortem and the Future of New Jersey’s Online Poker Industry

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The nj.partypoker.com / BorgataPoker.com-hosted NJ Championship of Online Poker (NJCOP) is officially in the books. And with its departure, life for the average New Jersey grinder returns to normal – at least for the time being.

I say “normal” because despite most events having exceeded expectations, the NJCOP appeared to have little discernible effect on New Jersey’s cash-game traffic – which in my mind is the single most reliable indicator of market performance.

Whether the NJCOP will ultimately be considered a success or failure depends largely on personal expectations. If viewed as an one-off event designed to temporarily boost interest in NJ’s online poker scene and possibility convert a few hold-outs, it performed admirably.

But for those who believed the 8-day tournament series would do anything more than help stabilize the fledgling market, it failed.

With two major exceptions, NJCOP turnouts above expectations

An analysis of the numbers reveals that most NJCOP events fared reasonably, if not exceedingly well.

However, the two events with the largest guaranteed prize pools came up short:

  • All NJCOP tournaments featuring a $100 buy-in and a $20,000 guarantee eclipsed their benchmark by a wide margin, regardless of format. Two tournies outperformed their guarantees by a 50 percent margin or more, creating a $30,000+ prize pool in the process.
  • Smaller re-buy events (< $100) also fared well, exceeding their guarantees by at least 42 percent.
  • The solitary high roller (Event #14 – $500 buy-in, $30,000 Guaranteed) featured the lowest number of entries at 149.  Yet despite only paying the top two places, the prestigious event smashed its guarantee by a staggering 131 percent.
  • However, the only two events to boast a six-figure guaranteed prize pool failed to reach the heights set forth by Party NJ. Notably, Sunday’s $200k Main Event proved the antithesis of the high-roller, drawing the most entries of any one paid entry event, yet falling short of its guarantee by $35,000.

Viewed from a microcosmic perspective, the NJCOP was for the most part a startling success. As for its effect on the long-term growth of Party NJ and the Garden State’s iPoker industry as a cohesive unit, that’s a different story altogether.

NJCOP stabilizes market, little more

Although the NJCOP was widely touted as the biggest tournament series in New Jersey, let’s not forget that WSOP held its own $1 million Online Championship back in January.

On paper, New Jersey’s second foray into the land of high-profile tournament events proved far more successful than the first. Yet, cash-game traffic on WSOP.com – and on all other NJ poker sites for that matter – spiked considerably during the Online Championship.

To illustrate: Cash-game volume hit its life-to-date peak on January 26th – the same day as the Championship’s Main Event.

Similarly, Party / Borgata’s first $100,000 Guaranteed tournament had a pronounced, albeit short lived, effect on both cash-game volume and tournament turnouts.

The NJCOP, on the other hand, did little more than to temporarily stabilize a market in the midst of a two-month downswing. And while that’s better than having no effect at all, I have to believe that New Jersey’s iGaming interests were expecting more.

Traffic comparison: Pre and Post-NJCOP

Overall, volume across NJ poker sites was slightly down over the period of April 19 – 26, with only the PartyPoker NJ network experiencing modest gains.

7-day averages as follows (April 19th numbers in parenthesis).

Data provided by PokerFuse Pro via PokerScout.

The 1.8 percent traffic drop-off in the Garden State is roughly in line with global numbers, indicating that the NJCOP did not have any measurable effect on average cash-game volume.

On a more positive note, this week’s other Sunday Majors were the beneficiary of modest week-over-week gains:

  • WSOP.com $25,000 Guarantee: 142 runners, up 23.4 percent over last week – met its guarantee.
  • 888 “Big Sunday” $10,000 Guarantee: Drew 56 runners, 4 more than the week prior, surpassing its guarantee by a small margin.
  • Ultimate Poker $20,000 Guarantee: 130 entrants, up from 106 – did not meet guarantee.

The increases are likely accounted for by the higher than usual frequency of out-of-state players in town to participate in the NJCOP Main Event.

Can we expect NJ’s iPoker market to grow?

The ratio of cash-game players to total population in New Jersey is slightly better (0 – 15 percent) than that of ring-fenced European nations such as Spain and Italy.

This alone may lead some to believe that New Jersey’s iPoker market is tapped out, and at best will remain stable until a shared liquidity arrangement is forged with another state(s).

But I’m not convinced. Here’s why:

While it’s entirely plausible that the high player volumes experienced in January were the result of a few select promotions and more widespread marketing campaigns, we’ve already shown that tournament volume (and in some cases cash-game traffic) experiences its greatest gains during special tournament events.

Hosting more of these – 888 and Ultimate Poker have yet to hold any – should drive tournament grinders to NJ’s sites on a more consistent basis.

As far as keeping them there – that’s a different story.

I believe that the key to sustainability and growth is directly correlated to player satisfaction.

Granted, players who log-on for the occasional Sunday Major or to reap the rewards of a match bonus aren’t going to be deterred by a site’s deficient software and lacking rewards program nearly as much as those who treat poker as their day job.

But they’re also going to know better than to start playing regularly on a site where those issues are apparent. And a site without regulars is a site destined for failure.

Suffice to say that without a strong foundation based upon player respect in place, sites will be hard-pressed to increase their traffic levels,  forcing them to either pack it in or to generate interest via alternative means, namely in the way of increasingly lavish (i.e. expensive) promotions.

But eventually operators will no longer be willing or able to sustain the high operating costs and low conversion rates associated with this flawed model, and subsequently scale back. Seeing no real reason to invest their money on a shoddy, promo-free site, regulars will begin looking at other options.

This is exactly what is happening in New Jersey right now and that other option is unregulated sites.

The NJCOP was the first step towards righting the ship.  Even if it didn’t accomplish as much as some had hoped, it gave players a taste of what Sundays in New Jersey could be like.

Now, let’s hope that NJ’s operators take this downtime to start paying more attention to player needs, such as better location verification software, stronger player incentives, improved customer support and recurring promotions that continually reward the hard working cash-game player.

Only then will the market reach the heights it enjoyed in January.

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Robert DellaFave
- 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.