NJ iGaming Weekly: After Six Months, NJ’s Top Operators Begin to Make Strides

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Since regulated gaming went live in New Jersey nearly six months ago, I’d argue that three of the five poker networks that launched operations have ceased to stay relevant.

First to fall off the radar was Betfair, which in all fairness never really made much of a concerted effort to become a factor, focusing instead on its online casino operation.

Next up was Ultimate Poker. Despite a dedicated customer care department and a slew of industry vets in its corner, UP has yet to overcome the gross deficiencies of its feature-light software.

888 Poker dug its own grave through its overly aggressive marketing scheme and poor communication, extinguishing any chance it had of pulling into second place.

And with unregulated sites either bowing out of the Garden State or finding it more difficult to gain exposure, online poker traffic in NJ has seemingly consolidated into two rooms: WSOP and PartyPoker NJ (Party / Borgata) – or at most three, if Bovada is to be counted.

But now that they’ve established themselves as the dominant forces in the state’s nascent iPoker industry, are NJ’s top dogs taking the right approach to expanding their player base, and more importantly are they positioning themselves to become contenders in other state-regulated markets?

The numbers don’t lie -WSOP and Party / Borgata rule New Jersey

WSOP’s and Party / Borgata’s dominance in NJ is clearly illustrated through their revenue figures and traffic tallies:

  •  According to PokerFuse Pro via PokerScout, the state’s top two networks account for 81 percent of its cash-game traffic.
  • Together, last week’s Sunday Majors boasted $155,000 in guaranteed prize money. Of that, $125k (81 percent) was offered by WSOP and Party NJ. The two networks captured a nearly equivalent percentage (79 percent) of all Sunday Major participants.
  • Last month, the PartyPoker NJ network pulled in 28.2 times more gross revenue than Ultimate Poker. And while WSOP’s and 888’s figured are grouped together, it is assumed that the former raked in significantly more than its sister site.

Party / Borgata opts for a more calculated, player-focused approach to change

Over the past several months, most of the changes to Party / Borgata’s client have been influenced by its player base.

In February, its flagship weekly tournament – the $50k Guarantee – was restructured based on player feedback. Subsequently, the NJCOP schedule largely reflected the desires of the poker community.

More recently, a software patch rectified the client’s most reviled feature: the inability to view individual cash-game tables. And although the much requested wait lists have yet to be incorporated, a grayed out “Join Waitlist” option at least indicates that they’re coming soon.

Factor in the revisions to its daily tournament schedule, forthcoming changes to its Sit & Go schedule and improved (albeit slightly) customer service, and Party appears well on its way to achieving what no other NJ poker site has yet to enjoy – prolonged stability.

The problem is that Party’s methodical, player-oriented tactics may only resonate with players that already frequent the site. If anything, features like being able to view individual tables, while by-and-large a good thing, go against its casual-friendly, “anyone can play poker” philosophy.

So the real question becomes, “What is Party doing to increase traffic gains?”

And the answer to that must come internally, as player feedback serves more to retain existing players than to acquire new ones or reacquire players who left after the novelty factor of legal online poker wore off.

But perhaps Party is content merely to improve the player experience of its faithful, rather than resorting to all sorts of extravagant billboards and promotions to attract new patrons. And while relying on the merits of reputation won’t necessary have a profound short-term effect on traffic, it places Party in an enviable position for when they expand into uncharted territories, namely Pennsylvania and California.

Not a bad strategy.

WSOP gets aggressive

Given its intimate ties to the looming live WSOP, NJ’s second largest poker network online would be foolish not to take advantage of its cross-promotional opportunities. And that it has.

The WSOP.com Online Championship Series will kick off on June 1, just days after the frenzy that is the WSOP gets underway at the Rio. In many ways similar to the recently concluded NJCOP, the Online Championship Series will consist of 15 mid-to-high buy-in events and boast a total prize pool of $560,000.

However, WSOP’s second foray into the land of prestigious online tournament events holds certain distinct advantages over its rival’s offering, namely in the way of variation and timing.

Players interested in participating will have their choice of two PLO, three 6-max NLHE, one knockout event, and a host of freezout and rebuy/reentry events. Entry fees for the events vary widely, with five different buy-in tiers (ranging from $55 to $530) available.

And while I would have liked to see at least one Heads-Up or 7-Stud tourney on the menu, overall the Online Championship does an admirable job of catering to WSOP’s diverse fanbase.

But where the Online Championship truly excels over the NJCOP is that it won’t be in direct competition with a NJ-based live tournament event.

Some may argue to the contrary, but I’m of the mind that Party / Borgata shot itself in the foot by overlapping the NJCOP with the WPT Championship.

First of all, the two catered to two entirely different poker demographics. That, and numerous players complained of not being able to log on to Party / Borgata from a Borgata hotel room – essentially nullifying the purpose of running the two events concurrently.

And yet, the NJCOP still performed admirably, with all but two of its events surpassing their guarantees.

But because the Online Championship will allow players who crave a taste of the WSOP experience to participate without having to make the 2,500 mile trek to Las Vegas, it should perform even more respectably.

Predicting the future of NJ’s iPoker market

The fight for supremacy in NJ will ultimately depend on how effective the networks are at both appealing to their current customers and compelling holdouts to sign up.

Due to its brand recognition and obvious ties to the live WSOP, I would expect WSOP.com to register more new accounts than Party – at least through the end of June.

However, Party appears to be in a slightly better position to retain the players it has, if only because it has exhibited a staunch commitment to change. Should the network restructure its lackluster bonus / rakeback program, I would give it the edge.

But given WSOP’s creative yet cost-effective promotional schemes, more impactful bonus structure, and the presence of the Online Championship, smart money is on WSOP pulling at least even with Party by July.

Either way, both networks deserve credit for the progress they’ve made over the past six months.

Remember, it’s the reputability of today’s sites that will dictate the composition and rate of growth of the regulated gaming industry as a whole. Compared to that, who beats who in New Jersey this summer is largely irrelevant.

- 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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