San Manuel Digital CEO Explains Decision to Partner With PokerStars For California Online Poker

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With weeks still to go until California’s 2015 legislative session officially gets underway, the topic of regulated online poker in the Golden State is already heating up.

In the first major development since legislation was officially shelved for 2014, the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians last week announced plans to partner with Amaya Gaming (the new owner of PokerStars) should legal online poker come to pass in California.

OPR spoke with Matthew Cullen, CEO of San Manuel Digital, who offered insights into the reasoning behind the about-face on PokerStars and a sketch of what’s to come for the tribe’s online arm.

Amaya central to San Manuel’s new thinking on PokerStars

The news that San Manuel was joining a coalition comprised of Amaya / PokerStars, the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and California card clubs the Bike, Commerce and Hawaiian Gardens came as something of a surprise to those following the issue.

In March of 2014, San Manuel was one of twelve tribes that endorsed a strongly-worded statement pushing back against PokerStars’ attempts to enter California.

And in June, San Manuel publicly signaled their support for a draft online poker bill that would have explicitly excluded PokerStars from the California market.

As Cullen tells it, Amaya’s acquisition of PokerStars was the pivotal event behind San Manuels’ change of heart.

San Manuel was close to striking a deal with another platform provider over the summer, Cullen said.

“But we didn’t end up doing one,” Cullen told me. “The timing was such that we kind of took a step back to reassess everything.”

“And then Amaya bought the largest poker platform in the world.”

That change, said Cullen, was what made the difference for San Manuel.

“Amaya is a public company that values transparency,” Cullen noted, stressing that San Manuel “certainly, absolutely” supports strict regulatory and suitability standards as a foundational piece of any California online poker bill.

Asked if the PokerStars partnership could be understood as a sign that San Manuel is bullish on poker’s chances in 2015, Cullen responded: “Yes. We’re quite optimistic about it.”

San Manuel not eyeing NJ online gambling market …

With California still up in the air, does San Manuel have plans to enter other regulated online gambling markets in the United States?

Such a path is currently being pursued by San Manuel’s California neighbors Pala Interactive (backed by the Pala Band of Mission Indians) in New JerseyPala is set to launch online casino and poker in partnership with the Borgata in the weeks ahead.

But San Manuel won’t be following Pala into New Jersey, said Cullen.

“We haven’t talked about it. We haven’t looked at New Jersey as a market to get into.”

… but online poker unlikely to be their last product

That doesn’t mean San Manuel is drawing a line at poker.

Social casino is a live option for the company – an option that makes tremendous sense given Cullen’s background.

“We’re very much looking at social and the various entry point options there,” Cullen said, stressing that social is a “highly competitive, very expensive” space, but one where San Manuel believes that “we’ve got the experience, we’ve got the expertise” to execute.

As for daily fantasy sports, Cullen suggested a lower level of interest.

“We’ve looked at DFS,” Cullen noted. “It’s an interesting category, but with everything else we have on our plate it isn’t something we’ve been terribly focused on.”

And will any of these products to come involve a deeper cooperation with Amaya?

“We haven’t explored anything outside of poker at this stage,” answered Cullen.

- Chris is the publisher of Grove also serves as a consultant to various stakeholders in the regulated market for online gambling in the United States.
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