What’s Keeping 888 Poker and WSOP.com From Merging in New Jersey?

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If all goes according to plan, Q1 2015 will see the launch of an 888-branded site and a Treasure Island online poker room in Nevada. Both will operate on the 888 platform and share a player pool with WSOP NV.

There’s been no official word as to whether 888 Poker NJ and WSOP NJ will pursue a similar arrangement.

But I’d argue they should, and sooner than later.

888 and WSOP: Better together

On paper, the prospect of combining two small networks into one slightly larger one may read as too costly and resource intensive. But I’d argue that the short and long-term benefits of an 888/WSOP union justify any temporary burden on the part of the operator.

Unanticipated regulatory hurdles aside, it’s not even as though the transition would be a difficult one, as both 888 and WSOP utilize the same poker platform (888) and operate in conjunction with the same Atlantic City-based entity (Caesars AC).

NJ market positions entrenched

WSOP NJ and 888 occupy the market’s second and third place spots, respectively – positions they’ve held for the entirety of New Jersey’s first year offering legal online poker.

Although there have been times when WSOP came close to stripping the partnership of Party/Borgata (which do share player liquidity) of the market share crown, one can reasonably conclude that unless a major shakeup occurs, New Jersey’s three remaining poker powers will likely retain their market positions for the foreseeable future.

A shared player pool is that major shakeup.

Based on data gathered from PokerFuse Pro via PokerScout, the sum of WSOP’s and 888’s average 7-day cash game traffic is approximately 30% greater than Party / Borgata’s.

Thus, assuming a near worst case scenario in which a 888/WSOP merger does not precipitate liquidity gains on either site (highly unlikely), the new AAPN will still become NJ’s undisputed leader by market share.

Promotional synergy

Whereas 888 focuses the bulk of its efforts on increasing cash liquidity through freeroll tournaments and straight rakeback hikes, WSOP has instituted a hybridized model based on leaderboard competition, rakeback deals, random giveaways and high-profile tournament series.

On their own, you can argue that these two very different promotional strategies are fundamentally flawed. But in tandem, the strengths of one would cover the weaknesses of the other.

There appears to be a tendency for players on 888 to squeeze out as much value out of promotions as possible, cash out and parlay their earnings elsewhere. At least that’s one explanation for why the site’s freerolls draw anywhere from 400 – 1700 players, yet overall liquidity is down in the dumps.

Why would players behave in that manner? Three reasons come to mind:

  1. The opportunities to parlay small MTT buy-ins into four or five digit scores are virtually non-existent.
  2. It’s difficult to find low-to-mid stakes cash games during off-peak hours.
  3. After freerolls, the next logical step in the evolution of a recreational tournament player is to play Sit & Go’s. But SNGs do not run with any frequency on 888.

On the flip side, WSOP does offer players a plethora of opportunities to “hit big.” Yet, its promotional MTTs fail to garner the same level of attention as Party / Borgata’s.

Why is not entirely clear, but my guesses are:

  • Cash liquidity on WSOP is skewed too heavily towards a small segment of regular players.
  • There aren’t enough satellites into promotional tournament events.
  • WSOP’s reliance on R&A formats alienates players on a limited bankroll.

A shared liquidity agreement addresses many of these hurdles.

Assuming both sites maintain their current promotional schedules post-merger, recreational and casual players on the new AAPN will still be able to build an initial bankroll on 888.

Only now they’ll be more apt to keep their funds on the network because opportunities to amass a larger bankroll, including WSOP’s leader boards and one off tournament events, will be immediately accessible.

Not only that, but thanks to an increase and more even distribution of overall cash liquidity, the promotional events themselves will become bigger and more abundant.

Plus, merging consolidates the market without further casualty …

Ultimate Poker’s sudden departure from the regulated market hammered home the reality that New Jersey’s online poker industry is too small to reasonably sustain more than three networks.

Yet, with the expected entry of online poker juggernaut PokerStars and newcomer Pala Poker in early-2015, five operators will be duking it out for the loyalties of a small, uninformed and generally dispassionate demographic.

Perennial third place operator 888 may quickly find itself on the chopping block, rendering the ideas of a future arrangement with WSOP.com and a unified AAPN that reaches players in all three states where online poker is regulated moot.

… and positions WSOP / 888 to compete with PokerStars

Even if 888 is somehow able to survive the imminent entry of PokerStars, how can it (or WSOP.com for that matter) truly expect to thrive amid such heavy competition?

Short answer: not without help.

Realistically speaking, New Jersey’s current operators cannot expect to outperform PokerStars in the areas of software and (presumably) customer service.

Instead they must seek advantages in other areas, namely promotions, marketing and scheduling, all the while remaining competitive in the arenas in which PokerStars is expected to dominate.

A shared liquidity compact between 888 and WSOP opens the door to such possibilities.

We’ve already touched on how the duo’s promotional schedules will harmonize. A few other ways in which a liquidity compact positions the AAPN to compete with Stars:

  • Bigger tournament guarantees: PokerStars is expected to host a $50 buy-in $10,000 guarantee and a $200 buy-in $50,000 GTD as part of its weekly schedule. The new AAPN will comfortably be able to do the same, if not better.
  • Market reach: PokerStars NJ cannot share liquidity with players in Nevada; the AAPN NJ can. And should it hope to establish itself as a national force, it will.
  • Fast fold: The joint venture of 888 and WSOP may be able to implement a fast-fold roll-out. It’s a tough sell in such a small market, but again, if the AAPN shares liquidity across three states and runs enough fast-fold promos, players might bite.
  • Pennsylvania: The AAPN will likely have a presence in what should be the fourth or fifth state to legalize online poker. An interstate compact between the AAPN in New Jersey and PA will effectively double the size of the market.

Combine the aforementioned with WSOP’s strong brand awareness, and the new AAPN may end up being the shark of the regulated industry’s guppy infested waters.

WSOP and 888 moving toward cooperation in New Jersey

I spoke with WSOP Head of Online Poker Bill Rini regarding the prospect of a shared liquidity compact between 888 and WSOP:

We have received approval from the DGE to offer shared liquidity in NJ and we are in the process of working out the implementation plan for it to occur, as we believe the opportunity is worth exploring.  I can’t really comment on timing.

Obviously, we’re aware that combining our offering with 888’s liquidity would make us the undisputed market leader in NJ in terms of market share, however we also want to make sure that whatever we do is in the best interest of the players and online poker in general.  There are various factors to consider such as whether sharing liquidity would be additive or cannibalistic as well as whether entering into such agreements would still offer us the flexibility with schedules and promotions that has allowed us to become the largest independent poker room in the state.

- 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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