NJ Online Poker MTT Traffic Data - Year One

NJ Online Poker Year One: In-Depth Analysis of Tournament Traffic [CHART]

NJ Online Poker Tournaments
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Cash game averages are the universal standard by which an online poker room’s performance is measured, but they only tell part of the story.

Tournament volume trends are also of vital importance to the overall health of an online poker site.

Armed with data provided courtesy of PocketFives, I sought to analyze the first-year performance of New Jersey’s regulated online poker market from the perspective of the tournament grinder.

And my findings revealed insights not immediately apparent by a vetting of cash game tallies alone.

NJ online poker tournaments: Weekday performance

The first chart displays turnout sums for the three largest weekday majors at New Jersey’s online poker sites by field size, broken out by week and by network:

NJ Online Poker MTT Chart - Weekdays

Three things caught my attention.

WSOP.com weekday tournaments draw more traffic than Party / Borgata’s

Party / Borgata may be the undisputed market share champion, but WSOP‘s biggest weekday Majors garner more attention.

Despite trailing Party / Borgata in New Jersey’s cash game standings by as many as 80 players (currently 36), WSOP’s $5,000 and $10,000 guarantee MTTs consistently outperform those of its rival by 30 – 35%.

An examination of the tournaments themselves points to why:

  • Party’s Majors are freezeouts that feature a guaranteed buy-to-prize pool ratio of approximately 110:1.
  • On the flip side, WSOP Majors allow unlimited rebuys for the first two hours, as well as an add-on, which enables the network to slash the initial buy-in for its guaranteed Majors to less than one-third of what the competition charges.
  • As a consequence, the buy-to-prize pool ratio surges to a more appealing 360:1 and higher.

Granted, after factoring in rebuys and add-ons, tournament junkets on WSOP are still wagering nearly the same amount as they are on Party / Borgata. But it’s the allure of parlaying $10 or $27.50 into a $1,300 – $3,500 score that keeps more players in the game.

That, and recreational players appear more likely to try their hand at a lower buy-in tournament, even if that means they’ll be putting up their 1-2 bullets against the full clip of the site’s regulars.

Of course it’s also conceivable that players find WSOP’s approach to tournament scheduling more agreeable:

  • For better or worse, WSOP’s nightly tournament schedule has remained relatively unchanged since Day One.
  • Conversely,Party / Borgata is constantly revising and re-revising its agenda, often to the chagrin of the poker community’s regular players.

There’s something to be said about consistency, especially if it allows players to schedule their playing time with full confidence.

Ultimate Poker departure has negligible impact on tournament turnouts

Ultimate Poker’s withdrawal from the nascent New Jersey market in September had no material effect on tournament volume.

This all but confirms the widely accepted theory that most New Jersey tournament grinders play on multiple sites.

It also suggests that the handful of players faithful to Ultimate Poker did not gravitate towards the state’s other networks.

Tournament trends do not always mimic cash game patterns

For the most part, the tournament traffic pattern on WSOP.com mirrors that of its cash games.

Namely, the site got off to a blistering start, lost a significant portion of its traffic, stabilized, and since has experienced nominal traffic hikes during the live Series and months where its promotional schedule was particularly strong.

Contrarily, Major tournament volume on Party / Borgata, and to and extent 888*, has remained relatively static throughout.

Remember how I noted that WSOP’s reliance on R&A formats is the driving force behind its impressive tournament turnouts? As it turns out, they’re a bit of a double-edged sword.

What may have happened during the site’s early days is that recreational players enticed by the schedule’s high buy-to-prize pool ratios took a shot, realized that they were at a severe disadvantage both with regards to skill and ability/willingness to reload, and never came back.

On Party / Borgata, Major entry fees were always too high for casual players. The nightly tournaments were inundated with regs then, and they still are now.

While this is an interesting point of analysis on its own, it raises the larger issue of what operators must do to attract a new wave of recreational players to their rooms.

So far, it hasn’t really happened.

*The noticeable drop in traffic on 888 last August reflects the addition of a $100 buy-in, $2,500 high roller tournament to the nightly schedule, and not decreased player interest. 

NJ online poker tournaments: Weekend performance

Chart #2 exhibits data in the same manner as #1, only this time for weekend Majors:

NJ online poker weekend MTT

Chart #2 inspires three more points of analysis.

Weekend Major traffic equally divided between WSOP.com and Party/Borg, with 888 picking up scraps

On an average weekend, Party / Borgata and WSOP Majors pull in around the same number of entrants.

This lies in stark contrast to our previous discussion of weekday tournament turnouts, where WSOP held a decisive edge.

However, this leveling of the playing field is easily explained by Party / Borgata’s aggressive approach to its Sunday tournament schedule, particularly its $50,000 weekly guarantee.

In order to fulfill its minimum benchmark, the $50k GTD must draw 271 entrants. Compare that to its weekday Majors, which rarely need to attract more than 110.

Furthermore, WSOP’s weekend roll-out deviates from that of its weekday schedule in that there is a more equal distribution of freezouts and R&A’s. The higher average buy-in results in slightly reduced turnouts.

888’s weekday tournament schedule tends towards the conservative side, and it shows. The network’s two largest guarantees – a $10,000 and $2,500 GTD – require only 54 and 27 turnouts, respectively.

It’s therefore little wonder that grinders don’t flock to the site.

Borgata / Party’s tournament series and one-off special events draw considerable attention…

Notice that on more than a half-dozen occasions, weekend tournament traffic on Party / Borgata has surged – sometimes by more than triple its average.

These outlying points are the results of the network’s two exclusive tournament series’ (April’s NJCOP and September’s Garden State Super Series) and its multiple one-off Sunday $100,000 guarantees.

Unlike its competitors, Party / Borgata has had considerable success in drawing masses of poker players to its special tournament events.

The aggressive nature of the tournament guarantees – which have hit as high as $200,000 – and the online brand’s cross-promotional ties to one of the east coast’s premier live poker destinations are likely the primary factors behind these frequent triumphs.

WSOP tried to implement a similar strategy, but after January’s ultra-aggressive WSOPOC failed to hit the mark, it opted for a more conservative approach, which entails more frequent, albeit considerably smaller, tournament series.

… but fail to drive cash game traffic

As much as Party / Borgata’s one-off events propel tournament traffic to new heights, they rarely have a material impact on cash game liquidity.

A few examples:

  • During the week of the NJCOP (April 19 – 27), average cash game traffic only rose 2.4%. That same week, turnouts for the network’s three most popular tournaments skyrocketed 175%.
  • From September 7- 21, the GSSS facilitated turnout gains of 66% – 175%, yet throughout the series, cash game tallies held relatively pat.

This suggests that out-of-state pros and in-state recreational players only see enough worthiness in NJ poker rooms to log in when there’s a major happening.

Brand awareness may be less of an issue than originally thought

With all the media attention centered on the lack of regulated gambling awareness, it’s easy to forget that over half a million NJ online gambling accounts have been created.

Based on my findings, I’d argue that the larger issue is the average player’s unwillingness to play on NJ poker sites.

There have been days when thousands of players have been mixing it up on the cash game tables and/or participating in tournaments, but those days have become increasingly fewer and far between.

The reasons for why the market has stumbled are varied, and include payment processing issues, poor software design and lackluster customer service.

But even if all of the aforementioned are resolved, NJ sites are going to have a hard time winning the loyalties of big name professionals and casual players unless they amend their business models.

A good start may be to recognize what has worked in the past and expand upon it.

A few humble suggestions:

  • Instead of relying on one-off events to drive traffic, host a weekly $300 or $500, $100,000 GTD tournament.
  • Draw the recreational players back by offering a Sunday Mini-Major, featuring a $10 buy-in, no rebuys and add-ons, and a $10,000 guarantee.
  • Give tournament players a reason to play cash games. Ring game traffic is the bread and butter of the industry, and without it, all efforts on the tournament front are for naught.

A final note: we should stop accepting the excuse that the market isn’t big enough to sustain bigger guarantees. Occasional Major turnouts of 500 runners plus speak otherwise.

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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.