However, the 2011 crackdown by the Department of Justice threw a monkey wrench into the well-oiled symbiosis between online poker sites and televised poker. No longer allowed in U.S. markets, sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker ceased to underwrite these televised poker shows.
Because of this, and with online poker’s legality up in the air, television networks decided to drop most of their poker programming.
An opinion by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel in late 2011 opened the door for states to legalize online poker, and three states jumped at the opportunity: Nevada in 2012, and New Jersey and Delaware in 2013.
The expectation at the time was more states would follow suit and poker would see a resurgence that would start with online poker and trickle down to live poker and the amount of poker on TV.
Unfortunately, regulated online poker expansion has ground to a halt in the United States.
With legal online poker available in just three states, and with those three states accounting for just 3% of the population of the United States, there isn’t a lot of incentive for online poker sites to sponsor televised poker shows, and by extension, there isn’t much incentive for networks to air poker shows.
Despite the slow growth of legal online poker, a few new poker shows have begun popping up on the airwaves, as entrepreneurs see the future potential of poker should expansion efforts continue.
Among the people looking to rekindle America’s love affair with poker is Heartland Poker Tour founder Todd Anderson.
Having grown tired of the current cookie-cutter poker shows (including his own creation, the HPT), Anderson and a couple of partners came up with the idea of Poker Night in America in 2013. As Anderson explained it, the premise of the show was to bring back the fun and excitement of poker from 2003.
Anderson wanted to create a home game atmosphere allowing participants to play poker in a fun environment, which hopefully translate well to the viewer at home.
So Anderson came up with Poker Night’s format; a mid-stakes cash game just big enough for the money to matter, but small enough to allow for some levity and needling among the players.
Additionally, PNiA didn’t want just any poker player, they wanted exciting poker players. A big name or terrific results isn’t enough to insure you’ll be invited on the show, or that you’ll be invited back. PNiA only wants poker players viewers will tune in to watch.
Anderson managed to sell one of the biggest gaming companies in the U.S. on his idea, Rush Street Gaming, and just like that, Poker Night in America went from the conceptual stage to reality, and Anderson was installed as the President of Rush Street Productions.
Even with an investor, two unanswered questions still remained:
The answer to both of the above questions was yes.
First, Poker Night landed a deal with cable network CBS Sports, and then they landed their first big sponsor: 888 Poker. This year Poker Night also secured a second sponsor in the DFS company DraftKings.
888 has become the biggest player in the legal U.S. online gaming markets.
The company is active in all three states with legal online poker (the only company who can make that claim) and has deals in place with Mount Airy Casino in Pennsylvania, and the Bay 101 Casino in California, should iGaming legislation pass in either locale.
888’s efforts thus far have been an indicator that the company is taking a long-term approach to online gaming in the U.S.
The company seems to be taking a “get in on the ground floor” approach in every market that presents itself. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that of all the companies involved in legal online poker in the U.S. it was 888 that took a flyer on Poker Night in America.
And in 888’s eyes, so far so good.
After a successful debut on CBS Sports that saw Poker Night in America produce an astonishing 52 episodes in 52 weeks, 888 re-upped with PNiA for another two years.
“So far things have gone well with the sponsorship and the show,” 888 Poker’s Chris Capra stated. “Todd and PokerNight have proven to be very good partners. We have a strong working relationship that yields creative ideas for both of us.”
Even though only 3% of the population is able to log on to 888 Poker, and their sponsorship of the show is likely a loss-leader at the moment, Capra indicated that the company has seen a boost from their sponsorship.
“In NJ, whenever we have done an online promotion in conjunction with the show (for seats on the TV table for example) they have been well received,” Capra said.
“The sponsorship gives us unique offerings we can use to promote our room,” Capra added. “We can put players directly into the PokerNight show, playing poker on Television with some of the best players in the world, no one else can do that right now in the U.S.”
Capra also explained the ancillary benefits the sponsorship has begotten, focusing on a major sticking point for all New Jersey operators, and none more so than 888: brand awareness.
“The 888 brand never operated in the U.S. prior to 2013 (888poker was Paradise Poker before 2007),” Capra noted. “While we were very strong in other markets, we had to start from scratch here, and PokerNight has been a good partner in this.”
In addition to the weekly TV episodes, 888 also gets a lot of brand exposure from Poker Night’s live streams and archived videos on Twitch.
But it’s the future of legal online poker in the United States and that has 888 the most excited about their sponsorship deal with Poker Night.
“As legal/regulated poker opens in other states we have options to expand what we do with PokerNight,” Capra said. In addition to the televised Poker Night in America cash game format currently in place, in 2016 Anderson plans to debut Poker Night the Tour Series, a televised tournament played at the same venue as the cash game.
Poker Night tapings have always occurred at tournament venues, but Anderson and Rush Street are now melding the two together and taking over more creative control of the tournament, such as having two commentary teams, one in the booth (David Tuchman and Maria Ho) and another team in the studio (Phil Hellmuth and Jason Somerville).
Another potential change Anderson told me about was his desire to introduce a shot clock in the not so distant future.
And according to Capra, 888 will play a key role in promoting the new tour, and will use the allure of playing in the tournaments to run even more Poker Night promotions at 888 Poker.
“888poker is working on some fun things for NJ players in the fall with PokerNight [the tour], we will be happy to divulge them when they are solidified,” Capra teased.
As legal online poker spreads across the U.S., and as 888’s brand awareness continues to grow, Poker Night and 888 could have a mutually beneficial relationship not seen since the heyday of the poker boom when PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker were synonymous with televised poker shows like Poker After Dark, High Stakes Poker, and the eponymously named PokerStars Big Game.
Of course, the success of 888’s sponsorship of the show, and to a lesser extent, Poker Night itself, is fundamentally dependent on legalized online poker spreading across the United States.