Lack Of Main Event Guarantee, External Marketing Hinder PokerStars Festival NJ

Sparse Attendance Undermines Otherwise Successful PokerStars Festival NJ At Resorts

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Last week PokerStars hosted its first live tournament series in the United States in more than five years.

The PokerStars Festival New Jersey was held at Resorts Hotel Casino in Atlantic City, home of PokerStars’ New Jersey online gambling partner. It featured a week’s worth of poker tournaments, special events, and entertainment options ranging from ping pong and arcade games to on-site Twitch streamers and a Sully Erna concert.

All told, the event was an impressive spectacle, well-received by attendees. It’s just too bad that more players didn’t show up for the festivities.

Allow me to reintroduce myself

The festival gave U.S. poker players a glimpse at how PokerStars live events have evolved since the company’s last live tournament series — the 2011 PokerStars NAPT Mohegan Sun — and how PokerStars’ events differ from the competition.

PokerStars’ newly minted Festival and Championship events are meant to be more than poker tournaments. They’re meant to be experiential, a place you want to hang out, whether you’re playing a tournament that day or not.

Yes, you show up for the poker, but you stay to rub shoulders with poker’s biggest stars in a causal setting like the FunZone.

StarsFun Zone Basketball

Establishing Resorts as a poker destination

As soon as PokerStars launched its online poker site in New Jersey on March 21, 2016, speculation about when the company would host a live tournament series began. Shortly after launch, PokerStars announced it would be hosting a live event at Resorts in May, the RunItUp: Resorts Rumble.

RunItUp: Resorts Rumble was less of a tournament and more of an outreach effort to the New Jersey poker community by PokerStars, as well as a way to demonstrate to Resorts what a PokerStars branded event is all about, and how it would benefit the land-based casino.

The daylong event was hosted by Team PokerStars Pro Jason Somerville, the man who created the RunItUp brand. It featured a live/online tournament, a meet-and-greet with Somerville and other Team PokerStars Pros, and culminated with an after party at the Land Shark Bar & Grill at Resorts.

The RunItUp event was viewed as a rousing success for all involved. Turnout was solid, the event was fun, and Resorts Casino got a glimpse of what “poker tourism” looks like.

In August, PokerStars announced it would be taking the European Poker Tour global, and consolidating and rebranding its myriad live tournament series as PokerStars Festival and Championship events. The first Festival was set to take place in New Jersey, making the PokerStars Festival New Jersey the first live event to carry the new designation.

If you build it … they will come?

The PokerStars Festival New Jersey was a week-long, 40-event tournament series, capped off by an $1,100 Main Event.

It was an enormous undertaking for a number of reasons:

  • PokerStars’ newness in the market and five-year absence from 2011 to 2016
  • The lack of a brick and mortar poker room at Resorts Casino denied the tournament of a core player base and the chance to offer live satellites for the Main Event;
  • The timing of the event was questionable. November in Atlantic City is past peak season, and the festival ran opposite the WSOP Main Event final table and just before the Borgata Poker Open;
  • Announced in August, PokerStars and Resorts only had a couple of months to promote the event and run online satellites.

PokerStars spared no expense on the series, evidenced by the massive footprint at the venue and the all-around quality, from the tournament tables (seen below) to the size and efficacy of the staff.

PokerStars Festival Tournament Area

But with so many variables, expectations for the festival were all over the map. Even PokerStars was unsure how many players would turn up. In the end, attendance was uninspiring for most of the tournaments on the schedule.

That being said, it would be a mistake to use attendance as the only metric of the festival’s success.

The series was well run, and knowing PokerStars track record of not repeating mistakes, the company will do a post-mortem and make the necessary adjustments for the next PokerStars Festival New Jersey.

The players who did show up had nothing but positive things to say.

The festival was first-class.

Correctable mistakes

PokerStars’ representatives were quick to admit they made several missteps. The good news is that most are fairly easy to correct for future events.

The consensus among players and the PokerStars Festival team was the lack of a guarantee on the Main Event was a major mistake. PokerStars’ Director of Live Events Edgar Stuchley called this a misjudgment of the U.S. market.

PokerStars events around the globe don’t require a guarantee to draw massive crowds, but PokerStars doesn’t have this type of live event street cred in the U.S. yet, and U.S. players have become accustomed to guarantees, particularly on Main Events. The lack of a guarantee likely kept many semi-pros from New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maryland from making the trip to Atlantic City.

The next time around, the Main Event and several other tournaments will almost certainly carry guarantees.

There was also a lack of external marketing. I saw several billboards on the way in for the Borgata Poker Open, but few advertisements for the PokerStars Festival New Jersey.

The moniker “festival” also caused a bit of confusion; one person asked if it was a beer festival.

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Attendance was well below expectations, but the festival itself was high quality, and a good demonstration of the type of events PokerStars is capable of pulling off in New Jersey once it makes the appropriate adjustments.

Image credits: Joe Giron

- Steve covers nearly every angle of online poker in his job as a full-time freelance poker writer. His primary focus for OPR is the developing legal and legislative picture for regulated US online poker and gambling.
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