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But a close examination reveals that the numbers are in line with what one might expect.
Based on PokerScout’s data, it would appear that PokerStars is faring significantly better in Portugal than in the more heavily populated European countries of France, Italy, or Spain:
As surprising as this might seem, considering Portugal has a total population of just over 10 million compared to France’s 66 million residents, it’s actually not unexpected when taking into account several factors contributing to PokerStars.pt’s place of prominence:
First off, Portugal is not a larger poker market than the other countries listed. Second, even without competitors, PokerStars Portugal isn’t outperforming PokerStars France, Spain, or Italy.
Furthermore, the numbers themselves are a bit misleading and a clear demonstration of how cash game traffic is becoming an increasingly limited metric for judging the size and health of poker markets.
A combination of three variables is feeding the notion that online poker (and PokerStars in particular) is in a free fall, with cash game traffic undergoing a significant decline in the past few years.
Taken altogether, global cash game traffic is down by about 35,000-40,000 average players since the spring of 2011.
A significant percentage of this can be attributed to the loss of the US market on April 15, 2011, when global cash game traffic numbers dropped by 25,000 players virtually overnight.
During the same period of time, PokerStars’ global site is down from 30,000 average cash game players in the spring of 2011 to just 14,000 in presently. But PokerStars was less impacted by Black Friday than the global market as a whole.
As late as early 2014, PokerStars was still hitting 25,000 or so cash game players, according to Poker Industry Pro via PokerScout data.
There has been a lot of market segregation since Black Friday, which is a three-pronged problem for operators.
PokerStars has also left a number of small to mid-sized gray markets in recent years (here, here, and here) which has further cut into its player pool.
And then there are Spin & Go’s.
A lot of analysts, as well as the poker community writ large, are still relying heavily on the easily obtainable cash game traffic (and to a lesser extent registration numbers for major tournaments) to judge online poker sites.
They haven’t adjusted to the increasing availability and popularity of untracked games, like Spin & Go’s. And they aren’t taking into account the changing attitudes and behaviors of casual poker players, many of whom have been eschewing traditional cash game tables for Spin & Go’s and other formats.
Going back to the PokerStars.pt and PokerStars.fr/.it/.es comparison, yes, the number of cash game players at PokerStars.pt is more than double .es and .it, and nearly triple the number at PokerStars.fr.
But when factoring in tournament traffic, Sit & Go traffic, and Spin & Go traffic, all three have more players than PokerStars.pt.
Online poker doesn’t appear to be in a structural decline if we look at all games offered and not simply cash game data. As the Portugal market demonstrates, cash game traffic can be misleading.
There is also a fear within the poker community that online gambling companies are trying to dissuade people from playing poker and entice them into their online casinos and sports books, or at the least participate in unbeatable poker formats.
But consider for a moment that PokerStars has added $500 million in revenue from casino and sports, almost exclusively from cross-selling those two verticals to its poker players. (PokerStars only recently began acquisition marketing for casino.)
Despite marketing casino and sports to its poker customers, PokerStars’ publicly available numbers from its earnings reports shows poker to be at least relatively stable, down just a tick over the past year.
Basically, there doesn’t seem to be much cannibalization of poker since the addition of online casino and sports betting. Where there has been cannibalization is from the cash game tables toward other poker games, but this could be categorized as more of a trend than cannibalization.
The lingering question is whether online poker will awaken from its slumber and become a growing vertical in the months and years to come.
At first glance, it seems online poker, casino and sports betting can coexist without cannibalizing one another, particularly poker.
It will be interesting to see how players mingle between these three products — and if intermediary products like Spin & Go’s and Beat the Clock tournaments act as a gateway for traffic in both directions — once PokerStars acquisition marketing for casino, sports, and poker are all up and running.