PokerStars Fails To Grow NJ Online Poker Market Significantly, Except When It Runs Special Events

It’s Been A Bumpy First Year, But Ultimately The Entry Of PokerStars Is A Net Positive For NJ Online Poker

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It’s now been one year since PokerStars dealt its first hand of online poker on US soil after going dark following the events of Black Friday.

The operator’s highly anticipated return was met with much fanfare. And initially, it looked as though Stars would breathe a strong second wind into the struggling NJ online poker industry.

Those high hopes were soon replaced with more tempered expectations, as NJ proved a tough climate for even the world’s top operator.

Yet despite its struggles, PokerStars has consistently topped the revenue charts. And more importantly, the site has had an overall additive impact on the market — even if much of its success came at the expense of existing operators.

After a successful soft launch, PokerStars takes NJ by storm

Following a mandatory five-day soft launch period, during which PokerStars offered a limited schedule, the site was approved to conduct full business operations beginning on March 21, 2016.

Unlike other NJ online poker sites before it, PokerStars didn’t exactly open the promotional floodgates at launch.

It offered two welcome packages. One was geared toward the hardcore crowd, and the other toward recreational players, alongside a $25k welcome freeroll. Not much else.

However, this proved more than enough to draw the attention of players, many of whom were already enthused about playing on the exceptional PokerStars 7 client for the first time.

According to Poker Industry Pro via PokerScout, it took Stars NJ all of one day to surpass Borgata/PartyPoker for second place in the cash game rankings. It sailed by WSOP/888 five days later.

New toys keep the masses engaged

But the real selling point for PokerStars, at least initially, proved to be Spin & Go’s.

The poker/slot machine hybrid was new to New Jersey. PokerStars capitalized upon the novelty by rolling out a $100,000 Spin & Go Special Edition, whereby players could parlay $10 into $100k.

Spin & Go’s proved so popular — games ran 24/7 in the site’s early days — that a $25 buy-in level was added in short order.

The mix of Spin & Go’s, an aggressive MTT schedule, and fluid cash game traffic vaulted PokerStars to the industry lead. In April 2016, Stars captured a 45.5 percent revenue share, and propelled total NJ online poker revenue up 30.4 percent year-on-year.

Then in May, the running of the $1.1 million guaranteed NJSCOOP ensured that PokerStars-mania would last at least a bit longer. That month, PokerStars maintained a 44.8 percent share, as industry revenue sailed past $2.5 million for a second consecutive month.

For perspective, the last time NJ online poker had generated $2.5 million was in April 2014, just five months after the industry launched.

The party comes to an abrupt end

Reality reared its ugly head when the combination of the annual summer swoon and rapidly fading PokerStars novelty took their toll on revenue.

Gross gaming revenue fell precipitously in June, down to $1,969,175. That represented a 23.4 percent falloff from the month prior, and only a 7.3 percent uptick over the previous June.

Presumably, part of the issue was that PokerStars’ promotional strategy didn’t resonate with players.

The site geared most of its second promotional wave toward the net depositing crowd. But the crux of PokerStars’ core player base were grinders who grew to love the site in the pre-Black Friday days. In other words, they were more serious players.

Randomized payout promotions, where the overwhelming majority of players receive next to nothing for their efforts, don’t really motivate this demographic.

Another problem was that the NJ industry proved too small to maintain a thriving Zoom (fast-fold) rollout. Zoom games account for a significant segment of Stars’ international liquidity, and presumably, revenue.

Throughout the rest of the summer into September, the industry would stagnate, with PokerStars maintaining a moderate market share lead over WSOP/888. Industry revenue held at around $2 million per month.

Year-over-year revenue growth fell alarmingly low, to 6.7 percent in July, before climbing just a shade in August and then again in September.

At this juncture, it looked like the industry’s worst fear could be realized — that PokerStars’ revenue would be entirely cannibalized from the competition. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.

PokerStars New Jersey flashes its muscle

In October, PokerStars scored a big win. The inaugural NJ Championship of Online Poker (NJCOOP) crushed its lofty expectations in becoming the biggest MTT festival in NJ online poker history.

The series also exhibited just how far ahead of the technical curve PokerStars was compared to its competitors, particularly Borgata/Party. Borgata/Party attempted to host a similarly grandiose series, but failed miserably.

As the NJCOOP wound down, PokerStars opened the doors to the first annual PokerStars Festival New Jersey at Resorts in Atlantic City.

Although Stars may have liked greater attendance, the site reaffirmed its commitment to the New Jersey market, and attendees marveled at how well the production was run.

All of this is to say that no one does tournament poker, live or online, better than PokerStars.

The operator’s refocus on tournament events paid dividends, as its revenue for October clocked in at just over a million ($1,013,671). Stars crossed that threshold for the first time since May.

NJ online poker revenue too was up sharply for the month, climbing 24.9 percent year-over-year.

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An unexpected outcome

As time wore on, the $100,000 Spin & Go Special Edition promotion became something of a running joke on PokerStars NJ. After all, in the promotion’s nine-month life, exactly zero players claimed the top prize.

Stars seemed to place too much faith in NJ liquidity in setting the odds of the top multiplier hitting at an outrageous 500,000-to-1.

All miscalculations were forgiven in late January, when a lucky trio overcame the odds in spinning the jackpot (12,000x) multiplier. A player using the avatar VaderWolf took home the grand prize of $100k, with the two-runners up pocketing $10k apiece.

The landmark event provided Stars with a much-needed goodwill piece.

But no amount of positive PR would save the industry from a pedestrian winter. Revenue was up only between 5.9 and 8.8 percent from the months of November through February.

Year two expectations

At this juncture, two things have become clear:

  • Barring an industry-shaking event, PokerStars will likely remain the market’s top dog for the foreseeable future. But it is unlikely to ever account for more than half of industry revenue.
  • PokerStars has had an additive impact on revenue, albeit a small one. PokerStars siphoned the majority of its revenue — about 70 percent by our approximations — from other sites.

It’s worth noting that when PokerStars runs a full-scale tournament series, we notice a significant uptick in year-over-year revenue.

This suggests that most of the time PokerStars will only have a modestly positive impact on the industry. However, there are at least a couple months during the year when players can expect NJ online poker to be alive and kicking.

For those who hoped that PokerStars’ reentry would entice floods of players to hit the virtual green felt, this consolation prize will have to do.

- 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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