For the first time in a long time, an online poker site is handing out sponsorships to US players.
Super-high-stakes regulars Jason Koon and Isaac Haxton are among the newest members of Team PartyPoker. While PokerStars continues to trim its American roster, PartyPoker has scooped up two more elite free agents in a recent round of signings.
It’s more ammunition for PartyPoker’s arsenal. The poker site, which was long ago the biggest in the world, seems to be mounting a challenge to PokerStars’ long reign atop the live and online poker kingdom.
A month into his new job, Haxton spoke to Online Poker Report about his role in PartyPoker’s plans going forward.
The press release welcoming Haxton to the team doesn’t provide many details on his job. He will “play a key role” and help PartyPoker “meet player expectations,” according to Managing Director Tom Waters. It’s a little vague by design.
“One of the great things about this deal is that there are not very specific contractual obligations,” Haxton said. “If there’s somewhere I don’t want to go, I don’t have to go.”
From PartyPoker’s perspective, Haxton only needs to do a few things for now. “Being a public face, appearing in advertising, showing up at events, wearing their patch,” he explained. That’s the limit on paper, but he hopes to be a conduit between the platform and the poker community, too.
“I’m optimistic that I’ll be in a good place to get player feedback to people who can make changes,” Haxton went on. “I think what PartyPoker is doing right now is pretty good. But having people who are engaged in the high-stakes tournament and cash game community can help them to adapt to serve those communities as well as they can.”
He’ll wear a PartyPoker patch when he plays live tournaments, and he’ll serve as a sounding board for feedback from the high-stakes community. The expectation is that his patch will appear frequently on televised and live-streamed final tables.
Although he doesn’t have a day-to-day hand in PartyPoker’s operations, Haxton can provide plenty of input as a consultant. He’s spent the last decade hovering around the world’s largest live and online tournaments, so he knows what appeals to players. He’s a customer himself, after all.
According to Haxton, big tournaments are a big key to PartyPoker’s future. “The most visible stuff — and I do think the visible stuff matters — is the high-buy-in live events and the major online tournaments,” he said.
“Across all the sites, traffic has been moving more from cash games to tournaments for a long time. As an online poker site, offering a really strong weekly tournament schedule that people want to participate in is a huge deal. In terms of winning the battle for hearts and minds, I think it’s really key.”
It’s not just about hearts and minds, though. Haxton realizes that longevity is tied to more than just the small group of high-stakes heroes and traveling regulars. It requires appealing to the part-time, working population, an area where his personal brand doesn’t resonate as strongly.
Response to Haxton’s signing was mixed on social media and the polarizing poker forum TwoPlusTwo. The primary criticism is that he’s not well-known enough in the mainstream to make an impact on PartyPoker’s bottom line. Those who like “Ike” well enough to be impressed are already customers of PartyPoker.
Haxton realizes this himself, as he elaborated on his hearts-and-minds comments:
“The trickier thing is that, for a poker site, a huge part of their bottom line is smaller-stakes stuff with players who aren’t necessarily as engaged in the community — who don’t post on forums, don’t travel to events, just deposit a little money on a poker site from time to time and play small stakes.”
Haxton says advertising is the best way to capture that segment of consumers, not sponsorship.
“I don’t know that anyone has quite cracked the code to dominate that market,” he said. “A lot of it seems to be inertia and the value of having an existing big player base that ensures that the games always run and gives people something fun to play. Really making a push on that front is tricky, and that’s probably where a lot of the mainstream marketing comes in.”
Haxton’s role isn’t about acquiring new PartyPoker customers, though. It’s about keeping the brand relevant at the highest level of the game.
“Coke still advertises,” he drew a parallel, “not because there are people who don’t know about Coke. Getting your name out there and being a persistent presence in people’s lives is good for your brand.
“In the same way, sponsoring a player who gets a lot of exposure, who plays a lot of high-profile events and will be wearing the patch… that type of marketing is worth something. That’s a big part of what a site is paying for when they sponsor a player like me.”
The newest PartyPoker pro is also someone who’s very much anti-PokerStars. Haxton was sponsored by the competitor until the end of 2015, when he declined to renew his deal out of principle. The site had made controversial changes to its loyalty program which alienated the full-time community.
“I stepped away from Stars when I thought they were behaving badly,” Haxton explained. “And I’ve turned down endorsement deals from other sites that I thought were not trustworthy. I would like to think when I put my name behind Party and say, ‘This is a good site to be playing on right now,’ that means something to consumers who are thinking critically about where they want to be playing their online poker.”
Some would argue that his sour departure from PokerStars belies his perceived integrity. But the community he’s trying to align with mostly disagrees.
“The endorsement of a well-respected member of the community who’s been around for a while and does not thoughtlessly throw his endorsement behind anything that comes in front of him means something,” he said.
The two biggest online poker brands are on diverging courses, especially when it comes to live events.
PokerStars is backtracking, shedding sponsorship deals and reconfiguring its land-based tours. Its biggest competitor is aggressively moving into the space, hosting huge PartyPoker LIVE events and a throwing a fire sale on signings.
PokerStars, once the overwhelming market leader, has earned some distrust from customers in recent years. An ownership change brought about a cutthroat focus on the bottom line and a series of changes to player perks that not everyone loved. It’s the reason Haxton left the site at the start of 2016.
The top seed is now trying to rebuild its live tournament offerings, bringing back regional series (European Poker Tour, Latin American Poker Tour, Asia Pacific Poker Tour). PokerStars had abandoned its highly successful EPT last year and has faced significant blowback against replacement events. It had to cancel the first stop of its LAPT season while it reassesses. There are plans for an enormous repentance — with $9 million added — at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure next January, but that’s still a long way off.
There’s also the matter of sponsorships. PokerStars’ non-poker owner, The Stars Group, doesn’t appear to have the same budget for long-term deals as the previous owner. A handful of the player representatives, primarily Americans, have had their contracts expire without renewal over the past few years. Meanwhile, Stars is trying to appeal to the mainstream market with high-visibility sponsorships of Kevin Hart and other celebrities and athletes.
Haxton thinks the trend is short-sighted, particularly if US online poker becomes prevalent once again.
“I mean, I don’t know what Stars’ strategy is,” he said. “But they don’t seem to be, at this point, as invested in being ready for a US launch as they once were or as Party is now.”
Of course, PokerStars has been lobbying for legalization in the US for some time and still has a number of sponsored players from the country, more than PartyPoker.
PartyPoker is doing pretty much the opposite on all fronts, assembling a team of all-stars to shepherd live events.
Hall of Famer Mike Sexton, an American, is the brand’s primary ambassador and chairman. He doesn’t play much online poker because he lives in the US, but that’s not the point. Sexton’s name is arguably the most reputable and well-respected in the game. He has more than a decade of broadcast experience as the voice of the World Poker Tour, too.
John Duthie was also brought aboard to oversee live events, and he probably belongs in the Hall of Fame himself. Duthie crafted PokerStars’ live tours with his own hands, building the EPT into the world’s premier tournament series outside of the WSOP. He’s now charged with setting the course for PartyPoker LIVE.
Now, the brand has sponsored representation from a full roster of pros, including world-class players like Fedor Holz. Some of them used to work for the competition, too, like Johnny Lodden and Marcel Luske. Again, two more clean, respected players who now wear PartyPoker patches. The same can be said for tennis legend Boris Becker, who’s been a sponsored poker player for years. And now Haxton.
Will it all work for PartyPoker? That remains to be seen.