Why Isn’t PokerStars Hurtling People Through (Near) Space?

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At some point in the near future, Felix Baumgartner plans to step into the abyss and plummet something like two dozen miles to the ground from his starting point in near space.

He will do this on behalf of humanity’s innate desire to conquer the unconquerable.  And also, Red Bull.

Baumgartner’s jump is officially known as “Red Bull Stratos.”  Now several years in the making, the scientific mission / massive PR stunt has already generated untold publicity and brand value for sponsor Red Bull, capturing coverage from just about every point on the media spectrum.  And that’s all before the jump has even happened.

So here’s a question: Instead of “Red Bull Stratos,” could it have been “PokerStars Stratos”?

I think so.  Either way, I think the question invites some interesting discussion regarding the general inability of online poker rooms to muster marketing efforts that break through to the mainstream.  More on that a bit below.

First, I want to back-of-the-napkin why a stunt similar in scale to Stratos is within the reach of a company like PokerStars (and possibly even a Party Poker).

Red Bull is a private company and doesn’t disclose financials, but this Guardian article pegs annual profit for the company at about €1bn.

PokerStars is also a private company, but competitors like Party Poker aren’t. After running a quick-and-dirty comparison of Party and Stars, I don’t think it’s crazy to assume that Stars is working with an annual profit somewhere north of $500m.

As for the cost of Stratos cost, there’s no official word from Red Bull.  From what’s been reported, $15m all told seems like a fair guess.

Even granting a wide margin of error for all numbers, it still seems clear that money alone is not stopping a major online poker site from embarking on PR ventures in the same league with Red Bull Stratos.

It’s also clear that online poker sites are keenly interested in attracting fresh customers who (by definition) hail from outside the online poker community – just the sort of audience, in other words, that is breathlessly tracking Baumgartner’s jump across Facebook, Twitter and the like.

So What’s the Problem?

There have certainly been a few online poker marketing efforts that have managed to transcend the typical.  One example:  The ongoing PokerStars campaign built around Rafa Nadal has generated reasonable buzz.  Another: Three years later, I still remember Bluefire Poker issuing a million-dollar HU4ROLLZ challenge to President Obama, a stunt that got decent play on a few cable news channels and other non-gambling outlets.

Feel free to remind me of other online poker campaigns that have sparked substantial mainstream interest, because I am drawing a complete blank.

I think part of the issue stems from poker’s misguided obsession with marketing the numbers.  $1 million top prize this.  $50 million guaranteed that.  Blah, blah blah.  Fact: No number any poker room can afford to put up is going to cut through the clutter of the day-to-day media storm.  A huge tournament guarantee may draw the grinders and make the front page of PokerNews.com, but there’s never going to be any reason for the WSJ, Wired or BoingBoing to pick up that story.  There’s just no hook.  The massive jackpot has become too commonplace.

Alongside the overmarketing of numbers sits a parallel problem:  Online poker rooms are far too focused on the game of poker.  I mean this quite literally; I cannot think of the last online poker commercial that did not feature extensive, loving shots of chips passing through the air, of peeled back hole cards, of pots pushed to the winning player.  This sort of stuff is ultimately boring and long done to death.  What’s worse, it ties poker sites to marketing efforts constrained by a fairly restrictive rule: They must somehow include the playing of poker.

There’s a reason why Baumgartner won’t be chugging a Red Bull en route to breaking the sound barrier (besides the fact that it would be physically impossible to do so):  Red Bull doesn’t need to shove the act of drinking Red Bull into every available marketing moment.  Instead, the company promotes an image, a lifestyle, an aesthetic associated with the brand.

Poker sites should take a cue from that approach. It’s obviously a bit late to hire a guy to jump from almost-space (unless you can get something together pretty quickly). It’s not too late, however, for sites to ditch the numbers, cut the tired imagery and start thinking about how to use their marketing muscle to develop and promote a culture for poker, one with enough breadth and imagination to reach and attract an audience who would otherwise have little interest in the game.


1. For the first 6 months of 2012, Party reported poker EBITDA of about $10 million.  We can estimate that cash game volume is eight times greater at Stars than Party based on traffic data from PokerScout.com.  It would surprise me if that number wasn’t over 20x for tournament volume, so let’s split the difference and say Stars is 15x the size of Party.  I also believe PokerStars has significantly better player margins than Party, and that Party’s other products naturally cannibalize poker revenues to some extent.

2. The jump suit cost $250k, and each launch balloon is  $200k (several have been required so far). If you read between the lines in coverage it seems like a number in the millions, as opposed to the tens of millions.  The LA Times puts it this way: “Red Bull has paid millions of dollars to Southern California aerospace companies to pull it off, but won’t say exactly how much.”

Photo: Nasa via Wikimedia Commons

- Chris is the publisher of OnlinePokerReport.com. Grove also serves as a consultant to various stakeholders in the regulated market for online gambling in the United States.
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