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Selling online poker isn’t particularly difficult. People like to play poker, but not as much as they like not having to put on pants and leave the house.
Put those things together and there almost isn’t even a need to advertise. But as soon as one guy advertises everyone else has to do the same, making it important to stand out from the crowd.
Aside from the “hot chicks” and “you can win a lot of money” strategies, the most popular method during online poker’s early years was using poker pros to sell the product.
The first online poker site was also the first one to have a poker pro on board as a sponsor. The original Planet Poker was endorsed by two poker pros, and their bios were appropriately old-school given the nascence of the online industry.
Roy Cooke, best known for his column in Card Player magazine, was a former rounder and limit hold’em specialist who had played with the old-time Texas and Vegas greats and wrote books published by ConJelCo and Mike Caro University Press.
They weren’t exactly cutting-edge, but Caro and Cooke did help to lend some credibility among live poker players to the idea of playing poker on a computer for real money.
Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke were early endorsers of UltimateBet, another of the earliest sites. Hellmuth was already an eight-time WSOP bracelet winner by that point, making him one of the four most successful players in Series history, while Duke, who finished 10th at the 2000 WSOP Main Event, was one of the game’s handful of recognizable women (not to mention younger than the others and thus, for better or worse, more appealing to the target audience).
Both got a lot of airtime from ESPN once the boom began thanks to their brash personalities, which in turn became a big selling point in UB’s marketing. (The “bad boy” aspect of site founder/former WSOP Main Event winner/future cheater Russ Hamilton hadn’t yet become UB’s marketing nightmare.)
The world’s largest online poker room is well-known these days for its Team PokerStars Pro lineup of grinders from around the globe.
But the team got its start almost by accident in 2003 when amateur Chris Moneymaker won a WSOP Main Event satellite on the site and then went on to win the biggest prize in tournament poker. Signing him to endorse the site was a no-brainer.
The next two world champions, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem, also signed on with Stars, creating the earliest iteration of Team PokerStars and pushing the site’s marketing department into an obvious slogan: “Where Champions Play.”
The idea of the team pros as aspirational models later proved useful to PokerStars’ expansion into emerging markets in Latin America and Eastern Europe, adding local players who had shown some promise and giving their countrymen someone to identify with.
If having the new champion endorse a site was enough to draw players, branding a site with the game’s greatest living player had to be even better. That was the idea behind Doyle’s Room, which launched in 2004 with the full endorsement of Doyle Brunson.
Brunson played on the site regularly, particularly in special tournaments with a bounty on his head. Those tourneys often featured other members of Brunson’s poker circle, like his son Todd or old friend Mike Caro, or poker celebrities of the moment.
It was a draw for some players, and it did spawn some later imitators like Phil Laak’s Unabomber Poker, but the site never grew too large.
Team Full Tilt changed the marketing of online poker overnight. Even though Full Tilt’s number-one strength was its software, the ads for the site never even mentioned it.
Instead they focused on the stylish presentation of Team Full Tilt, a collection of nine recognizable and accomplished pros: Phil Ivey, John Juanda, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Erik Seidel, Howard Lederer, Andy Bloch, Phil Gordon, Erick Lindgren, and Clonie Gowen.
These players all played regularly on the site, even at small-stakes tables, and provided aspirational models for the legions of players who signed up to “Play With The Pros.”
The rollout of Full Tilt met with great success. It did marketing so much bigger and better than the competition that soon having a stable of pros became the de facto strategy for selling online poker to the masses.
The only site that didn’t have to follow the same route was Party Poker, which controlled more than 40 percent of the global market with nothing more than ubiquitous advertising featuring its pitchman, WPT host (and, later, 2009 inductee to the Poker Hall of Fame) Mike Sexton. Everyone else had to slick up to keep up.
The passage of UIGEA shrank the number of participants in the American market, meaning there were more potential dollars per site up for grabs than there had been when Party was the biggest game in town.
Even with PokerStars and Full Tilt gobbling up most of those dollars, smaller operators still saw a chance to grow their market share and jumped on it by doubling down on the pro-based marketing strategy.
Full Tilt’s own stable of “red pros” grew into the hundreds, and tiny upstarts like Victory Poker emulated the old Full Tilt formula by signing legions of their own. But with so many more pros than there were back in the early days, each one was worth less than ever. It was an unsustainable model.
The end of the line for the pro strategy was Black Friday. If players can’t withdraw their winnings they might as well be playing with Zynga chips, and no amount of pro endorsement will get somebody to make a deposit.
Some sites kept going with the strategy to cover up death spirals, and PokerStars kept its pro team alive because it has enough money to operate a small nation, but otherwise the days of the poker pro were done.
A look at the reconstituted Full Tilt Poker is the best evidence of this: in place of the hundreds of red pros from the old days were just online high-rollers Viktor Blom and Tom Dwan, along with their frequent tablemate, three-time WPT champion and former Team Full Tilt member Gus Hansen.
So is the new WSOP.com, which avoided deals with prominent players in favor of leaning on its brand reputation. With the exception of a handful of players whose name recognition is through the roof, the future of marketing online poker in America will be all about cost-efficient ways to advertise to a less-crowded marketplace.
Photo credit: Stig Nygaard