There are two things that drive me nuts in poker. Excessive tanking, and the fact that professional poker players are paying their own buy-ins while big tournament venues are making money from broadcasting their play and using their names and likenesses. The good news is that I am a legend in my own mind and just cocky enough to believe I can solve both problems.
The aforementioned brilliance has allowed me to solve both problems at once. If we have invite-only events that are broadcast, the company running the tournament will only invite players who will be pleasant, interesting, and good for the broadcast. It’s actually something we have touched on with my own poker tour company where we had an invite-only single table freeroll. It worked well and was a lot more fun than a typical final table.
This idea has also been touched on in some of the invite-only cash games run by a few card rooms around the country as well as PokerGO. Unfortunately, many of these games are simply well-liked locals, people who are friends with the broadcast company, or whoever happens to show up, because they are still paying their own buy-ins. If actors, football players, or ice skaters had to pay rake, then pay taxes, and pay their own transportation and buy-ins, the competition would be miserable and the results would hurt those industries badly.
Like college football players, we are stuck in an industry that is dominated by a small group who has no interest in paying us. It’s not like just anyone can start running poker tournaments. You can start a tour on your own, but good luck finding venues, and when you do, you’ll be beholden to their rules. In many states you couldn’t start a poker room on your own no matter how much money you have.
In most other major competitions, the best competitors have sponsors based on both how well they perform and how likable they are. Golfers, ice skaters, even professional eaters have way more sponsorship dollars rolling in than any poker pro. To the best of my knowledge, the television deal for the World Series of Poker is similar to all but the very largest sports deals. There is no reason why the poker industry shouldn’t take the next step.
Change is Coming
So why hasn’t it happened? Because no one has taken that next step. Innovation happens slowly in the poker world. The money for the house and the tours is just fine doing things the old (current) way. Why would they want to change the way things work when you have competitors paying you to play, television studios paying to broadcast the event, and a piece of the prize pool paying your dealers and staff?
I think a change will happen soon. The industry has been stagnant for too long. We haven’t seen a major innovation since it became possible to broadcast hole cards in the late 90s. We need a company to start broadcasting sponsored players, and only offering spots to players who act quickly, behave professionally, play well, and generate some interesting conversation at the table. While I hope that is my company, the truth is that we started with virtually no cash and big investors, so it will be years before we are able to break into the industry in a big enough way to make this kind of thing happen on a large scale. But — mark my words — someone will do it soon.
Last year I shared my Christmas wish, namely for tournament poker to hopefully get out of casinos if it is going to grow. Almost any other type of tournament can be held nearly anywhere. Nine-ball, chess, Magic the Gathering, you name it; it can be held in any convention center in America. The buy-ins are taken from the competitors and returned to the winners via a prize pool, just like poker. If any of those games were half as big as poker, the competitors certainly wouldn’t be paying their own buy-ins.
What if there was a professional poker tour that moved across America holding events like the UFC, WWE, or the Nitro Circus does? Something that swept into town, but allowed amateurs to join in on the fun. Something where the pros were entertaining and highly skilled, with their sponsorship deals as an incentive to stay that way. An event where amateurs were there to test their skills by paying their own buy-ins, hoping to do well enough to catch the eye of a corporate sponsor?
As the industry stands now, when a tour rolls into town, it isn’t a spectacle, it’s just an opportunity to play poker. Our satellite system is just a tournament that wins you into a bigger tournament. The PGA, and it’s qualifier system for getting into professional events and on the pro tour, is a good model. This would give amateurs something real to shoot for.
Gotta Get Past the Obstacles
The biggest problem right now is complacency: most poker players are perfectly happy with the current model, and of course we know that businesses are happy with it. Their customers pay to stay in their hotels for the privilege of playing in their tournaments where they pay for the staff, and get no cut of any of the extra business they bring in or the broadcasts that they are part of. Then they buy food and beverages and gamble in the pit and the only people who actually make real money are the CEO and the shareholders.
Unfortunately, this reality means that the poker industry may not see a big change until we see tournament fields get smaller, and that doesn’t seem to be happening. The live poker industry, at least for the owners of the businesses, is still growing. Fields are larger than ever before, prize pools continue to grow, and a business that is fat with cash is rarely innovative. Necessity is the mother of invention, and comfort is it’s enemy.
I don’t have all the answers. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have the financial or industry backing to implement them. But I’m working on it. And I’m sure I’m not alone. It won’t be long. There are some very smart people working on some very disruptive business models. Things are going to change. As a player, I hope it happens sooner rather than later.