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Harrah's Entertainment has signed an agreement with America Online to create a cyberspace home for the World Series of Poker that will include free-play poker rooms, event updates and other content in an effort to widen the tournament's audience.
The relationship between Harrah's and AOL will also allow 12 poker fans, age 21 or older, to win a free seat at the $10,000 buy-in No limit Texas Hold'em world championship event at either the 2006 or 2007 World Series of Poker.
"We're creating a year-round presence for the World Series of Poker online that will broaden the event's exposure to more people than ever before," said Jeffrey Pollack, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing for Harrah's. "Like any other sport, our goal with the World Series of Poker is to use every media platform available to reach a mass audience."
The deal, expected to be announced today, makes AOL the exclusive online partner for the World Series of Poker. Both AOL subscribers and non-AOL subscribers will be able to access the World Series of Poker content through AOL.com. A spokeswoman for the Internet service provider said 10 million visitors a month access games from the AOL Web site.
Once launched, the AOL World Series of Poker location will feature free-play poker games for players of all skill levels, private poker rooms and tournaments, and behind-the-scenes reports from the World Series of Poker events. The World Series of Poker operates a circuit tour with events at Harrah's casinos throughout the United States.
"Our goal is to focus on those 45 days in Las Vegas when the World Series of Poker is taking place," Pollack said. "This is already the No. 1 brand in poker, but our vision is to turn the event into a five diamond sports property."
This year's World Series of Poker drew more than 30,000 participants to 45 events with a record prize pool of $103 million. The world championship event drew 5,619 players with a total prize pool of $52 million. The final nine players each won at least $1 million; Joseph Hachem of Australia won the overall title and $7.5 million.
ESPN is now broadcasting taped play from this year's World Series of Poker. The 2006 event will take place next summer at the Rio.
Pollack said AOL will have the only free-play Internet poker game offering in the United States where, subject to applicable laws, 12 poker fans can win a seat in world championship event. He said AOL would set up the various qualifying tournaments and details for the competition were still being worked out.
While the AOL tie-in with the World Series of Poker will lead to additional marketing opportunities for Harrah's, AOL and the event, Pollack was quick to point out the deal should not be confused with the growing online poker phenomenon.
"This has nothing to do with online gaming," Pollack said. "This is part of a broader business strategy to increase the awareness and recognition of a brand that has a tremendous history."
Pollack added the alliance with AOL is part of planned 24-month overall growth strategy for the World of Series of Poker.
AOL representatives said the growing popularity of poker fueled the relationship with the World Series of Poker.
"The renewed interest in poker has also been reflected on AOL.com, where poker is constantly among the most popular games on our service," said Ralph Rivera, vice president and general manager of AOL Games.
Harrah's and AOL cited research that showed a continuing climb in interest of poker among the mainstream public.
According to a recent study conducted for AOL Games by Schulman, Ronca, & Bucuvalas Public Affairs, 47 percent of more than 1,000 Americans surveyed play poker in some form. Among poker players, 17 percent said they have increased their participation in poker and 26 percent took up the game just in the past year.
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