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LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- If poker player Robert Williamson has the look of a NASCAR driver, then the World Series of Poker tournament room inside the Rio's convention center resembles the Daytona Motor Speedway.
Williamson, who has career winnings of more than $1 million in the World Series of Poker, has sold space on his clothing to sponsors during this year's tournament. While playing an event, he wears a sports coat adorned with the logos of a half-dozen products and companies, hoping to get noticed by fans and television cameras.
Meanwhile, sponsor banners, advertisements and corporate signs are second in number only to the more than 200 poker tables situated throughout the 60,000-square-foot poker center. Even the tables are sponsored, tagged with the logos of Milwaukee's Best Light beer, PartyPoker.net and Planters nuts.
Even Mr. Peanut himself is expected to make appearances during the tournament's World Championship event next month, vying for attention with scantily clad Miller Beer girls.
Harrah's Entertainment, which owns the World Series of Poker, has tried to create an atmosphere at this year's tournament similar to the environment found at major sporting events, such as auto racing or a Professional Golf Association tour stop. Corporate messaging surrounds the fans and poker players throughout the tournament.
The concept yielded revenue for Harrah's, although the company won't divulge the contract details negotiated with each advertiser, sponsor or licensee.
"We create and design individual packages," said Jeffrey Pollack, a Harrah's vice president who serves as the tournament's commissioner. "This is sports marketing 101. There's no great complexity. We identify a company and they see the value in what we have to offer."
The tournament marks the second straight year Miller Brewing Co. has placed Milwaukee's Best Light as the event's presenting sponsor. Harrah's, in other deals, signed up Hershey's as the tournament's official chocolate and Planters as the tournament's official nut. The company also struck an agreement with U.S. Playing Card Co. to create the official playing card of the World Series of Poker.
Last year, Corum Swiss Timepiece created the tournament's official watch. This year, the company was also asked to redesign and sponsor the diamond-and-gold bracelets awarded to individual event champions.
"Advertisers get three things from the World Series of Poker," Pollack said. "They get exposure through our ESPN telecasts, they can embrace us as a promotional platform year-round, and they are going to get on-site marketing during the tournament."
David Carter, a professor at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business who specializes in sports marketing, said some of the World Series of Poker sponsors and advertisers match up well with the activity, similar to the way footwear and apparel manufacturers align with the National Basketball Association.
"When you look at poker and its fan base, beer and snack foods seem to make sense for advertisers," Carter said. "Think of guys sitting around on a Friday night playing poker and what goes along with that activity."
Advertisers have two key audiences they hope to reach by becoming partners with the World Series of Poker, television viewers watching ESPN's taped coverage of the tournament and the estimated 125,000 on-site poker fans who are expected to pass through the Rio during the seven-weeklong competition.
Miller Brewing Co., which is in the second year of a three-year deal with the poker tournament, believes it is reaching both audiences.
The beer manufacturer has placed dozens of large, inflatable replicas of Milwaukee's Best Light cans throughout the hallways leading into the tournament room. Inside the room, signs, banners and logos proclaim the beer as the tournament's presenter.
The No Limit Lounge was created as a skybox location where spectators can enjoy the action above the final table area that serves as ESPN's in-house studio. Also, every tournament poker table at the Rio has the Milwaukee's Best logo prominently displayed.
"The idea is to drive as much retail activation and consumer activity around the brand as possible," said Dockery Clark, Miller Brewing's director of sports and alliance marketing. "For us, it's about brand image, brand awareness and the sociability of the brand."
Miller Brewing produces several other more well-known beers, such as Miller High Life, Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft. Clark said Milwaukee's Best Light, a less-recognized brand, seemed to be a more mainstream product that fits with the poker audience.
"The relationship with the tournament has helped move the meter for this brand," Clark said. "We plan to use some of the poker players in our advertising for Milwaukee's Best Light."
While beer fits with poker, Corum, a high-end Swiss watchmaker seems out of place. But the company's U.S. president, Stacie Orloff, said it is still learning what opportunities are out there with the poker fan base.
"We're in the second year of a five-year agreement, but we see this as a tremendous franchise to be associated with," Orloff said. "We are identifying many different ways to reach our audience."
Eric Wright, who heads research and development for Michigan-based Joyce Julius and Associates, a marketing firm that measures the impact of media sponsorships, said the table logos are the most lucrative location for any poker advertiser. The fixed camera angles associated with the event tend to give those spots plenty of airtime.
However, poker sponsorship is still in its infancy, and it's too early to judge the game's impact. Wright said there are some similarities for poker with professional bass fishing, which has found a targeted audience on ESPN and other outdoor-related cable- television channels.
"Poker does a pretty good on the screen time for the logos, but that can become secondary to the viewer," Wright said. "Still, any kind of signage can be pretty powerful. Based on the brands they are partnering with, it seems the World Series is achieving good brand awareness."
Individual poker players are welcomed to strike their own sponsorship deals, selling advertising space on their clothing similar in a manner to professional golfers or race car drivers. Wright said this works only for advertisers trying to reach a large audience if the player is successful and garners a lot of television time.
Williamson, who won an individual World Series event in 2002, said he was able to strike deals with Miller Brewing Co., Corum, the Ultimate Blackjack Tour and Churchill Downs' off-track wagering business because of his personality and recognition by poker fans.
"I'm usually the type of person who gets some TV time, so that makes my sponsors happy," said Williamson, a 37-year-old Dallas resident who has already finished in the money in World Series events twice this year.
"It wasn't hard to get the interest and the deals," he added.
In previous years, Internet gambling sites would sponsor players at a televised final table. Players were paid to wear hats and shirts with the site's logo. However, federal legislation effectively outlawed online gambling, and Harrah's has banned those logos from the tournament room, except for the free-to-play dot-net sites.
This year, Harrah's spelled out 12 rules for player sponsorship. Certain businesses and products, such as pornography, were banned, as were any beers not produced by Miller Brewing.
Williamson had to get Harrah's sign-off for the off-track wagering site.
"When I heard Harrah's changed the rules, I jumped at the opportunity," he said.
Pollack said poker players are free agents and can sign the best sponsorships they can find within the boundaries of the rules.
"We took a page from NASCAR, and we think this is just the tip of the iceberg," Pollack said. "We see a lot more opportunities out there for us to create and become a major sporting event."
Carter said the idea of the World Series of Poker being looked at as a true sport is in the eyes of the viewer.
With ESPN potentially televising some 80 hours of World Series play through its main package and repeat broadcasts on the network's secondary channels, exposure for sponsors could be plentiful.
"There has always been a debate on whether or not golf is a sport, because you can smoke while doing it," Carter said. "You can look at how Harrah's uses poker as a vehicle to market its properties. For them, I don't think it matters if it's viewed as a sport or a marketing platform. I don't think they care as long as it delivers on their marketing strategies."
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