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Howard Stutz

Agent trades clubs for cards

8 December 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada --Brian Balsbaugh had his heart set on becoming a professional golf agent.

His marketing and law degrees from Indiana University put him on that course.

When he joined a small Minneapolis-based sports management firm in 1998, Balsbaugh's career path was set. The firm had him deal with top college golfers to get players under contract.

Within a few years, Balsbaugh was working with touring professionals, such as LPGA star Natalie Gulbis and PGA standout Ben Crane. He realized quickly, however, that the business was tougher than expected.

"I figured out that if you don't represent Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, it's difficult to get anything done," Balsbaugh said.

Instead, he cashed in his chips and went out and signed on to represent the top players in a totally different game.

Balsbaugh formed Poker Royalty LLC, the only management agency that exclusively represents poker-playing professionals. He started the firm in 2003 by negotiating some sponsorship deals for an up-and-coming Toronto poker player named Daniel Negreanu. The next year, Negreanu went out and won twice on the World Poker Tour, a World Series of Poker bracelet and Card Player magazine's Player of the Year honors, and has become one of the game's most recognized players.

Negreanu's success opened the door for Balsbaugh. Today, Poker Royalty has a roster of more than 30 professional poker players as clients, including Negreanu, 11-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth Jr., two-time world poker champion Johnny Chan, Scotty Nguyen, Erick Lindgren, Evelyn Ng and baseball star-turned poker professional Orel Hershiser.

Balsbaugh also has under contract Denmark's Peter Eastgate, winner of the just-concluded World Series of Poker, and the tournament's runner-up Ivan Demidov of Russia.

So instead of becoming the Scott Boras of the golf world, Balsbaugh has become poker's super agent.

"How golfers make money and how the tours make money applies perfectly to poker," Balsbaugh said. "There are so many similarities between golf and poker. We took all the different ways a company could spend money in golf and the roadmap on how the money flowed to players, and we applied it to poker."

Balsbaugh began the business in Minneapolis but moved it to Las Vegas two years later to be near his clients and the heart of the poker world.

Question: How did you happen upon poker?

Answer: I always had this entrepreneurial spirit. I felt I had a skill set and I was willing to gamble on myself. I spent close to a year thinking of different ideas but nothing moved me.

I was watching poker on television and it occurred to me that guys were just sitting around the table. It was like a watershed moment of clarity. The camera just stayed on those guys and didn't go anywhere else. There had to be an opportunity. I felt if I could find a company willing to pay to have a logo on a player, that guaranteed exposure.

Question: Is it a challenge finding businesses willing to sponsor poker players?

Answer: The challenges are different now from when I started. I came out gangbusters and had a list of 100 companies to contact and explain why it made so much sense for them. The most common response I got was why would they ever associate their brand with poker or gambling.

Question: What changed?

Answer: I think I was ahead of the curve. One of the companies I dealt with in golf was Oakley Sunglasses. It made a lot of sense for them to get involved with poker. Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker wearing Oakleys. But the company was vehemently opposed to associating their brand with poker. Six months later Oakley called me back. I think it percolated enough in the company that they were willing to do something. We ended up doing some deals.

Question: Is poker becoming more mainstream?

Answer: It's more corporately acceptable. Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth and Scotty Nguyen all appeared in Diet Pepsi ads and we've done a number of brand alcohol sponsorship deals.

We've done about 50 personal appearances with Fortune 500 companies. They are very open and interested in having a player appear at one of their employee or corporate events. But they are more hesitant to actually put their corporate logo on a poker player.

Question: How do you match up players and sponsors?

Answer: Over the last two years, we haven't signed players unless we already had a deal in place for them. I speak with the companies that spend money in poker routinely and try and create opportunities that match with their goals. Obviously online poker sites, such as FullTilt and PokerStars, are important sponsors for the players.

Question: What other opportunities do poker players have?

Answer: Personal appearances have grown and there are licensing and branding opportunities, such as memorabilia, video games, books, chip sets and bobbleheads. We negotiated a deal with Upper Deck for a set of 25 trading cards, but they sat on it for a year and sold it to one of their distributors. It came out, but not as Upper Deck, one of their lesser brands. I think the gambling aspect played into a company that tries to sell cards to kids.

Question: If online poker were legalized and regulated, what type of sponsorship opportunities would open?

Answer: Right now, I'm negotiating with overseas online poker sites. Fast forward one or two years and I'm negotiating with Yahoo, Google, MGM Mirage and Harrah's. It would be a completely different climate and environment and we all certainly hope that would be the case.

Question: What opportunities are out there for Peter Eastgate and Ivan Demidov?

Answer: Eastgate will be marketable for a long time. He is an established and respected online player, plus he's Scandinavian. That makes him desirable to companies wanting to reach the Scandinavian market. He's a heck of a nice kid, but he's shy. He turned down Jay Leno after he won.

Demidov is Russian and that's a huge market for poker. Everyone who wants to see poker grow in Russia will want to associate themselves with Ivan.

Question: Does your law background help in your player-management career?

Answer: Everything I do is transactional. It's a lot easier to negotiate a contract when you understand every word in the contract.

Question: Has your company grown quickly?

Answer: I started out by myself and moved out here from Minneapolis. We have four agents, two are lawyers and two are not. We have seven people employed here, a guy in Chicago and another guy in London.

Question: Where do you see the business going?

Answer: I think Russia is a lot like the United States was in 2004. Poker is just starting to take off. That's why we opened an office in London. The guy there is a former soccer agent. I believe he can replicate what we've done here. More people play poker than play golf. Poker will always have presence on television and there are always opportunities for the big players in poker.