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Howard Stutz

Proliferation Of Poker: Really Big Deal

27 June 2006

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Soon after Joseph Hachem capped the 2005 World Series of Poker last summer by winning a nearly 14-hour marathon at the final table, officials from Harrah's Entertainment began looking at ways to capitalize on the event's popularity.

With other national poker tournaments seeking avenues to steal away some of the World Series of Poker's prestige -- earned during an era when it was the only poker tournament of any monetary consequence -- Harrah's sought to turn the event into a package akin to a professional sports league.

Lucrative sponsorships with ESPN television, Miller Brewing Co., wireless phone provider Glu Mobile, Internet giant America Online and videogame producer Activision, all signed in the past 12 months, help to give the event a year-round presence.

"Poker is an authentic piece of Americana as much as baseball," said Jeffrey Pollack, Harrah's vice president of sports and entertainment marketing. "Poker is not a luxury property and we're not the NFL. But by some accounts, poker is the number one participation game in the country, and that's the market we're hoping to tap into."

Harrah's wouldn't reveal the sponsorship dollar figures. The Wall Street Journal estimated the ESPN and Miller deals together are valued at more than $20 million.

The 37th World Series of Poker kicks off this week with the first of 45 events culminating with the $10,000 buy-in No-limit Texas Hold'em World Championship. The entire tournament, scheduled to run through Aug. 10, will be held at the Rio.

Sponsorships will play a key role.

Following a trend that has influenced the names of many major college football bowl games, Harrah's leased the World Series of Poker naming rights to Miller Brewing. One of the company's brands, Milwaukee's Best Light, is attached to the event's name and other aspects of the tournament, such as the camera that allows television viewers to see a player's hole cards.

Harrah's, a Las Vegas-based casino operating giant, purchased the World Series of Poker in 2003 from the Binion family at a time when poker was beginning to take off in popularity on a national scale.

Myriad cable and network television programs, celebrity endorsements and an ever-increasing number of Internet poker Web sites caused an explosion in the game's interest worldwide.

Now in its third year of hosting the event, Harrah's believes the sponsorships the World Series of Poker has with nationally known products will ward off competition.

"There's a financial benefit but it's about doing the right thing for the brand and the property," Pollack said.

David Carter, a professor of sports business at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, said the financial model for the World Series of Poker seems to be following those of emerging sports leagues.

Carter, an author of sports business books, said the range of sponsorships supports the tournament's audience.

"The World Series of Poker is a very solid brand that is attracting the right demographics and a loyal following that corporate sponsors are looking to reach," Carter said.

"There is an alphabet soup of poker tournaments and events out there. The World Series, with Harrah's backing, is in a much stronger place."

Poker is more entertainment than sports, said Rob Yowell, vice president of sponsorship sales for The Bonham Group, a Denver-based national sports and entertainment marketing firm. The World Series of Poker, however, has gained a strong following, similar to reality television and its expanding audience.

"(Sponsors) are approaching the World Series of Poker much in the same manner as some of the smaller sports leagues," Yowell said.

"There's a following for it, and (Harrah's has) built a strong brand. I don't think poker is going away, and it's an evolution of entertainment."

Pollack, who spent much of his career working for NASCAR and the NBA, added the designation of World Series of Poker commissioner earlier this year, mirroring the title given to the head of most major sports leagues.

He said the sponsorships will maintain the tournament's presence in the minds of poker fans during parts of the year when the 48-day tournament is not taking place.

"The NBA doesn't stop marketing in the offseason, and these sponsorships will keep our product in the public eye during our offseason, which is about 10 months," Pollack said. "Our goal was to partner with companies that work well for both products."

Pollack called the World Series of Poker "a 37-year-old startup venture." The poker competition has a history, but the event has never been leveraged, Pollack said. The goal was to find companies that have products looking to grow along with the World Series of Poker.

"Miller is planning to produce World Series of Poker themed television spots for Milwaukee's Best Light, plus they'll have a World Series of Poker promotion on packages in stores," Pollack said of the agreement that runs through 2008. "This is beer product that Miller has made a priority for growth, which makes it a perfect partner for the World Series of Poker."

Yowell, of The Bonham Group, said Miller Brewing wouldn't have attached Milwaukee's Best Light to the World Series if it didn't translate into sales. The beer brand was a sponsor and advertiser during the 2005 competition.

"I don't think I've drank Milwaukee's Best since I was in college," Yowell said. "But the needle must be moving in that category. There's no way (the sponsorship) would have happened unless the sales are coming from World Series of Poker fans."

The television contract with ESPN was extended earlier this month through 2010. ESPN has broadcast the World Series of Poker eight times since 1993, expanding its coverage considerably in the past few years.

The network videotapes action throughout the competition for edited broadcast later in the year.

In 2005, 22 hourlong episodes were produced by ESPN. The network said it would begin telecasting 32 hour-long episodes from the 2006 event starting in mid-July.

One new aspect in the television deal will be a live pay-per-view coverage of the world championship event's final table, the first time a poker game will be afforded a live television viewing audience.

For $24.95, poker fans can purchase live coverage of the nine-player final table. Starting at noon on Aug. 10, from the first shuffle until a champion is crowned, poker fans will be able to watch the final table either on home television screens or on computer terminals through ESPN's Web site.

Hole cards will not be shown and the telecast will carry a few minutes delay for security reasons, Pollack said.

"This will be produced as with any big sporting event, including a sports center-type announcing desk at the tournament," Pollack said. "You'll be able to taste the excitement. For the die-hard poker fans, we think this aspect will have a tremendous viewing audience."

Carter, the USC professor, said the relationship with ESPN is a critical component to the World Series of Poker's future.

"Having a tie-in with ESPN is a bellwether in itself," Carter said. "If you're trying to be an authentic sports brand, then there is nothing stronger than ESPN.

In addition to ESPN's television coverage, Harrah's and Bluff Media, publisher of poker-themed Bluff Magazine, agreed to broadcast coverage of the World Series of Poker on Sirius Satellite Radio starting Thursday through the final table of the world championship event.

The live radio coverage will be 10 hours a day and include analysis, updates, player interviews, listener call-ins and play-by-play action.

Harrah's has also expanded its Gaming Life Expo, a five-day trade show of poker and gaming related products that runs in conjunction with the World Series of Poker. The free event for poker fans over age 21 will take place July 27-31 during celebrity-media event and the initial days of the world championship event.

Last year, an estimated 50,000 people visited the 150 booths that featured free-play Internet poker representatives, gambling products, and retail items. This year's expo will take up almost 30,000 square feet in the Rio Pavilion and have 235 vendors.

"Last year, we put the expo together three months out and it was an incredible success," said David Koloski, strategic marketing manager at the Rio. "We've extended the hours because a lot of the players want to be able to hang out and visit the booths during the dinner break. We have no reason to believe it won't be even more successful."

Proliferation Of Poker: Really Big Deal is republished from