Gaming Strategy
Featured Stories
Legal News Financial News Casino Opening and Remodeling News Gaming Industry Executives Author Home Author Archives Search Articles Subscribe
Newsletter Signup
Stay informed with the
NEW Casino City Times newsletter!
Recent Articles
Kevin Smith

Q & A: Steve Lipscomb, the World Poker Tour

16 September 2004

About the only person not surprised by the meteoric rise of the World Poker Tour over the last two years has been the man right in the middle of it--its founder and CEO, Steve Lipscomb.

In 2001 the acclaimed film producer and director started shopping around his idea to televise a poker league.

"The only thing that I have been shocked about has been how quickly we have been able to accomplish some of our goals."

After signing a deal with The Travel Channel, part of the Discovery Network's family of stations, the World Poker Tour hit the airways in 2002. The third season of the World Poker Tour is currently in production, and new episodes will air this fall.

In a short amount of time, the World Poker Tour has become the Travel Channel's highest rated program, and one of the tournaments is still the network's highest rated show.

The only real bump in the road came last year when Discovery stopped carrying advertisements on WPT telecasts for online poker rooms. (The decision came after a grand jury subpoenaed hundreds of media outlets that were carrying online gaming advertisements.) But the void was quickly filled by major corporate brands like Ford Motor Company and Anheuser Busch.

This summer the WPT announced deals with card manufactures, clothing companies, publishers, plug-and-play game producers and a host of other entities to create various WPT branded products and services. Lakes Entertainment, the majority owner of WPT Enterprises, Inc., floated the World Poker Tour on the Nasdaq on Aug. 10. And this month the WPT and Wagerworks announced a deal to establish a WPT-branded online gaming site.

Trying to convince network executives that poker can work on TV was a hard sell for Steve Lipscomb in 2001. Now, several networks are carrying poker programming.

Many attribute the enormous growth in poker over the last two years to the launch of the World Poker Tour, along with the increased number of online poker rooms and the social acceptance of poker throughout mainstream society.

IGN recently caught up with Lipscomb to get an update on the WPT and the role that online poker plays in the ongoing growth of the WPT and poker in general.

IGN: We last talked to you more than two years ago when you were still shopping the concept of the WPT around to the networks. At the time, a lot of people thought you were crazy. Did you ever imagine that it would be as big a success as it is?

Steve Lipscomb: Honestly, yes. This was our whole idea from the start of it. The only thing that I have been shocked about has been how quickly we have been able to accomplish some of our goals. We wanted to make poker appealing to a U.S. audience and get ratings better than pool and bowling. We were able to do that right out of the gate. Now we have our sights set on the major sports. The only real surprise is how nasty success can be.

The whole idea was to create a new sport out of this, and we are only at the first level. In a short amount of time we changed the way that poker is perceived in the U.S.

IGN: And the nastiness?

SL: It is amazing how people react when you say "no" to them and how many people want to try and rip you off. Networks that wouldn't give us the time or day two years ago now are carrying poker themselves. They put the graphics in the same place we do, have them look just like ours and try to make the broadcast look like ours.

Before we took to the air, poker was a business in decline. Poker rooms were closing all over the country, and it was a dying industry. The old adage was that 10 players at a casino's poker room would die off in a year and only one new guy would come in through the door, and usually he was just as old as everybody else playing. Now casinos can't keep up with the demand and new poker rooms are popping up all over. We had no indication that this would happen but we are glad that it did.

IGN: So are all these other poker programs that are on TV now good or bad for the WPT?

SL: Obviously, if no one else in the world could do poker on TV that would be great for us, but I think the other shows drive viewers to us. They seek us out when they see the other programs and don't get the quality production that they get with us. We use more cameras than anyone else, our sound around the table is the best out there and the overall look of the show is the best.

I kind of compare it to the reality TV show phenomena. Survivor was the first reality show, and of course there have been many knock offs of Survivor since it first aired. But here is Survivor gearing up for its ninth season and still going strong. The World Poker Tour is what all the networks want to copy now and that is fine. We will still be around long after their shows are off the air.

And the tour itself continues to grow. We have expanded our schedule to where we basically have a tournament a month, except for when the World Series of Poker is being played, and we will have more than $70 million worth of prize money on this year's tour alone. We will be crowning a new millionaire every month, and sometimes more than one. We might have some tournaments where maybe the second or third place finisher will also win a million.

" I am sure we are bound to hit a peek just like everything does, but I have visions for this league to be around for a longtime and I think in another 20 years we will still be talking about the World Poker Tour."

IGN: Speaking of all the "knock-offs," I think most people that have seen everything out there would admit that ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker is the closest to what the WPT does on Travel. Do you see WSOP as your biggest competition?

SL: We would be crazy not to see them as our biggest competition. But calling them our competition means a lot of different things. I don't think that it means they are stealing our viewers. In the end, I think both of us make the other stronger. No one can argue the place that the World Series has in the poker community. The World Series has its own place and now the World Poker Tour has its own place.

IGN: The only real negative for you was the advertising situation with the online poker rooms and casinos. Were you shocked when the Discovery Network decided to pull the ads?

SL: Not really. It was a wide-ranging grand jury investigation that was really aimed at the hard-sell commercials that were running on radio stations for a lot of the sports books, and I think the Travel Channel just got caught up in the net when they started issuing subpoenas to anybody that was even remotely connected to the industry. Poker just got caught up in the grab bag. Poker is a game of skill and has been in California for over 100 years. and are both charter members of the WPT. We have good relationships with them and other sites. We have had to change some of the details of those relationships to make them work for everyone.

The shame of it is that a lot of the poker players and people in the online world don't give the Travel Channel its due. We talked to a lot of networks when we were pitching this idea, and none of them wanted to give us a dedicated time. Not only did Travel Channel step up with a time, they basically gave us an entire night. They gave us a two-hour slot without ever seeing a bit of footage.

IGN: So it sounds like the online poker sites weren't the only driving force behind the WPT's success.

SL: They certainly played a factor, but they weren't the key to our business. Their advertising dollars have been easily replaced, luckily, by some pretty major brands. Major sponsors like A-B and Ford are the future for us. If we want to take this to the level we want to, we are going to need major brands like that behind us and not just niche-related gaming and poker brands. The top sites like PartyPoker and UltimateBet gained a tremendous amount of exposure out of the relationship with us, but I think we were more important to them than they were to us. That isn't to say we aren't glad to have them around and still apart of the World Poker Tour. The Party Poker Million tourney is still one of our favorite events on the tour every year.

IGN: Now the discussion in the gaming world is whether poker is just a fad. What's your take?

SL: The pet rock was a fad. That came from nowhere and went to nowhere. Poker has been a part of the American landscape for over 200 years now. They say there are 50 to 80 million Americans playing poker; I think it is closer to the 80 million mark, but if that is my potential market, I will take it.

The great thing about the World Poker Tour is that we have brought poker to a whole new audience. It isn't like we have the same group of old-timers that are hooked on the sport. The online world has helped a great deal in expanding the game to new areas and will also play a key roll in that development phase of the sport.

I am sure we are bound to hit a peek just like everything does, but I have visions for this league to be around for a longtime and I think in another 20 years we will still be talking about the World Poker Tour.

Q & A: Steve Lipscomb, the World Poker Tour is republished from
Kevin Smith
Kevin Smith