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
Mark Balestra

The Name Game

1 June 1999

What's in a name? In the online gambling industry, just about everything. Credibility is scarce in the eyes of the consumer, so if you can establish positive name recognition, you're a giant step ahead of the pack. Inland Entertainment and Starnet Communications understand this, which is why both companies have engaged in the battle of the celebrity Internet casinos.

Both companies have signed sponsorship-type agreements with major celebrities and have attached their names to websites where customers can wager with real money. And both have experienced success in doing so.

Through its presence in the Indian gaming industry, Inland, the operator of several online casinos using Cryptologic's gaming software, got a jump on the action last year. As the primary consultant for Barona casino near San Diego, California, the company dealt with the same image struggles that Internet casinos experience today; the 'unknown' factor was causing potential customers to keep their distance.

To establish credibility and familiarity, they searched for a spokesperson who's well liked and trusted. They finally found the answer in an endorsement deal in November 1995 with country music star and actor Kenny Rogers, a.k.a. "The Gambler."

A few years later, Inland was breaking into the online gaming industry and once again went to Rogers to establish a clean image. In April 1998, the company made a huge splash by debuting "Kenny Rogers Casino," the Internet's first celebrity casino.

What a concept. When players arrive at, Rogers himself is waiting there, sitting in a chair with a poker hand and a poker face. New customers are a bit apprehensive at first, but suddenly there's an old friend inviting them to come in and play. Suddenly the unknown world of cyber gambling isn't so scary anymore.

"The object was to create brand awareness and bring credibility to the business," explained Inland Executive Vice President of Marketing Fritz Opel. "We thought the same marketing model (used for Barona Casino) would apply to online gaming. There were similarities to the industries. People might feel a little more comfortable knowing that Kenny is involved."

A year has passed since the launching of Kenny Rogers Casino, and the plan seems to have worked. Opel said that Rogers' site does more than double the business that other Inland sites do. "We're convinced that the way to success is to built brand recognition," he said.

Starnet, probably the online gaming industry's most active software licenser, tapped into the celebrity pipeline in early 1999. In March, the company launched "Larry Holmes Sportsbook & Casino" and "Bubba's Casino & Sportsbook" (Bubba Smith, that is), officially landing itself in the celebrity casino biz. Both casinos are operated by World Gaming, a Starnet subsidiary.

The Starnet model is similar to Inland's. Vice President of Marketing Bret Conkin outlined the basic marketing strategy for a successful online casino as having three major objectives: (1) create an entertaining product; (2) drive traffic to that product; and (3) establish integrity.

Conkin says the Larry Holmes and Bubba Smith Casinos help fulfill all three. In terms of attracting new customers, he explained, "The likeness of a celebrity is a traffic draw; in a banner, it's an attention getter."

As far as integrity goes, he pointed out that reputation goes along way. "Most celebrities don't lend their likeness to a fly-by-night businesses," he said.

Starnet wasn't about to stop with Holmes and Smith either. In May, the company announced a partnership with golf legend Fuzzy Zoeller. And this deal extends beyond just a celebrity casino. The company plans to broadcast Zoeller's Wolf Challenge Golf Tournament on the Internet and visitors will have the opportunity to win a round of golf with Zoeller himself.

As far as Starnet's concerned, the surface has just been scratched. In the next six months, it expects to announce six to ten more celebrity casino deals. They're fishing for bigger names too, as well as names in the music, movie and TV industries. "We'd like to take it up a notch," said Conkin.

The company's strategy for finding new celebrities is also based on international appeal. Zoeller, for instance, is huge in Japan, where he has several endorsement deals.

While Starnet goes the route of signing more big names and establishing more sites, Inland remains focused on driving traffic to sites which are already operating. Its new marketing campaign includes the mid to late-June launching of an online gaming portal site, "Las Vegas at Home," featuring news, entertainment, strategy tips, promotional offers and links.

To beef up the new portal site, and to bring more integrity to its online gaming community, Inland has signed content deals with Max Rubin--a world-renowned gambler and the best-selling author of "Comp City"--and Anthony Curtis--the editor and publisher of the "Las Vegas Advisor" as well as the publisher of "Bargain City." Curtis and Rubin, who previously contributed strategy tips to Inland's casino sites, will make their expertise available to visitors, ultimately en route to the company's online casinos. The two will also participate in real-time chats and might even put on seminars--all in the name of co-branding.

So, how does Inland and Starnet pull off their high-profile approaches without feeling tons of heat from do-gooders in the U.S.? And how do the celebrities stave battering ram entrances into their offices by America's finest?

The answer is: Stay away from the U.S.!

Neither company offers bets to anyone accessing their games from anywhere in America, and both publicize the heck out of this policy. The celebrities are comfortable with this situation and have been advised that no laws are being broken, as long as the servers remain offshore.

Now that two companies have a foot in the door, expect more names--and bigger names--to be announced, and expect more operators to cash in on the lucrative approach. Making it big in the online gaming industry was a breeze a few years ago, but now there's enough competition to start knocking the weaker entities out of the picture. Starnet and Inland have prepared for this day and have a leg up because they've entered the battle with the likes of Larry, Bubba, Kenny, Fuzzy, Max and Anthony standing at their sides.

The Name Game is republished from
Mark Balestra
Mark Balestra is the Managing Director at BolaVerde Media Group. He previously worked at Clarion Gaming and the River City Group where he was the publisher of iGamingNews. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
Mark Balestra
Mark Balestra is the Managing Director at BolaVerde Media Group. He previously worked at Clarion Gaming and the River City Group where he was the publisher of iGamingNews. He lives in St. Louis, Missouri.