Asian poker pros not feeling endorsement love

J.C. Tran
J.C. Tran: No Logo.

J.C. Tran always wears a ball cap at poker tournaments. Although the rotating batch of New York Yankees hats has become the poker pro's signature look, he'd be happy to replace them with the logo of a corporate sponsor should the right deal come along.

But so far companies haven't come knocking with any remotely tempting offers.

While some of his less-accomplished poker peers are busy fielding product endorsement offers and invites to network-televised tournaments, Tran is among a group of top poker players of Asian descent whose skill level isn't reflected in sponsorship earnings and media attention.

Players such as Clonie Gowen - whose best results include winning a 2003 World Poker Tour Ladies Night and finishing 10th at the Costa Rica Classic in 2002 - stroll red carpets at poker events and enjoy high-profile endorsement deals.

Tran, however, has three WPT final tables and one major win in 2007 alone, not to mention more than $5 million in tournament winnings.

"To the eyes of online sites or whoever's doing the marketing, they don't see us as marketable so they don't approach us with great deals," said Tran on break from a World Series of Poker event recently.

"I mean, I've been approached with some small deals that I think are ridiculous so I say no to them."

There are a few reasons, Tran theorizes, why Asian players aren't an easy sell in the poker community. Some came into the game and created a bad image for players of their race; others speak in broken English or don't have the appearance they need to appeal to audiences, he said.

But he contends that still shouldn't be an issue with so many Asian players competing online, showing up for live tournaments and tuning into poker broadcasts. These numbers, said Tran, don't equate to sponsorship dollars for top Asian pros.

"I mean, how many of these Asian guys do you see with a logo on them? Not many," he said. "And out of the top 20 CardPlayer players of the year there's a minimum of five of us every year. WPT final tables, World Series final tables - there's always an Asian player. And we deserve the money ... but we don't get it."

Granted, there are some Asian pros who aren't hurting for sponsorship deals. Superstar Johnny Chan has his name attached to everything from energy drinks to bobblehead dolls to hotels to his own poker site. The way he sees it, Chan said, Asian players will get the level of sponsorship their game warrants.

"I think if you become a good player it doesn't matter who you are; you should get sponsored by big companies - either a dot-com site or television or clothing line, beer, whatever," said the two-time World Series of Poker champion.

Anytime a player of any race or background makes a final table at a tournament, he will get the deserved recognition from the media and other players, Chan said.

Such was the case for two-time WSOP gold bracelet winner Bill Chen, who was a sensation at last year's Series after winning two tournaments. The mathematician-turned-pro is now sponsored by PokerStars.com and is enjoying a high profile in the poker community.

Though they might be at a disadvantage given the current state of the industry, Chen said that the market in Asia is expanding and there is potential for Asian players to garner more endorsements when that happens.

In other words, it's all about demographics - something with which Chen said he's familiar.

"You're not just going to choose the best players," he said. "You're going to choose the one that represents your demographic so I certainly understand the decisions that have been made."

Case in point: Nam Le. The young American pro of Vietnamese descent has $3.6 million in tournament winnings, two WSOP final tables, one WPT win and multiple other event successes to his name, but isn't sporting any poker room patches on his chest or pitching any products.

Not that he's complaining.

In a world that's all about marketing, Le said he understands that Caucasian players are an easier sell when it comes to endorsement deals or invitations for coveted seats at televised tournaments or magazine cover stories.

Instead of sweating it, Le said he's hoping things such as the potential Asian Poker Tour equate to sponsorship dollars and concentrating on his game.

"I would love to be sponsored, but it hasn't happened yet," he said. "I'm just worried about me winning. I'll just keep winning and maybe someday I'll get picked up."

J.C. Tran 's not letting it get under his skin either. He's also hoping to the see the industry diversify and expand more into Asia, but isn't about to let it affect his performance on the felt.

"There's a lot of money out here to be made. I've got my recognition," he said. "If they don't feel I deserve it or lowball me for a certain amount of money, then I don't care."

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