Future of the poker industry: Part 2

BFF's Forever
Big names bring in big crowds and money.

This is the second of a three-part series exploring what a unifying organization could do for the poker industry. Check back April 3 for Part 3.

Last week we sketched out an analogy between the development of professional golf in North America and how poker could follow in that game's footsteps. Now it's time to look at various poker-world stakeholders and what each has to do to help poker progress from a freewheeling gambling enterprise to an officially sanctioned sport.

Today we'll examine two components that have to come together for this to happen - the casinos and the multitude of poker tournament schedules that populate the poker world.

Casinos, like most businesses, operate on a competitive, bottom-line model. Their purpose is to earn as much revenue as possible. Poker doesn't usually form a major part of their revenue stream.

Prior to the reemergence of poker in 2003, many casinos, not only in Las Vegas but around the world, were closing their poker rooms. Post-2003, though, the rebirth of poker had many locations scrambling to renew their commitments to the game.

Las Vegas Strip
More poker on the Strip.

The casinos realized that they could attract more players by spreading poker in addition to the more lucrative games.

According to the American Gaming Association's 2007 Survey of Casino Entertainment, Nevada poker revenue was $68 million in 2003 and increased almost 150% to $160.8 million by 2006.

New Jersey, another mainstay of poker in the United States, saw a similar upswing, generating $37.1 million from poker among total 2006 casino revenues of $77.3 million.

Even with that growth, the proportion of earnings from poker is a fraction of total gambling revenues.

Looking just at Nevada, in 2003 the percent of revenue from card games was .7%. That number has since nearly doubled to approximately 1.3% in 2007, according to Nevada Gaming Commission and State Gaming Control Board reports.

But more organization and cooperation between the casinos could help increase the revenues from poker or at least capitalize on the popularity of the game by attracting more players to their establishments.

Two of Las Vegas' most notable casinos have already found ways to make poker work for them. The Bellagio has one of the most popular poker rooms on the strip, and is regularly filled to the rails with players and spectators.

Binions
Home of the World Series of Poker.

Binion's Gambling Hall has found a way to use its poker history to draw in players who inevitably overflow to other table games and the slots as well. Yet some casinos still struggle to attract poker players.

The closure last year of the Las Vegas Hilton's poker room illustrates poker's tenuous profitability for the casinos and shows that, to move into a more viable future for poker, the casinos need to standardize all aspects of poker in the casino setting.

When it comes to tournament poker, different casinos have their own "house rules" that bedevil the players. Blind structures, payout percentages, even the rules regarding play of individual hands can differ, even sometimes from one local casino to the next.

To eliminate these inconsistencies, casinos as a whole would have to agree to an across-the-board standardization of their rules.

As highlighted in Part 1 of this series by Chairperson Wendeen Eolis, this is one of the goals of the World Poker Association. Not only would standardization help players compete on a more level playing field; it would also help burnish poker's image.

However, it may be a challenge to get competing casinos to work together. Individual golf courses chose to band together and organize the PGA Tour, because they saw an opportunity not only to promote the big names that were playing but also to raise their own brand recognition.

Courses such as Augusta National, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst became almost as recognizable as the players. The course owners saw their patronage and membership skyrocket, because people wanted to play on the same greens that the pros had played on.

Through garnering sponsorships and promotion for the players as well as for their properties, the casinos could build their brand the same way individual golf courses did in the early years of professional golf.

Another obstacle to overcome, though, would be getting the dominant poker tours to cooperate.

The Final Hand
Tours aplenty wherever you want to go. Sometimes too many.

Between the World Poker Tour, the World Series of Poker and its Circuit tournaments, the European Poker Tour, the Asia Pacific Poker Tour and other regional and individual national tours, the tournament poker schedule can be a harrowing road.

In the first five months of 2008, there are 20 championship events among the WPT, WSOPC and EPT that range in buy-in from $5,000 to $25,000.

Taking into account the preliminary events for these tournament schedules alone, a conservative estimate might be that there are approximately 500 tournaments in that short time span.

Add the regionally popular events and their schedules, such as those offered in Los Angeles, Tunica, Atlantic City, Paris, Spain, England or on the Pacific Rim (to name a few), and the daunting scope of tournament poker becomes apparent.

"It is so difficult for all of the pros to keep such a rigorous schedule year round," said Matt Savage, who travels the world as the tournament director for some of the most prestigious tournaments around. "Fans are getting slighted because the pros are not able to make all tournaments and the fans want to see the top names."

You only have to look at January of this year to see how difficult it was for players to determine where they wanted to be. The Aussie Millions main event ran Jan. 14-20. Before it was even wrapped up, the WSOPC main event in Tunica kicked off Jan. 19 and ran until Jan. 22.

Just a day after the start of the WSOPC main event, the WPT World Poker open also began in Tunica. While the location was handy for players already in town for the WSOPC, the timing was not convenient for players wanting to try their luck in both main events.

Four days after the end of the WPT World Poker Open, another WPT main event started up in Atlantic City at the Borgata. It ran Jan. 27-31, and just at the tail end of that, the EPT German Open kicked off Jan. 29.

For poker to evolve to its fullest potential, the various tours have to come to some agreement to better coordinate their schedules, especially those of their premier events. Limiting the physical distance between events would be better for all involved with the sport as well.

Professional golf, with its yearlong schedule of tournaments and venues, has achieved such geographical efficiency by staging only one major tournament per week at various national and international locations.

Prior to the first major event of the pro golf season, The Masters in Augusta, Ga., the PGA Tour has its "Southern Swing," where four tournaments leading up to The Masters are played in the southeast United States.

This is also done prior to the historic AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am; the tournaments that come before it are in the western United States and in Hawaii, reducing travel expenses and other miscellaneous costs to enable even the lower-level pros to compete.

Clonie Gowen and some guy.
Who are these people railing Clonie?

This type of organization and scheduling allows more pros to attend each event, which in turn draws more fans willing to go watch and perhaps play the course, spend money in the pro shop and more.

If the professional poker tours and casinos cooperated, they could work out schedules that would allow top players to take in every major event rather than picking and choosing. In turn that would draw more fans who might drop money at the tables or into slots when they're not railing the tournaments.

But there is another part of the poker world that's key to such a transformation, and it is perhaps the most important. In Part 3 of this series on April 3, we'll take a look at what has been the lifeblood of the game since its creation: the players.

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