Future of the poker industry: Part 1

There's big money in poker, but there could potentially be more with a little organization.

This is the first of three articles exploring what a unifying organization could do for the poker industry. Check back March 27 for Part 2.

A half century ago, gamblers roamed the land. Tournament prize pools were built and the winner normally took the entirety of them. Side games existed too, and they were more lucrative to play than the actual tournaments.

Then players as well as host venues began to see the potential of organized competition. They could consolidate into an organization that would not only govern the game but also determine the places to play, draw in sponsorship and demonstrate the philanthropic side of what was viewed as a seedy game.

Roughly 40 years ago, professional golfers formed the PGA Tour. The Tour has transformed the golf world from a freewheeling gambling environment with zero mainstream media attention into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise with a set schedule, philanthropic endeavors and tremendous television exposure.

Today, thanks to the Tour, people around the world know the biggest names in the game, such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, among others. Not only that, but it has spawned spinoff entities including the Ladies PGA, the Nationwide Tour for players who lack playing exemptions on the main PGA Tour, and the Champions Tour for players over 50.

While it still holds what are essentially "gambling" events, such as the Skins Games where hundreds of thousands of dollars are up for grabs, professional golf has evolved into an accepted mainstream sport.

Likewise, poker has to evolve into something along these lines if it is to gain the acceptance of the sporting world, let alone survive.

To find an example of how the PGA has pulled the game of golf up from its renegade background, you just have to do what you sometimes do in poker: follow the money.

In 1968, the first year of the PGA Tour, it had recognizable names in Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, but it was Billy Casper who captured the money title with a then-record $205,169. Six years previous to that, Palmer was the champion with only slightly over $80,000 in winnings.

Fast-forward the clock to 2007 and you see what the PGA Tour has accomplished, not only for its players but for the sport itself. Tiger Woods won his eighth championship with over $10 million in earnings (surprisingly not the record amount; Vijay Singh's $10,905,166 in 2004 holds that honor).

The top 99 players on the PGA Tour last year each earned over $1 million dollars. Add to that the sponsorships that all players seem to have, as well as the charitable causes supported by stops on the PGA Tour, and it's hard to imagine that a short 40 years ago the sport had a seedy aura.

Apart from the mainstream media coverage it's garnered, poker is about where golf was back in 1968. However, the World Poker Association has emerged to work toward elevating the image of the game and standardizing play. The association is the brainchild of professional poker player Jesse Jones.

Jesse Jones
Jesse Jones wants to streamline, organize and unify the poker industry.

Jones believed that, for poker to be accepted as a mainstream sport, it needed a streamlined organization to protect and oversee it in all its variants. And for that to happen, stakeholders in the poker world, from the grassroots level of players to the upper echelons of the casinos and various tours, needed to feel that they had a voice in that organization's decision making and strategy.

When Jones founded the WPA in 2005, it was with this profound sense of optimism.

After growing the association steadily for two years, Jones moved into the position of chairman emeritus in February 2008. At that time, a WPA board of directors was created. Poker professional and businesswoman Wendeen Eolis took over the chair, and continues to further Jones' vision in that role.

"We are definitely attempting to make professionalism more a part of poker," Eolis stated in a recent conversation. "Our first commitment is to the players, as they are a very important commodity in the equation. We are taking a very down-the-road viewpoint and are taking incremental steps to reach that end."

One of these steps is a standardization of the myriad of rules that poker runs under. Payout structures, blind levels and rules of conduct can differ from one casino to the next, even if they are located next to each other. The WPA is working to provide a standard set of rules that can be used worldwide, standardizing the game just as professional golf was regularized in the late '60s.

"We recently added 10 new tournament rules to our standards and, when we play our WPA mega-satellite before the start of this year's World Series [May 29], we will be playing under those rules created by the WPA," Eolis related. "The World Series has been behind our efforts tremendously and it is necessary to have the support of organizations such as the WSOP to further the goals of the WPA."

Faced with obstacles to making the WPA the poker organization, Eolis is undaunted.

"It will be a challenge, but it is also an opportunity for us to influence the future of the game and make it a sport," Wendeen said. "Things have already began to change: I don't hear 'No' anymore when it comes to our goals; the question I hear is 'How?' I personally believe that the best days, the golden age, is yet to come for poker."

Tournament Area at the Wynn
With so many people taking up poker and creating a huge demand for the game, the WPA wants to standardize all tournament play.

The vision that Jesse Jones, Wendeen Eolis and the World Poker Association have is critical for the poker's ongoing growth and its future. Yes, things are going well right now. Our game's grandest championship, the World Series of Poker, has ESPN covering it. Harrah's has generated sponsorship money (that hasn't found its way to the players… yet) from corporations that you might not associate with the sport.

The World Poker Tour also has generated interest from corporate America and is broadcast now on the Game Show Network. And there are admittedly stars in the game who boast worldwide face and name recognition.

Much of poker's recent renown could disappear, though. Up against government restrictions, online poker rooms are engaged in a Darwinian struggle for "survival of the fittest," desperately trying to capture a limited amount of revenue.

Further, the past two years have seen a decline in the number of events that ESPN broadcasts, and the WPT was dropped by the Travel Channel before it found its new home on GSN.

Finally, the ease with which unknowns can now vault into the poker limelight has created a glut of faceless rounders whom the poker world disposes of quite quickly.

While we may never go back to the small fields of the '70s, '80s or even the early to mid-'90s, it's important to keep trying to make poker more a part of the legitimate sports world. An organization that would set a definitive tournament schedule and establish and administer a solid points system could play an integral role in this process. It could also unify stakeholders across existing organizational boundaries (mostly those between the WPT and the WSOP, but also including the foreign European Poker Tour and other important international events).

With such a governing body in place, poker could begin to evolve in the same way that professional golf has. But there are many components that would have to come together for this to happen.

I'll expand on this idea over the next three parts of this series, looking at what those components might be. Granted, there are naysayers in the poker world who don't embrace the idea of a unifying industry organization, but if poker is to thrive, maintain its relevance and see its reputation bolstered, it's an idea whose time has come.

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