How did you land the job of WSOP Commissioner?
I fooled them. (Laughs) I was working at NASCAR as head of television and new media for about five years in L.A. and I received a call from an internal recruiter at Harrah's. I knew nothing about the gaming industry or the poker industry, but I understood the job that they wanted me to do.
The WSOP has this great tradition and heritage and it's already the number one brand in poker, but the basics of good sports management have never been applied properly. It's not a judgment, it's just a reality. NASCAR has really matured into a national and global product over the last 10 years. I see us sort of where they were. I may not be a poker expert, but that's not why I was hired. I was hired to bring my sports business experience to bear on the WSOP and help it be bigger and better for players and fans.
Was it difficult giving up the gig at NASCAR?
It was hard. I really became a very big NASCAR fan. It's really hard to work in that sport and not have it get under your skin in a really good way. And the people at NASCAR were just tremendous, we're still really good friends and I do miss them, but what I'm finding going through this WSOP, which is my first, is that it's a bit of a rush coming here everyday and that there's a lot of poker being played, that the stakes are really high...and for as big as the tournament is, there's a really strong sense of community, just like NASCAR, and it's full of some really interesting personalities. It's getting under my skin in a good way and I'm excited and honored to be part of it.
How do you think poker has changed in the past five years and how do you see it evolving?
Since I've only been involved in poker for less than a year, I'm probably not a good person to comment on how it's changed, but in terms of evolution I think the best days are still ahead. The growth of poker on television has helped fuel its popularity. People like Chris Moneymaker and Joe Hachem proving that anyone can play and anyone can win, especially in the World Series of Poker, has helped fuel its popularity.
But poker has been part of Americana for a very long time. So it's really about rediscovering poker and people embracing it in new ways. Our goal is to get consumer product companies involved in the sport in new ways with an eye towards promoting poker and the WSOP year-round. Our tournament is 48 days but we really deserve to be exposed 24/7, 365 days of the year.
How do you apply your experience in sports marketing to revamping the WSOP?
It's not so much "revamping" the WSOP. It's more like re-energizing and modernizing it. At the NBA, where I was vice-president of marketing and corporate communications, I really learned the importance of appreciating the authenticity of the competition, making sure that you had the best possible player relations and being very selective about the partners that you choose from a sponsorship's standpoint.
At NASCAR I think I learned a lot about how to go from 0 to 60 with a sports brand. Like the WSOP, NASCAR has been around for more than 50 years, but it hadn't broken through as a national sport. It was really just a regional phenomenon. And when I was there, in a very short period of time, it broke through as a global sport and that mentality, that entrepreneurial spirit in sports marketing, is influencing the way I'm approaching the WSOP.
How has the Players Advisory Council helped you improve the WSOP and who came up with it?
It was my idea but with a lot of buy-in from the people at Harrah's. It's worked better than I ever imagined. I thought the players would only want to meet twice a year, but they wanted to meet monthly from day one. And they have, with almost 100% attendance. The meetings are lively, spirited, passionate, sincere and completely engaging. They really care deeply about what we're doing. They recognize that we're not always going to agree, but they come up with some great ideas. We've learned to appreciate their perspectives a little more so it's been great.
What made you decide to add the H.O.R.S.E. event to the WSOP?
When I got here in August, I started talking to a lot of the top players individually and my sense was that they have an appetite for an event that was a little different and geared toward the really high-end player and maybe a little more intimate. So, we came up with the concept for H.O.R.S.E. and to do it at a pretty significant buy-in. T.J. Cloutier, David Singer, Jim Bechtel and Dewey Tomko) and if we can do this every year, that's a pretty good thing.
Now that said, all the amateur players should know that we're going to come up with some new, innovative events for them. I'm thinking that next year we'll have an event that you can only play in if you've never won a bracelet or a major tournament. I'm not focused just on catering to the professionals, I'm focused on serving all of our customers.
What are your predictions for poker as a spectator's sport?
It's going to get better. We're going to work very closely with ESPN to heighten the creativity in the programming. We're bringing the WSOP to more platforms than ever before - Sirius Satellite Radio this year, official souvenir guide for the first time, AOL, Global Games. So there's going to be more ways for poker fans to experience us. Here at the main venue, we have to do a better job at creating a spectator-friendly environment. The final table set-up for the Main Event will be a little bit different than last year. Hopefully it'll be a richer experience for the fans.
Interest in poker has been growing exponentially - do you think the trend has reached it's a plateau and will drop off?
In sports, you always have to remember that ratings and attendance will come and go. It's all cyclical. So I think that poker is having its moment, and I think the WSOP is going to have more of this moment in the next few years. But you can't manage the business by focusing on ratings. We're not in the ratings business, we're in the poker business. ESPN is in the ratings business. I want to help them but I'm not living and dying by the ratings. I expect that we're going to have good years and not so good years. We're building for the next 37 years of this tournament so we're keeping a very strategic eye on things.
What do you enjoy most about poker?
I like that it's an individual sport. I like that everyone is an independent contractor - they come and go as they see fit and they control their own destiny. I like that it requires an incredible level of intelligence. I've been blown away by how smart the great poker players are, a lot smarter than me. In the Players Advisory Council meeting there's no question that the players have the intellectual advantage and I think it's a very good thing. It keeps everyone on their toes and I think that the personalities are so colorful, from Phil Hellmuth to Mike Matusow to Scotty Nguyen to Doyle Brunson, who's larger than life, a living legend. It's a small community and I feel privileged just to be around it.
So, final question: How good are you at poker and what's your game?
I play poker everyday in business. You have to a little bit, especially in negotiations. I don't bluff when it comes to customer service or player relations. But in business negotiations, I play a lot of poker. And I think I'm decent at it. As far as actual poker, I like Five- and Seven-Card Stud. Call me old-fashioned, call me boring, but I love it. We should play sometime.
Thank you, Jeff, for being the only other person besides myself who loves Stud! I'll be taking you up on your offer to play!