Poker pays the price for media monopoly

Steve Lipscomb
WPT CEO Steve Lipscomb has found a way to bolster his company's profits.

Who gets to cover the World Series of Poker and the World Poker Tour? Technically, anyone who is approved for a press pass and travels with a laptop and wireless card.

But who gets unfettered access to the events in question? These days, that depends on who pays the most.

Card Player Media - undoubtedly still stinging after a public spanking from pro player and PokerNews owner Tony G for allegedly stealing exclusive chip counts from his site at this year's WSOP - is the latest media organization to purchase freedom of the press by signing a contract with the World Poker Tour to provide exclusive coverage of its Season 6 tournaments.

It's hardly terra incognita for the poker media giant: Card Player made a similar deal with the World Series of Poker in 2006, enjoying such privileges as exclusive access to hand reportage at a tournament's 15-table mark and audio rights. The specifics on the new WPT deal have yet to be announced, but in a news release Thursday, Card Player Media CEO Barry Shulman said the new contract will expand coverage of WPT events.

Part of the bargain is exclusive rights to up-to-the-minute chip counts and hand-by-hand coverage of all Season 6 WPT tournaments. Other media organizations will receive the information in summarized news feeds from the WPT on the hour.

The deal was enough to set WPT CEO Steven Lipscomb spinning about how limiting media access to its events will benefit the company as it attempts to reach new markets worldwide.

"(W)e wanted to further develop our Live Updates online reporting capabilities so we can continue delivering the most robust tournament news and information to our fans," he said in the release.

Whatever the official position, I challenge any CEO to say with conviction that limiting press access to an event or story will improve the content people receive or help information reach a wider audience.

Though it can't be argued that limiting press rights in an entertainment industry such as poker is akin to putting boundaries on the news media, the announcement is troubling for, well, mostly other media sources, but also people who like to get their tournament information from multiple Web sites and publications.

On the whole, diversity is healthy for both the customer and the corporation. The New York Times is an internationally recognized newspaper, and yet if it weren't for the Post, some people wouldn't read the news at all. Competition is also key to ensuring quality of reporting; if one source is granted unmatched access to an event, where's the motivation to produce only top-quality content? Monopolies test resources and more often than not, one organization fails to perform as well as many could.

Further, buying exclusive media access doesn't guarantee the most knowledgeable staff in the business and could mean shutting out people whose talents and understanding of the game could draw a larger or more appreciative audience to poker.

Still, the WSOP and its 2007 partner, Bluff, were eager to expound their theory about how the "consolidation of digital-publishing rights" would create a better international product when the deal was inked in March.

The result? Certainly not disastrous, but reviews of the earth-shattering and compelling 2007 World Series of Poker coverage have yet to hit my doorstep. Nonetheless, it's a deal that will last three more years under terms of that contract; poker and exclusive media rights, however, are starting to look like comfortable bedfellows.

Jeffrey Pollack and Steve Lipscomb can toe the party line all they want, but there is no convincing argument for how limiting media access to poker tournaments will be good for the game. Because it's not actually about what's good for poker. Like the game, it's all just a means to make money.

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