What Happens to Poker Without Online Sponsorship?
Once again thousands of players have bought into the WSOP Main Event but this year there are serious questions about the future of the game’s economy.
Both PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker played a huge role in WSOP attendance in the past but this year Full Tilt is, for obvious reasons, completely absent.
PokerStars, restricted to offering their games outside of the U.S., only sent a handful of qualifiers.
Poker Royalty agent Brian Balsbaugh estimates those two sites and a few others pumped $3-$5 million a year into the WSOP via player deals.
The last two years it’s been knocked down to almost zero.
Josh Arieh, who was sponsored by Bodog Poker and Full Tilt Poker in the past, also thinks the current poker model is unsustainable without sponsors.
“At the rate poker is going no one will be able to make money," he said. "It will just be an elite few – the Jason Merciers, the Bertrand “ElkY” Grospeliers – who win. Just the super, super talented guys.”
Arieh, who one of the more well-known pros in the early 2000s, retired from poker at the end of the 2012 WSOP saying he simply can’t make money at the game anymore.
Out of poker’s big four - Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey and Doyle Brunson - only Negreanu currently holds a sponsorship deal with an online poker site.
It's not just the big-name pros who are hurting as Full Tilt used to offer Red Pro deals to some of the lesser-known players.
The Red Pro deals were not always huge but helped reduce variance for the full-time tournament grinder. The lack of such deals was a huge part of the reason Arieh decided to finally move on from poker.
U.S. Players Remain Unsigned After Black Friday
Since Black Friday virtually no U.S. players have been signed by online poker rooms.
Jean-Robert Bellande, who used to have a deal with Bodog Poker, is optimistic it will be different when online poker is finally regulated in the U.S.
“Right now it seems like it’s basically impossible to get sponsorship with online poker sites,” he said. “I think that’s going to change as soon as the laws in the U.S. change.”
Bellande is one of the few players that has found sponsorship beyond online poker and currently represents Aria Casino when he plays live tournaments.
“Some of the guys, like myself, are fortunate enough to have brick and mortar support,” he said.
“Aria Casino has been fantastic and they’re pretty happy with the job we’ve done. We probably have the most popular poker room in Vegas.”
There are very few guys who are lucky enough to have a major casino backing them and other sponsors just don't offer anywhere near the amount of money to players that online poker sites did before Black Friday.
European Players Also Struggling to Get Online Backing
The lack of deals for poker players is not limited to U.S. players, however.
Annette Obrestad, winner of the inaugural WSOPE Main Event, is young, European, skilled and female but it even took her awhile to hook up with current sponsor Lock Poker after former sponsor Full Tilt went down.
“It’s super hard to get [sponsorship] these days,” Obrestad said.
“Even I struggled. I can’t imagine what the guys must go through. I’m a girl, at least companies want to sign me because of that. There are so many players that are probably more deserving to be on a team than me.”
Despite the lack of online poker site support, the WSOP has steadily chugged along for the last couple of years although it did see a slight decrease in attendance this year.
This year the Main Event drew 6,598, which is impressive considering the lack of sponsorship dollars. It’s still a far cry from the 8,773 that entered the tournament in 2006 before the Unlawful Gambling Enforcement Act passed in 2006.
The Game Changer: Legal Online Poker in the U.S.
The real test may come at the 2013 WSOP when the last of the online dollars have been used up and numerous full-time poker players have moved on to careers with more opportunities.
“Until online poker gets legalized and there is fresh money from the sites and from people learning the game again, this can’t keep up,” said Arieh.
Online poker seems to be getting ever closer to becoming reality in the U.S. with Las Vegas companies like Station Casinos and the South Point Casino recently launching free-to-play online poker sites. Even more questions will be raised if poker is legalized in the U.S., however.
There’s no telling how the games will be taxed, what the rake will be and how much online gaming licenses will cost. If the rake is too high, it might be impossible for even the best players to make a living off the game.
Of course the worst-case scenario may end up being a good thing for the amateur poker player, who will no longer have to face a field of online poker-backed poker pros in the average $1,500 WSOP tournament in Vegas.
The problem is that the prizepools could also be much, much smaller.
Whatever happens, the landscape of the poker economy may look significantly different by the 2013 WSOP.