Will PA Create Sponsorship Opportunities For US Poker Players?

Posted on January 25, 2018

One of the more talked about poker stories this week was Isaac Haxton signing with partypoker.

The signing was interesting for a reasons others have already covered, but one aspect not receiving a lot of ink is the fact that Haxton is the first US player not named Mike Sexton to sign with Team partypoker in recent memory.

Haxton’s signing likely has little to do with the US online gambling market. He is one of many US players that has moved abroad to continue playing online poker and compete in high-roller events. However, one has to wonder if it could be a sign of things to come amid a changing US online poker landscape.

US players no longer in demand

It doesn’t take a stable genius to look at the current rosters of sponsored pros to realize US poker players aren’t in high demand.

And it’s not just a partypoker thing. PokerStars’ stable of sponsored pros is increasingly less US-centric, particularly with the recent departures of Vanessa Selbst and Jason Mercier.

There are two key reasons for this shift:

  • Online poker is only legal in three (soon to be four) US states.
  • Online poker is no longer a nascent industry. Accordingly, companies shifted marketing strategies from growth to maintenance.

But both of those factors go out the window if more US markets open up. Sites would need US players to market to US customers as the market went through another period of growth.

The inconvenient truth of sponsored players

Unfortunately, there is also a third reason for the winnowing of sponsored online poker players: most of them don’t provide enough value to the site to justify the cost.

It’s much easier for a company to buy advertising and plaster their brand on the felt of the final table than hope one of their players makes it.

This is especially true when the site only lightly compensates the sponsored player. Or if they’re only reason for repping the site is money. Sites need engaged players.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for sponsored pros.

In the age of social media, podcasts, and streaming, there are plenty of poker players with a following and a strong reach. But as I wrote on US Poker, that reach needs to be somewhat unique and also capable of transcending poker.

Early online poker states turned to pros

Drawing on what worked for other companies in the past, the now-defunct Ultimate Poker signed a bevy of poker pros when it launched in Nevada and later New Jersey. When the company ran into financial issues, the roster of pros was among the first things cut.

Many saw the heavy investment on sponsored pros as a misstep by Ultimate. Nonetheless, other New Jersey online poker sites aren’t as heavily invested in sponsored pros, they do use them.

Borgata leveraged local talent like Mike “Gags30” Gagliano, Vinny Pahuja, and Jamie Kerstetter. People who local players are likely to ask, “which New Jersey online poker site do you recommend?”

PokerStars brings in a lot of players for its big events. However, most of its New Jersey focus is built around Chris Moneymaker, a ubiquitous name in poker, and Philadelphia native Jen Shahade, who understands the local market. I can’t recall a PokerStars event in New Jersey where the duo weren’t deployed.

Final thoughts

The days of winning a big tournament and getting sponsorship offers is never coming back. There are still many off-the-felt opportunities for passionate, engaged, charismatic poker players though

Pennsylvania is unlikely to be the tipping point that brings back sponsorship opportunities for US poker players. However, with Pennsylvania, interstate liquidity sharing, and the possibility of more states legalizing online poker, operators with national ambitions will have to take a hard look at how they want to utilize professional players.

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Steve Ruddock

Steve Ruddock is an avid poker player and a veteran member of the gaming media. His primary focus is on the regulated US online casino and poker markets. He writes for numerous online and print publications, including OnlinePokerReport.com, USPoker.com, and USA Today.

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