The Global Poker League Came in Like a Lion; But Is It Going Out Like a Lamb?

Steve Ruddock August 11, 2016 1560 Reads
Global Poker League

This article has been updated to correct the cost of the Cube, which was incorrectly stated as costing $1 million.

Earlier today, poker reporter Will Shillibier broke the news that the Global Poker League playoffs will not be held at TwitchCon 2016. Nor will the finals take place at Wembley Arena (not to be confused with Wembley Stadium) as the league had planned.

While this certainly seems like a setback for the nascent poker league, GPL owner Alex Dreyfus did his best to justify the decision. In an interview with PokerNews, Dreyfus tried to spin this as a way to engage with US fans, but also admitted that the product may not be ready for the spotlight.

“London was important, but there are two reasons to not have it there. First, 40% of our audience is in the U.S. That has evolved over the last few months,” Dreyfus told PokerNews. “The second reason is we as a company are not ready to deliver the best live event as we originally envisioned. We want to ensure the production we deliver is going to be great. Right now we’re too small to deliver the best experience.”

Dreyfus also said this was a matter of spending wisely, to make sure the league avoided the pitfalls that led to the early demise of the Epic Poker League.

“In order to be successful, we need to be around in three to five years. For that to happen it’s not about spending more, it is about making the right decisions and growing the league organically as much as we can,” Dreyfus told PokerNews.

But however you spin it, this change is going to get the poker community talking about the GPL’s long-term solvency.

Too much bark and not enough bite

Dreyfus began hyping his Global Poker League when it was still in the conceptual phase, and long before any details had been ironed out. He had a vision, and he did a good job selling that vision to poker players, sight unseen.

The hype, and the mystery, worked to the GPL’s benefit, as the live-streamed draft received quite a bit of attention, and generated a lot of buzz for the league in the poker media and on social media. People were truly excited about the GPL.

The hype was relatively short-lived, and I’d argue that the GPL might be the only (pseudo)sports league that peaked with its draft. The league had done so many good things in the build-up to the launch, and had over-delivered when it came to the professionally designed logos and team names, as well as the way the draft was conducted, that it really ginned up a lot of interest within the poker community. People thought they were going to see something new and entirely different.

But then the matches began.

The six-max and heads-up matches were little more than online poker sessions, and Dreyfus’s decision to hold live GPL matches during the World Series of Poker proved to be a misstep, as the WSOP completely overshadowed the GPL.

I still think it was a good gamble and a good idea that simply failed in execution. Had the GPL been more prepared to host these live matches and marketed properly, I think the WSOP and the GPL would have fed off of one another.

A lot of money has been spent

The lack of marketing for the GPL matches taking place during the WSOP was one of the most alarming things to me. In fact, it felt like there was more marketing for the online matches than the live matches in the Cube. Even when actor Aaron Paul made his debut, it was only announced that day.

Amazingly, Dreyfus intimated to PokerNews the lack of marketing was by design.

“We are at one percent of our potential,” Dreyfus optimistically told PokerNews. But it was the second half of this sentence that is a lot more telling, as Dreyfus went on to say, “because at this point we have not spent a single dollar on marketing.”

First, this statement is somewhat misleading. Dreyfus has paid for columns to drum up interest in the league (July 8 appears to be the last day a GPL article was posted on USA Today Sports). Dreyfus himself has written columns at Huffington Post touting the league and explaining his goals.

Furthermore, GPL ads appear across his network of sites, and GPL employees and players (who get paid when they play) have been actively promoting the league on social media.

Basically, there has been plenty of marketing, even if it’s been through non-traditional channels and done organically.

But more to his point, why hasn’t he been spending money on marketing?

I find it difficult to understand how spending $300,000 on a Cube to play inside benefits the league more than $300,000 in marketing and promotion. (The Cube is a completely unnecessary visual effect at this point, considering the league doesn’t really have a live audience and the cube doesn’t have the same effect on a stream.)

My belief all along is too much money and time were being invested into the product, and not enough money and time were being spent on promoting the league. That’s particularly the case in the market Dreyfus covets the most, casual poker fans and the general public.

A few more examples of missteps

Merchandise

Anecdotally, when the GPL unveiled its team shirts, I reached out to Dreyfus and other GPL employees inquiring about purchasing a shirt of all 12 GPL teams. I was told they weren’t ready yet and they’d get back to me when they were. They never did, and I’m still not sure they’re available for sale.

This raises two questions:

  1. Why debut the shirts if people can’t buy them? Imagine going to an NFL game and being told the home team’s jerseys aren’t for sale)
  2. How many people would have purchased GPL merchandise, and how big of a missed opportunity is this?

It seems like merchandise should have been one of the top priorities for a league with 12 branded franchises before the first match was ever played. Actually, merchandise should have been available during the draft. Imagine the type of impact having dozens of players running around the Rio in GPL shirts during the WSOP could have made.

Even if you make no money on the merchandise, you can at the very least show your investors there is interest in it, and it would help you market in poker rooms across the world.

Tickets to live matches

I’m also dumbstruck that the GPL would host live matches in Las Vegas during the WSOP, and not sell tickets, or try to attract crowds in some other way. From what I gathered from social media posts, people could just show up and watch, sort of like railbirds at a tournament.

Even if you end up giving away tickets with a price tag of $20 for free, you’ve at least planted the seed that people are getting something of value, which:

  1. Might make them more likely to attend a GPL match. What are they doing there that would be worth $20 to see?
  2. Makes it easier to flip the switch and charge for GPL matches down the road.

What’s the goal?

One of the more frustrating aspects of the GPL is the ambiguous way it’s often described by Dreyfus using his trademark neologisms.

Every few months there some cryptic tweet, or releasing of polling data that leaves the poker community wondering which way the league is heading based on the 10 different directions Dreyfus is exploring.

There’s been a certain “seat of your pants” feel to the GPL since it was first announced, and as Season 1 winds down, the league still feels far too malleable.

Final thoughts

I’m not sure what Dreyfus and the GPL have in store going forward, or if they can turn the GPL around and recapture the interest of poker enthusiasts.

But thus far, the league has only served to confirm the suspicions of the more skeptical members of the poker community.

The USA Today coverage has dried up, attempts to sell merchandise have been delayed, and now the playoffs and finals are being moved to a smaller, more inconspicuous venue.

When it comes to establishing the league in Season 1, it certainly feels like Dreyfus got dealt a decent hand but decided to try to “shoot the moon” and failed to take the last trick.

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