The current trajectory and long-term health of tournament poker has become a hot discussion topic as of late.
For several years, poker tours have been trying to boost attendance and reconnect with recreational players, which has led to some sweeping changes. New formats, increasing the number of spots paid, earlier start times, faster-structured events, and reduced buy-ins are all being tested out.
But for the players, the problem has more to do with the customer experience, or lack thereof.
Several critical blogs have been written about the recently concluded EPT Barcelona tournament series and the tour’s lack of personal attention and overall treatment of players.
With PokerStars announcing the popular tour will soon be rebranded and globalized, the critics have been supplied with even more fodder. They anticipate the forthcoming PokerStars Championships and Festivals, that will replace the EPT and other tours, will double down on some of the changes with which they’ve grown frustrated.
It’s an interesting quandary, because in the end, everyone wants the same thing. Everyone benefits when poker is thriving and fun. It’s also important to note that most of the bickering is not over the problems tournament poker faces, but rather the causes of — and solutions t0 — those problems.
The ER vs. routine checkups
There is something to be said for the “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude, but there is also something to be said for preventative care.
Constant vigilance and occasional diagnostic tests are needed to have any chance of spotting underlying issues before they develop into larger problems. But at the same time, you have to be careful not to create a solution in search of a problem.
The recently announced changes to PokerStars European Poker Tour (EPT) is a prime example of a company trying to walk this very fine line, and how the customer’s point of view differs from the company’s.
In my opinion, the differences begin with how success is measured by the various interested parties.
How we measure success
How successful a tournament series is largely depends on the metrics you use to determine success or failure. In the past, I’ve definitely fallen victim to looking at tournament series with too narrow a focus. I would base focus on the things I decided were important as a member of the poker media — usually prize pool or total attendance.
But success can be measured in a number of different ways:
- The number of total entries
- The number of unique players
- The total amount of rake paid
- The total prize-pool
- Overall value
- Profit/loss of hosting the tournament
- Total number of room nights
- Increased traffic and sales on property
- Media buzz and prestige of the event
- Personal experience/treatment
Professional players might focus on value and prize-pool numbers, but personal experience and prestige of the event are also likely to rank with pros. Factors like room nights purchased or increased play in the blackjack pits are meaningless.
Recreational players, — or poker tourists as I prefer to call them — most likely care about all of these things too, but they’re more likely to be focused on the experience as the key metric of a series’ success.
The venue is more interested in the total number of unique players and room nights, as well as increases in retail and food and beverage sales during the event.
The tournament host (not to be confused with the venue, since they’re usually different) has its eye on all of the above. It needs to see that both professional and amateur players in attendance are content, and that they themselves have some type of financial gain (direct or indirect) from hosting the event.
The PCA 2015 vs. 2016
The PokerStars Caribbiean Adventure is a good example of this need for balance in action, and how one group’s success can be another group’s failure.
A lot has been made of the diminished buy-in for the PCA main event — the tournament will be known as the PokerStars Championship Bahamas beginning in 2017 — to the point that its future has been called into question.
On the surface the concern seems warranted. With the buy-in reduced from $10,000 to $5,000, and attendance only increasing 12 percent, the total prize-pool plummeted:
- 2015 PCA main event buy-in = $10,000; attendance = 816; total prize-pool = $7,915,200
- 2016 PCA main event buy-in = $5,000; attendance = 928; total prize-pool = $4,500,800
For professional players this was a major step backward, and will likely mean even fewer attend in the coming years. But for PokerStars, the changes were still beneficial, and likely staved off the need to eliminate the PCA as a future stop (though that’s not to imply it won’t be nixed down the road.)
The reason? The rake remained the same: $10,000+$300 in 2015 vs. $5,000+$300 in 2016. In terms of revenue from the main event, the 2015 PCA main event generated $244,800 in tournament fees, while the 2016 PCA tallied $278,400.
And for the venue it was also likely a boon. Not only did more players attend, but many of them did so with an extra $5,000 they wouldn’t have possessed the year before.
The overarching question is:o How did recreational players feel about the event? And will it entice more recreational players in the coming years?[i15-table tableid=20717][i15-table tableid=19346]
Where a pro and a poker tourist diverge
Earlier in this column I noted that professional players and poker tourists tend to measure a tournament’s success with the same metrics, but likely prioritize the metrics differently. Here’s why this is important.
For a pro, the lesser buy-in doesn’t matter (in fact, it likely reduces ROI, so it’s a negative). Buy-ins are business expenses and shouldn’t have any impact when it comes to what they spend at the venue. But for poker tourists looking to budget a poker getaway (and likely uncaring of an ROI change), the extra $5,000 doesn’t go back into their bankrolls.
It goes toward playing extra tournaments and/or added room nights and other offerings at the resort. Or, perhaps they their spouse, which makes selling the January Bahamian escape that much easier.
With the prize pool down and Stars paying more spots, some pros may start skipping the PCA, as it’s always been an expensive trip to make and its ROI has now been reduced.
On the other hand, a number of amateur players won’t be phased by this. In fact, the PokerStars Championship Bahamas and its $5,000 buy-in suddenly become an affordable (or perhaps more enjoyable) trip for more people. Before, it cost $10,000 and a couple thousand for expenses; now the whole trip can be taken for well under $10,000.
Furthermore, having fewer value-seeking pros on hand will lead to the tournament becoming softer and attracting other pros, and likely those same value-seeking pros that said they wouldn’t go to the tournament again.
However, the main event is just one piece of this puzzle. PokerStars isn’t simply rebranding the European Poker Tour and its other regional tours; it’s reinventing them.
In 2015, the PCA boasted 35 events. In 2016, the number of events skyrocketed to more than 100. More events equals more opportunities to play (at different price-points), more excitement and buzz at the venue, and of course, more money.
There is also a new entertainment quality to the soon-to-be-rebranded PokerStars live events, whether it’s Team RunItUp on-site for live streaming and seminars, or the PokerStars FunZone.
Treated like a number
Of course, more events and more players does lead to other problems — problems that tend to depersonalize the experience, and leave people feeling like a number rather than an important customer.
This is where PokerStars and some of the professional players butt heads.
Basically, having a well-attended tournament can quickly turn into a logistical nightmare. And while that’s good for the venue, it’s not good for the players and not good for the long-term health of the tour. It’s a good problem to have, but it’s a problem nonetheless, and the solutions are going to upset some of your customers.
This is where a lot of difficult decisions need to be made:
- Do you expand the schedule with earlier start times and longer days?
- Do you speed up the structure?
- Do you revert back to smaller events by pricing some players out — this can be done by increasing buy-ins to price out tourists or by increasing rake to price out pros — or by capping entries?
This is the balancing act that PokerStars and other tournament hosts need to figure out. How can they make this work for everyone, themselves, the venue, professional players, and the poker tourists?