Since its acquisition by Amaya in 2014:
- PokerStars was rebranded as Amaya and later the Stars Group, adding a sportsbook and online casino along the way.
- The company mothballed its live poker brands including the wildly successful European Poker Tour only to bring them back a year later.
- PokerStars has experimented with new games and formats and brought on celebrity ambassadors.
- The execution of changes to its reward program caused online poker grinders who previously heaped praise on PokerStars to castigate the company.
With all the changes and tumult, it’s not surprising that the company has lacked anything in the way of a cohesive marketing message.
The lack of a strong message and the helter-skelter changes let critics drive the narrative, and paint the changes as the company discarding its loyal customers and moving away from poker as its core business.
Most of the time it was playing defense.
But that appears to be changing. A marketing strategy is emerging. One that lines up and makes sense with what the company is doing online and at live tournaments.
The message is: Make poker fun and accessible to everyone but stay true to its poker roots.
One area that has undergone a major change in the last couple weeks is Team PokerStars Pro.
Vanessa Selbst, Jason Mercier, and Felipe Ramos have all left Team Pro in 2018.
Selbst and Mercier, two of the most successful poker players of the last decade, stated they are moving on to focus on other things. For Selbst, a career as a hedge fund manager. For Mercier, spending time with his family.
Those may be the main reasons the two are leaving, but they might not be the only reasons.
The departure letter written by Felipe Ramos might shed a little more light on the motives for not renewing.
According to Ramos, when he went to renegotiate a new contract, Ramos felt PokerStars wasn’t paying him what he was worth, a sign of a steep pay cut.
Terms weren’t discussed by Selbst or Mercier, so this is speculation on my part, but considering both have reduced their playing schedules, one has to wonder if part of their decision had to do with PokerStars offering them less money this time around?
With their contracts up, PokerStars would have run a cost analysis for each member of its stable of sponsored pros, which has been shrinking over the years.
Not only are Selbst and Mercier playing less poker, and plan to reduce their schedules going forward, but it’s doubtful either of these US-based players was radically increasing the site’s reach.
Most of their social media following overlaps with other Team Pros like Daniel Negreanu and Liv Boeree, and neither is a streamer or involved in other high-profile poker-related projects. They both added value, but likely not as much as they did pre-Black Friday when poker was booming.
That might help explain PokerStars willingness to spend a lot of money signing athletes and celebrities like Christiano Ronaldo, Neymar, Kevin Hart, and Usain Bolt. Despite their huge followings, using non-poker celebrities is far from targeted marketing, but it does avoid the redundancy of signing poker pros with similar fans. It’s an expensive way to expand your reach, but it’s probably superior to redundant marketing.
The DNA of a PokerStars Pro
That doesn’t mean PokerStars isn’t bringing in new poker talent, just that when it does it’s usually on the streaming front.
Jamie Staples (added in 2015), Kevin Martin (a 2016 addition), and Jeff Gross (a 2017 addition) shored up an already formidable team of streamers comprising Randy Lew, Jason Somerville, Elky, and Lex Veldhuis.
Another common thread among PokerStars core talent is a drive to build their own brand. Whether it’s streaming, or through television or other projects, PokerStars isn’t simply signing poker talent, they’re signing and promoting personalities.
- Negreanu is omnipresent.
- Boeree is a TV veteran, and currently hosts the “MindGamers” show on Red Bull TV.
- Fatima Moreira de Melo is a former Olympian.
Some might say that people used to dream about becoming a sponsored player at PokerStars and that’s no longer an attainable goal. It’s certainly harder in the current poker environment, but it’s still possible. Just like the top universities look at an applicant’s full body of work, and not just their grades. If you want to become a part of Team PokerStars, being a great poker player is only part of the equation.
PokerStars grander vision starting to come to light
Looking past its sponsored players, PokerStars also seems to be trying to shore up its live events and is spending quite a bit of money to reassert its dominance in that area.
In addition to its usual competitors – the WPT and WSOP – PokerStars has a new challenger in partypoker. And unlike the WPT and WSOP, partypoker is a challenger whose core business, online poker, is a direct competitor of PokerStars. As such, PokerStars is probably mad it let partypoker get a toe through the door, never mind let it become a serious challenger.
To combat this PokerStars has done a number of things.
In December it brought back the EPT and other live tournament brands it scrapped a year prior.
At the same time, it announced the PSPC (which will likely cost PokerStars about $12 million when all is said and done) and that it will be awarding over 300 Platinum Passes to the tournament, some for merit and some randomly.
PokerStars also unveiled a new featured table set at the PCA.
And announced they would be giving away prizes valued at up to $500 for all players making the final table of any regular PCA event.
PokerStars did a lot of experimentation in recent years and came up with some good ideas and some not so good ideas. That led to a lot of mixed messages and a lack of an organized strategy.
Based on its recent announcements it appears PokerStars has finally settled on a strategy going forward.
So far so good.