The premise of Carter’s column is pretty simple: professional players who are simply skilled poker practitioners don’t provide a whole lot of value to an online poker site.
“There are benefits to sponsoring players who have made their name in the game – it helps sell the dream of poker, especially that winners are rewarded, and it adds an element of credibility to a poker room where there may have been nervousness. But if the desired outcome of a sponsorship is that more people play on your site, then putting a patch on somebody because they are good at poker is at least difficult to measure the success of, and at worst appeals to players who long ago chose where they will be playing.”
As an acquisition tool, I agree with Carter.
The vast majority of Sponsored Player X’s fans and followers have already decided if Site Y is a place they want to play. Like a partisan voter, followers of Isaac Haxton or Jason Mercier aren’t uninformed or undecided. Their decisions about online poker sites have already been made, and a sponsored pro isn’t going to cause them to reassess their own, first-hand conclusions.
Celebrity endorsers and players with streaming channels tend to reach a more inquisitive audience — people that don’t closely follow the industry.
But there’s also more to a sponsored player than acquisitions.
What an online poker site is trying to achieve
Whenever a site spends marketing dollars it’s trying to accomplish one or more of the following:
- Improve brand credibility
In the early days of online poker, sponsored players were a great way to tick off most or all of these boxes.
Despite its nascency, the industry was in an extreme growth phase, and the dozens upon dozens of online poker sites turned to professional players to help get the word out and try to reach new players.
During the boom, people were discovering poker (not the kitchen table variety) for the first time. A sponsored player getting on TV or being interviewed in a poker magazine was seen as a good way to get your brand out to the masses and maybe help influence what site they signed up at.
In 2018 things are a bit different.
In 2018, people need to be sold on poker, not on the site
Suffice it to say, the market is no longer in a period of hyper-growth.
The industry has consolidated around a few strong brands, which means the sites of 2018 are established brands and there’s less competition. In the same vein, the number of new entries in the market is near zero.
During the boom, would-be players weren’t familiar with any of the operators and had dozens to choose from. At that time, a professional player’s endorsement helped people already looking for an online poker site choose one. In 2018 sites are no longer trying to convince people who’ve already decided to play online poker to choose it over its competitors. Now they have to actively work to find the ever-shrinking demographic of new players and convince them to play.
As such, the usefulness of professional poker players has changed. Skilled players are no longer the acquisition tool they once were, and whether or not they can reactivate or retain players is a subject of debate.
They can still bring credibility to an upstart brand or a company looking to take the next step, but by and large, the players they can reach have already decided if a brand is credible (a place worth playing) based on experience, both first-hand and from following the industry.
Basically, in a post-poker-boom world, there aren’t too many greenhorns who are easily influenced.
The market has already been exhausted
The poker boom was an outlier for many reasons, not least of which is the simple fact that poker was untried by most people. Online poker was a fairly new product, and thanks to poker’s explosion in popularity it provided all of these wannabe players a place to play – remember that live poker rooms weren’t as widespread as they are today.
So what you had was a perfect storm of events. A situation where everyone from teenagers (thanks unregulated markets!) to senior citizens were experiencing “poker” for the first time. Most of these people had experience with kitchen table poker games, but what was on cable TV in 2003, and the way it was presented (as a game of skill and cunning), was a whole different animal.
That’s no longer the case. Anyone over the age of 25 with any inclination to do so has likely played online poker. The only new players are people that were too young to play during the poker boom.
There isn’t an untapped market of 30-, 40-, and 50-somethings like there was during the poker boom.
Unless they were living under a rock from 2003-2011 they’ve been (over)exposed to poker.
To find new players, online poker sites have to expand their reach, which helps explain the celebrity and sports endorsers, and the introduction of new hybrid games.
The professional poker player that is simply really good at poker still has a role to play, but the demand for their services and the salaries they can command have been greatly reduced.
Additionally, sites have come to the conclusion that the money they previously spent on these sponsored players is now better spent elsewhere – celebrities, streamers with massive audiences, or other marketing campaigns.
This is particularly true for online poker operators with well established brands and credibility. These operators no longer need a sponsored pro to steer an aspiring poker player to its site, they need their ambassadors to be more proactive than that, and find new players and convert them into poker players.