For skilled poker players making money during the poker boom was as easy as logging into an online poker site or walking into a cardroom. Cash game players were raking in massive pots and tournament players were seeing more and more dead money enter events. More importantly was the chance for tournament players to get their faces seen on TV and potentially earn themselves a sponsorship deal. This “added value” turned a lot of cash-game players into tournament players despite the easy money they were making at cash tables, but to quote Bob Dylan, “the times are a-changin.”
If you think you’re just waiting out a poker sponsorship this article is for you.
The days of poker’s cable TV supremacy are a thing of the past (and as much as people talk about it, they aren’t coming back), and the Wild West days of online poker rooms “just winging it” is clearly behind us, so poker players need to take HG Wells advice and, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”
The Rise of Sponsorships
Sponsorship deals changed poker (and the lack of sponsorship deals in the modern game has changed it once again); before sponsorships deals the game never offered anything remotely close to stable income, so even though the real money was still in cash games, players realized there was a potential windfall available if they were able to get their faces on TV or win a major tournament.
What happened was: the availability of sponsorship deals made tournaments far more lucrative than their intrinsic value, especially when online poker sites started handing them out to every player with a WSOP final table on their resume.
At first this was seen as a win-win situation; players who were able to “prove” their skill, or players with outlandish personalities, were rewarded, and poker sites received some great advertising considering poker was on some channel or another nearly 24/7 during this time period. But this didn’t last, and while some people point to UIGEA and Black Friday, others, like myself, simply think the sponsorship model was flawed to begin with.
Won’t Sponsorships Come Back When Online Poker Is Legalized in the US?
Despite the symbiotic relationship it is now widely felt that the players were clearly getting the better of the deal –look no further than the need for staking, and the drastic lowering of tournament buy-ins, since sponsorships started to become scarcer. It’s quite obvious to anyone in the industry that most tournament players can’t survive on their own, the expenses, the rake, and everything else is simply too high to overcome.
Now that the cat is out of the bag it’s highly unlikely online poker rooms will hand out sponsorship deals so haphazardly and with little vetting. And deals will start to be skewed more toward poker sites and not the players.
Obviously, if you are one of the biggest names in the game –players like Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Sam Trickett, and Tom Dwan– you’ll probably still find a site that will fly you around the world and pay for your tournament buy-ins. But if you are a player like Will Failla, Dan Smith, or Tom Marchese, (great players with great results) chances are you’re probably going to have to play on your own dime, or if you are offered a sponsorship it will be more along the lines of an affiliate deal/staking contract.
The reason I feel this way is two-fold:
- #1 — Poker sites are going to get more bang for their buck elsewhere.
Whether it’s through TV or online advertising or by cheaply patching up satellite winners, online poker sites can find quite a few ways to spend $100k over the course of a year that will show a better return than patching up the latest double bracelet winner.
Furthermore, the average, winning, online player isn’t all that different from a top-tier pro, and if you can patch up 100 players with a slightly lower chance of making a final table for absolute peanuts, this is a far better model than patching up one player for 10x the money.
- #2 — Poker sites now have the leverage over the players.
They know that most tournament players need the sponsorship far more than the site needs that specific player to rep their brand. After all, if you don’t take the deal there are likely 100 other players with similar results and name recognition that will.
Unlike during the poker boom, there isn’t a group of say 100 players who are on another level. What we have now are about a dozen players with incredible name recognition, and then a group of about 100 players who are just slightly better than their peers, and then a group of 500-1000 players who are capable of winning any tournament they enter, even if they are only slight winners, or even slightly –EV players. But because of variance it’s hard to differentiate between the 100 better players and the 1,000 other players.
So what needs to happen? Let’s go back to my HG Wells quote from the beginning of this column, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative,” and take a look at how poker players can adapt to life without sponsorships.
New players coming into the game need to understand that tournament poker will never be the money-maker, or king-maker, that it was during the original poker boom –even if there is another poker boom, or mini-boom as the US legalizes online poker, the skill gap is simply too narrow at this point.
Also, poker sites aren’t going to shell out free entries and comp the buy-ins for any player with a major tournament win on their resume just so that player will wear their hat or a patch. They can get the same bang for their buck by patching up their satellite winners and then spending the money they would have used on a sponsored player to run some TV ads.
From here on out, sponsorships will be rarer, and when they are given they will not be as tilted in the player’s favor. Poker players need to understand that the money will once again be in cash games. If you think you can make it as a live tournament pro, or are relying on a sponsorship to be thrown your way I have the distinct feeling you will “perish.” Players who diversify and play tournaments and cash, online and live, will be the ones who adapt and survive.
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