One of the most-unique characteristics of the poker boom (2003-2006) was the large number of sponsored players during this era. Internet poker sites sponsored hundreds of professional grinders and celebrities during this time period. It was standard back then for an online poker room to have multiple players on their team.
Even smaller sites got into the act, with some leaning heavily on a single player for their marketing efforts. A perfect example is when the smallish Power Poker signed Ilari Sahamies to a big deal. They banked on Sahamies — who was a big online cash game star at the time — to carry their marketing efforts. Power Poker even bankrolled a high-budget rap video that featured Sahamies.
These days are long gone, though, because fewer poker sites pour serious money into sponsorships. They especially don’t spend big money filming hip-hop videos for players who represent them. What caused the era of mass online poker sponsorships to die? Find out as I cover the 7 main causes, along with more on the specific nature of these deals.
What Does an Online Poker Sponsorship Entail?
Before launching into what caused internet poker sponsorships to fade away, I’d like to discuss how these agreements work. Generally speaking, a sponsorship sees a player compensated to represent a certain poker brand. The player might receive one or more of the following:
- Their live tournament buy-ins are covered.
- A generous rakeback deal ranging from 50% to 100%.
- An actual salary.
The exact details of online poker sponsorships are rarely public information. But they usually fall into one of the categories discussed above. In return, the player is expected to represent the brand in live tournaments (wearing a patch), through online promotions, and/or provide work. The latter can include serving as a customer liaison or advising the software development team.
The most lucrative period for sponsorships was during the boom years. Many players received a salary and were freerolled into all the live events they played. These days are long gone, though, because poker sites mostly offer rakeback deals, a small salary, or covering live tournament buy-ins.
What Caused Online Poker Sponsorships to Become Nearly Extinct?
The disappearance of poker sponsorship deals can’t be attributed to just one factor. Instead, a combination of events made these arrangements become less common. Of course, some of the following occurrences had a much bigger impact than others (e.g. Black Friday). But each of these seven reasons played a role in thinning out sponsorships.
1 – Black Friday Happened
The poker boom was an amazing time that saw poker sites earn ridiculous profits. While the boom technically ended in 2006, the industry’s rapid growth allowed it to continue spending big well into the late 2000s. But Black Friday (April 15, 2011) essentially ended this period of poker bliss. The Southern District of New York Attorney’s Office indicted owners of the top internet poker rooms. They were charged with bank fraud and money laundering for their efforts to bypass the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA).
Other reverberation were felt from these sites leaving the US market, including the lack of major advertisers for poker TV shows. Sponsored pros received the majority of their visibility through programs like High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark, and Late Night Poker. Each of these shows would eventually go off air, along with the attention they brought to sponsored players.
Everything resulting from Black Friday led to the online poker industry as a whole taking a financial downturn. Sites became much more conscious of where they put their money after this. It no longer seemed like a great idea to throw millions of dollars towards getting pros to wear a simple patch.
2 – The Full Tilt Poker Sponsorship Model Was Exposed
PokerStars, Full Tilt, and UB Poker relied on team pros for their marketing campaigns more than any other sites. Out of these three, Full Tilt Poker stood out the most. FTP featured a massive stable of sponsored players that numbered in the hundreds at its height. It was common to see dozens of pros wearing a Full Tilt shirt in any major tournament before Black Friday.
Full Tilt’s over-expenditures were uncovered after Black Friday. Players found that the site was spending ridiculous sums on sponsorships, loans to pro players, and enormous executive salaries. What’s worse is that FTP dipped into player funds to cover these lavish expenses. They were unable to repay around $350 million in player deposits after the events of Black Friday.
No site ever matched the large number of sponsorships that Full Tilt gave out. PokerStars came the closest, but even they didn’t have nearly the same number of players on their roster. Of course, this is a good thing when considering that PokerStars came out of Black Friday solvent, while Full Tilt eventually went under and was later bought by Stars.
3 – Poker Gained Enough Global Recognition
Attitudes towards gambling have changed greatly over the past few decades. But prior to the mid-2000s, poker and other forms of gambling were seen as seedy affairs. Much of the mainstream population still thought of poker as a game played by cigar-toting degenerates prior to the 2000s. But the poker boom helped change this perception by showing that all types of people enjoy the game.
We can certainly think sponsorships for helping alter the negative perception surrounding poker. But the game has achieved such great global recognition that sponsorships are hardly needed these days. Now, sites focus their budgets on different types of marketing, whether it be big promotions or running a commercial aimed at mainstream players. Sites don’t, however, feel the need to blow money on sponsoring a big-time player. This is unnecessary and it’s largely an outdated concept.
4 – The Value of Online Poker Sponsorships Was Never Properly Evaluated
Internet poker sponsorships aren’t like a Facebook ad campaign, where you can use tangible numbers to justify the expense. I’d argue that sites never got a good read on how effective a sponsorship was years ago. Instead, online poker rooms saw their competitors signing players left and right, so they followed suit.
It’s difficult to determine the return on investment (ROI) on a successful tournament pro representing your site. But unless this player is able to draw attention outside of the game, then they’re not worth freerolling into every tournament and paying a six-figure salary. Poker sites didn’t really see this when money was flowing in from all angles. But it became clearer that sponsorships were largely a waste of money when the industry’s revenue began tightening.
5 – Being Good at Poker Is No Longer Enough
Continuing off the last point, being a really good poker player was usually enough to get a deal. You could win a WSOP bracelet and another big tournament in the World Poker Tour (WPT)or European Poker Tour (EPT) to land a sponsorship. The lucrative nature of the industry convinced sites that they needed to sign as many big tournament champions as possible.
This is a big reason why sponsorship deals are rarer these days. Poker sites no longer sign players just because they’ve won a tournament or two. The new age of sponsorships require players to bring more value than just their on-table results. This value can come through TV appearances, massive respect within the community, and/or a large Twitch following. One can’t, however, win a $1,500 WSOP no-limit hold’em tournament and the WPT Borgata Main Event, then expect a deal immediately afterward.
6 – A New Breed of Online Poker Player Was Born
The days of fish quickly signing up to donate their money online after watching dynamic personalities on poker TV shows are long gone. Today’s poker player is more sophisticated thanks to the widespread availability of quality poker strategy. The average player has a strong grasp of fundamentals like table position, bet sizing, and odds.
The same types of grinders don’t get overly enthusiastic about seeing a sponsored pro wearing a cowboy hat on TV like in past years. Modern players are more interested in watching televised poker in order to see how pros play hands, pick up some tips, and be entertained in the process. The poker world has become more authentic. Loudmouthed players with cool nicknames aren’t considered good representatives for internet poker sites anymore.
7 – Poker Sites Realized Sponsorship Money Could Be Put to Better Use
One more major reason behind poker sponsorships dying is that sites now realize this money can be better usedin other areas. Players don’t want to know that their favorite poker room is spending half their marketing budget on a sponsored player. Instead, they’d rather see this extra cash go towards rakeback, upgraded software, and promotions.
Any attempt to the revert to the old sponsorship model at the expense of more important areas would draw massive backlash from customers. I mentioned earlier that modern sponsorship deals are sometimes based on players who can provide help in other areas.
For example, a poker room may sponsor a player who has lots of respect with the community. They can lean on this player to gather helpful suggestions and feed them back to management. The end result is that the site can improve their product, thanks to the pro who has insight into the average player.
Do Online Poker Sponsorships Still Bring Value to Online Poker Rooms?
Much of what I’ve covered so far paints poker sponsorship deals in a negative light. But do sites still gain value by offering these deals? The answer is yes in certain cases. I mentioned multiple times that sponsorships these days revolve around players who have appeal in multiple areas. A middle-aged man who’s simply good at poker and doesn’t stand out in any other way has little chance of getting sponsored. While they may have respect among other tournament pros, they don’t interest many casual players.
The pro athlete brings their fan base into the game. The model can combine their looks with an affinity for poker to draw attention. Popular Twitch streamers are also having success in the sponsorship department. Somebody with 50,000+ Twitch followers can already command an audience for a poker room.
Successful poker pros who also appear on TV are highly valuable as well. Liv Boeree, who’s sponsored by PokerStars, has appeared on shows such as Discovery Channels Mind Control Freaks and ITV’s Golden Balls. Daniel Negreanu is another example, because he’s appeared in movies like X-Men: Wolverine Origins and The Grand. Additionally, Negreanu is very active on Twitter and has done a number of interviews with news publications.
Black Friday effectively opened sites’ eyes to the low ROI of mass sponsorships. Poker rooms no longer have the massive budgets they did before, which has forced them to tighten the reins on these deals. Even if money was still flowing into internet poker like before, it’s questionable whether sites would still see the value in sponsoring a bunch of players. The game already has enough global recognition and it no longer needs an image change.
The players that sites do sign today have appeal in multiple ways. First and foremost, they need to either be good at poker or a celebrity who enjoys the game. Secondly, they need to appeal to the masses in some way. Popular Twitch streamers, celebrities, pro athletes, models, and those ingrained in the poker community all qualify.
Online poker seems to have struck a nice balance between signing players who bring them value while not spending ridiculous amounts on sponsorships. Instead, online poker rooms now realize that it’s wise to spendon what players really want, from more promotions to excellent software.