PokerStars has always used sponsored players in their marketing efforts. They have plenty of famous pros on their team, including Daniel Negreanu, Chris Moneymaker, Barry Greenstein, and Liv Boeree. PokerStars has also used unique approaches to their sponsorships. Case in point: they’ve signed world-famous athletes to the team, such as Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Boris Becker, and Neymar Jr.
But last year, they got rid of their entire Team Sports Stars roster. PokerStars didn’t even make a public announcement either, with the news coming through emails sent to affiliates. Why did Stars dump the model of having famous athletes represent their brand? I’m going to answer this by going through the history of PokerStars signing athletes, why they went this route in the first place, and what made them disband Team Sports Stars.
When Did PokerStars Begin Signing Famous Athletes?
PokerStars came up with the concept of sponsoring professional athletes on the heels of the poker boom in 2007. They made an interesting move by signing six-time Grand Slam champ Boris Becker this year. Becker was always a popular player on the tennis circuit, thanks to his colorful personality and big fanbase. The German tennis legend had also been playing poker up to this point and cashed in some tournaments.
But this was still a time when poker sites were focused on signing real pros, regardless of how little appeal they had beyond the felt. In any case, the Becker signing was a good idea by PokerStars that started their own trend. They made more waves by signing Dutch Field hockey star and Olympic gold medalist Fatima Moreira de Melo in the late 2000s.
This was another solid decision on Stars’ part, because Moreira de Melo checked off multiple points on what constitutes a good sponsorship. She’s attractive, had a great athletic career, and is a good poker player. All of these qualities have made her a good addition to Team PokerStars, which she still represents today.
PokerStars Ramped Up Their Athlete Signings in the Mid-2010s
Many of the athletes that PokerStars signed throughout the first several years of their sports stars campaign merely had regional fame. The rest, like Becker, were retired from their respective sports. This all changed in 2012, though, when PokerStars made their biggest signing yet with tennis star Rafael Nadal. This sponsorship stood out because Nadal was still at the height of his career. Nadal was coming off another French Open victory at the time he joined PokerStars. He also won 11 overall Grand Slams up to this point (17 today).
Ronaldo, who retired from soccer in 2011 due to injuries and hypothyroidism, scored 15 goals for Brazil in World Cup play. He found the net 62 times and 98 international matches. That said, the three-time FIFA Player of the Year and two-time World Cup champ added more star power to PokerStars.
In contrast to Nadal, Ronaldo was actually a poker player too. He was frequently seen in cardrooms around Brazil and actively participated in PokerStars promotions after being signed. 2015 was the height of Team Sports Stars, as the site made two major signings: Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar Jr.
Aside from being great athletes, Neymar and Ronaldo brought additional value to PokerStars in the form of huge social media followings. Both footballers have Twitter audiences that ranged in the tens of millions. This was an added bonus on top of the two players’ worldwide recognition.
Why Did PokerStars Suddenly Begin Spending Big on Athletes?
PokerStars had already proven that they were heavily into signing athletes before the mid-2010s. But they really increased these efforts by bringing in Nadal, the two Ronaldos, and Neymar.
Considering that Nadal’s deal was rumored to be worth around $15 million, they likely spent around the same amounts on signing the other major athletes. But what made them decide to spend more than ever on the Team Sports Stars concept? Below you can see a few different reasons why.
Earlier I mentioned how poker has had to work to overcome its former seedy image. For years, the general public viewed poker as pure gambling and something that only degenerates enjoyed.
The GPL, which is now sponsored by Stars, hasn’t really gained the mainstream appeal that they’d hoped. Sports stars likely have more of an impact in making people feel like poker is closer to a sport. Part of the idea behind signing major athletes is to create the association that poker must be a sport because these highly competitive individuals are playing it.
Appeal to General Audiences
Online poker sites have always realized that recruiting recreational players is crucial to the game’s growth. But PokerStars took this thought to a new level by signing some of the sports world’s most familiar faces.
Those who don’t watch the Olympics may have had no clue who Hellner and Moreira de Melo are. But the vast majority of sports fans are familiar with Neymar, Nadal, and Ronaldo. Famous athletes like these brought instant recognition to PokerStars. It also helped that their poker sponsorship deals made major sports headlines.
Help Poker Regain Prominence
PokerStars and many other sites struggled in the aftermath of Black Friday (April 15, 2011), when the US Department of Justice cracked down on the world’s largest internet poker rooms. The poker boom ended years before this event happened. But the industry was still going strong and capitalizing on the growth experienced during the boom. Black Friday dealt a huge blow to all this progress, though, and forced some sites to exit the US market and eventually close.
PokerStars was the only industry giant that stayed solvent following Black Friday. This left them in the best position to help online poker regain its prominence. Signing some of the world’s most-famous sports players furthered this cause. The general public was able to see people like Neymar and Ronaldo playing poker, which piqued their curiosity.
Why Did PokerStars Do Away with This Approach?
Since its inception in 2001, PokerStars has always been a site in transition. Their former parent company, the Rationale Group, originally focused and marketing and promoting WSOP champions like Chris Moneymaker (2003), Greg Raymer (2004), and Joe Hachem (2005).
But in March 2017, Stars revealed that they would no longer be endorsing Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar, and Ronaldo Nazario. An affiliate letter at the time asked all associated affiliates to remove marketing materials revolving around these players. Why did they choose to do this abruptly and with no public announcement? The following reasons will shed light on the decision.
The Movement to Sportify Poker Largely Died
Sportifying poker seemed like a golden ticket to appealing to the masses several years ago. But these days, you barely hear the term being used. The marketing buzz surrounding these sportifying efforts have died down more recently. PokerStars took notice and stopped their campaign to associate the game with famed athletes.
The sportify poker movement did make some inroads during its run. For example, poker was added to the World Mind Sport Games in 2010. But the idea of poker ever excelling in a traditional sports league has never taken off. The GPL only has niche appeal, while the Epic Poker League (2011) was a complete failure.
Poker Moved in a Different Direction
Any poker fan can agree that it’s cool to see famous athletes sitting down to the poker table. But the game has been moving in a different direction over the last few years. Players are no longer in awe of seeing Cristiano Ronaldo on the felt.
Instead, poker is more authentic today than ever. Serious players want to see respected pros representing major brands. This isn’t to say that PokerStars made a mistake when they sponsored professional athletes. But the current direction of poker doesn’t leave as much value in spending big on sports stars.
Nobody Took These Athletes as Serious Poker Players
Almost every athlete who signed with PokerStars was presented as having a background with the game. The sport studs would also release statements on how they thoroughly enjoyed playing poker.
Here’s an example from Cristiano Ronaldo after he signed with Stars back in 2015:
Ronaldo was sincere in saying that he’s a poker player. But his statement that “poker has always been my game” seems far fetched. Unlike so many other pro athletes signings, I don’t remember much about Ronaldo being spotted at poker tables prior to joining Team Sport Stars. This wasn’t one of those hybrid poker/athlete deals like with Becker, Moreira de Melo, and Ronaldo Nazario, where they actually took poker seriously. Instead, it was purely about Ronaldo’s star power away from the tables.
Nadal was an even more-obvious case of being signed for his name alone. The Spaniard admitted that he didn’t really know much about poker until joining Stars. In fact, the marketing videos that he did for PokerStars centered on him learning the game and trying to become better.
Many Players Would Rather See Money Spent Elsewhere
Poker sites attracting more players helps their entire ecosystem by creating larger tournaments and more full cash tables. Customers can appreciate this to a degree. But they also want their favorite sites having a good mix between the marketing budget and providing other essentials. The latter refers to VIP rewards, promotions, excellent software, good customer support, and other areas where money is well spent.
What players these days don’t want to see, though, is a poker room overspending on huge signings. It’s very likely that Stars had no trouble covering the endorsement salaries of their biggest celebrity athletes. But now that they’re no longer sponsoring these pros, they can put this money towards other areas of the site.
The Stars Group Is Most Focused on All Around Gaming
The Stars Group (TSG) has shifted their focus away from totally relying on PokerStars to rolling out casino and sportsbook products. TSG realizes that the entire online gaming industry is changing. Internet poker is no longer the same lucrative draw that it was a decade ago. This isn’t to say that PokerStars isn’t still highly successful. After all, they control the lion’s share of the internet poker market.
However, casino gaming and sports betting have been on an upward trend for years. It only makes sense for TSG to jump on this trend by focusing more on their casino and sportsbook. They still continue to sponsor poker players. But it’s unlikely that they’ll spend a fortune on signing famous athletes in the future.
What Is PokerStars’ Current Approach to Sponsorships?
PokerStars no longer values athletes who don’t have measurable poker results. If they’re interested in an athlete, the player had better have some poker skills too.
The rest of Team PokerStars is a mixture of longtime pros, online studs, and pros with a large Twitch following. Stars wants players who bring value in more areas besides just being famous or a good poker player. They’re looking for representatives who stand out in multiple areas.
Most of the news and discussions back then were hopeful on what these sports stars could bring to the table. And they did accomplish the goal of bringing more mainstream attention to Stars and poker in general. But this era ended due to numerous reasons, including that poker moved in a different direction, most athletes aren’t serious players, and TSG focuses more on their casino and sportsbook now.
Out of these reasons, poker’s changing direction is the biggest driver behind seeking out more authentic sponsorships, rather than just signing a famous athlete. Nevertheless, sports heroes can still have a positive impact on a poker site. Therefore, it’s worth wondering whether TSG would ever try such a campaign again.
My take is that it’s possible, just not with their poker site. If they were to spend this big on athletes again, I assume that it would be to promote their casino. Seeing Nadal or Neymar spin the slots reels or playing blackjack hands could have just as big of an impact as it did in poker. However, the days of paying a fortune to have athletes representing poker brands are likely gone.