The World Series of Poker, televised by ESPN, is now running until July 14. The one-week Main Event starts July 5. One thousand players will receive $15K, or far more, in winnings during the Main Event. This doesn’t include the nearly 70 other events happening the whole month of June.
Poker playing has become a phenomenon in this country. It is estimated that there are 23 million regular poker players in the country, which is 10 percent of the adult population. Many players participate in on-line sites for real money. Whether poker is a sport or a game is debated, but the popularity of poker as another form of content and participation is remarkable.
The World Series of Poker began in 1970 with little fanfare. But in 1972 a colorful Texan named "Amarillo Slim” Preston won an upset victory and went on a national media tour. This led to CBS Sports televising the World Series of Poker in 1973. The players smoked cigars, had huge sideburns, and outlandish clothing. Televised poker primarily had a cult following. In 1998 the movie, Rounders, with Matt Damon, popularized the sport.
The poker I grew up with was mainly five- or seven-card draw, or stud poker. It was a game we played when we grew tired of Rummy. But it was soon replaced by Texas Hold'em with a "flop," a "turn" and a "river," dramatically increasing pot size and action.
Then came 2003 and everything changed. ESPN had the rights to televise poker by then, and the victory of Chris Moneymaker (perfect name, I might add) catapulted the tournament to new heights of exposure. Moneymaker won a $2.5 million purse, which sparked tremendous interest. Poker had hit the big time, and millions of young men and women were bringing poker into the house as a social activity.
The next year Greg Raymer won $5 million. The media turned Moneymaker and Raymer into celebrities. This spectacle invited a series of actors and the crossover effect built the game. Players like Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu attracted legions of fans. They had distinctive styles and dress.
By 2006, the World Series of Poker consisted of 45 tournaments. That year more than $100 million was won in prize money. Jamie Gold defeated 8,772 contestants to win a $12 million prize. WSOP topped other sporting events in prize money.
When television employed a "hole card" camera, it enabled viewers to easily follow the action. With increased interest, corporations started putting sponsorship and advertising dollars into the sport. The star players benefited with branding and marketing opportunities. Celebrities, like Ben Affleck and Jerry Buss of Lakers’ fame, were being broadcast playing celebrity poker on NBC. Buss, in particular, was an avid player and clearly a student of the game.
During this time, online poker exploded, albeit not without its stumbles. Indictments of fraud, offshore and domestic, landed many big names in prison. Today, however, through the use of engaging content both television and the Onternet, WSOP and its competitors enjoy a political foothold within Washington D.C., and in three state governments. Gambling, with real money, can be played on WSOP’s portal, legally, in the states of Nevada, New Jersey and now Delaware.
Part of the successes of many companies in the sporting world, is seizing advantages of momentum. In today's world of "social engagement" and "influence marketing" many get lost in the age old adage, "Good things come to those who wait."
Ben Oren, marketing director for WhiteWeb.com, agrees, "We work with several sports brands. I have seen far too many try to force their way into Google's good graces or spend far too much trying to get LeBron's blessing, when really, who could've predicted Chris Moneymaker? And who was betting on Steph Curry two years ago? Sometimes, you just need to let things happen organically, and prepare to execute when they unfold."
The evolution of the World Series of Poker is another example of television, technology and incredible timing, popularizing an American pastime. What once was played in saloons and gaming houses has now spread to become a global phenomenon, online, in casinos, on TV, and in the home.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.