The latest rumor floating around the poker world is that Viktor “Isildur1” Blom and Gus Hansen are no longer pros with Full Tilt. This move appears to be part of the company’s rebranding, but is also a continuing trend that’s been happening in the poker industry.
In the past, certain players could be guaranteed sponsorships based on past performance or star power. That is no longer the case and some pros are finding their options limited in the poker sponsorship arena.
What Have You Done for Me Lately?
One noticeable trend in the last couple of years has been the culling of what we’ll call “non-performing” pros. By these, we mean pros that have had significant scores in the past but haven’t achieved the same type of success in recent years.
Greg Raymer and Humberto Brenes are two pros that easily qualify for this category. Brenes rose to fame due to his antics on ESPN television in the early years of the poker boom. Several deep runs kept him at the forefront of the public eye and made him one of the most popular celebrity players on the circuit.
However, in the last few years his performances have been lackluster at best. He has plenty of money finishes, but he hasn’t had a six figure score since 2011. Even his ten cashes at the 2014 WSOP only produced one score over $10,000.
Greg Raymer won the 2004 WSOP Main Event and was a force in the poker world for several years. He also served as a major advocate for the game. From mid 2009 to early 2011, Raymer didn’t have any significant performances of note. While this may or may not have played a part in the contract PokerStars offered him in 2011, one has to believe that better performances would have made him more valuable as a pro.
In the case of Blom and Hansen, one has to assume that their departure is tied to performance. Hansen has hit $20 million in lifetime losses on the site and Blom is down over $3 million this year. In the case of Blom, he just has never met his full potential and his skipping the 2014 WSOP didn’t help his case any.
American Market Too Small
Another reason for the lack of available sponsorships is the lack of opportunity currently available in America. While three states offer online poker, the market is too small to support large stables of online pros like in the past.
For the sites not operating in the United States, it makes little sense to sign American players when they can ink players with international appeal. Even the American sites that have signed pros have been unable to retain them.
Ultimate Poker and 888Poker both signed pros and have had to cut many due to budget constraints. JC Tran was 888’s only pro player and they have agreed to part ways. The culling of pros over at Ultimate Gaming has been the subject of articles in recent months with the obvious reasons being sliding revenues and the closure of Ultimate Gaming NJ.
When the American market begins to expand, you can expect American pros to receive opportunities. However, they will not be the same as contracts we have seen in the past.
WSOP.com Setting the Bar for New Generation of Sponsorships
Greg Merson became WSOP.com‘s first sponsored pro back in September and his deal is different than many sponsorship deals. First, the WSOP isn’t backing him in tournaments and forcing him to be their pitchman.
Instead, Merson will have a deal with incentives based on his play, his recruitment of players, and helping to improve the site. Simply, Merson has become a high-profile prop player. For those unfamiliar with the term, a prop player is one who is hired by the casino to play in games and keep them going.
Often, the prop plays with their own money but receive an hourly rate from the casino. Online props in the past have received higher rakeback or even full rakeback for propping games.
Unlike other deals where the pro sitting down at the table was a “treat” or a “special event,” Merson is to be a regular presence on the site and will help to promote the game in the legal U.S. market.
This type of deal is one that could be easily mirrored by other sites in the future and one that could provide the greatest advantage. It provides greater exposure for the product while keeping costs down. Pros benefit from keeping their name in the public limelight and consistently improving their game. It may not be the same as having a pseudo-backer as in the past, but it may be what’s best for the fledgling U.S. online poker market.