Reports that PokerStars was pulling marketing efforts away from its Team SportStar players hit the poker community like a whipping wind. It was already common knowledge that 2016 saw a significant decline in poker revenue for PokerStars, but the company has also put a lot of time and attention to promoting its newest and most popular athletic pros – Neymar Jr. and Cristiano Ronaldo.
On top of that, poker fans have had a rough few years. From Black Friday in the United States to reduced player pools in countries like France and Italy, and from dashed hopes for expanded US poker to the news that Australia is on the verge of outlawing the internet games as well, poker seems to be shrinking everywhere. So hearing of the PokerStars move was hard for a continuously discouraged community.
The reality of that news is not as harsh as it seems. Nevertheless, the state of the game and its future rightly prompts a fair amount of worry.
Decreasing the Poker Focus
The 2016 full-year results from Amaya, PokerStars’ parent company, weren’t all too encouraging. While PokerStars remains the largest online poker room in the world by a large margin, the financials showed online poker revenue down 4.6% from 2015, which was on top of a 5.1% decline from the previous year. It was growth in other verticals like the online casino that put the company on top for 2016.
Amaya Q4 and FY – https://t.co/4EN9mV6vZb – poker rev down ~5%, casino+sports as % of group revenue grows from 12.7% to 22.8% YoY— Nick Jones (@pokerprojones) March 22, 2017
Poker now comprises only 70% of Amaya’s revenue, down 8% from the previous year. However, the overall number of players has increased by several million, which shows that the shift of company focus to recreational poker versus professional players is starting to bring more players to the virtual tables. And while that doesn’t make up for the lost revenue from markets that have nationalized and removed themselves from the dot-com market, it does validate the company’s decision to put more marketing efforts toward the casino and sports betting businesses.
Ending the SportStar Era
PokerStars notified its affiliates in March that all promotional materials using Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar Jr. would need to be removed and replaced by a welcome bonus offer. As of March 31, the two Team PokerStars SportStars banner “will no longer be valid.”
The only other person on Team SportStar was Fatima Moreira de Melo, who has been with PokerStars for many years and become one of its most popular pros. While some worried about her status on the team roster, the April 1 Team PokerStars page showed that she was listed as a Team PokerStars Pro, along with others like Daniel Negreanu and Liv Boeree. The Team SportStar page was gone, however, and there is now no mention of Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar Jr. on the site.
The change is a major one, as personalities like Boris Becker, Orel Hershiser, and Rafael Nadal have been huge parts of PokerStars’ marketing efforts through the years. Even the two latest football stars were involved in prominent social media campaigns that drew hundreds of millions of views and shares.
This does not mean the end of sports legends and celebrities being hired by PokerStars for individual appearances and campaigns. Comedian Kevin Hart was at the PokerStars Championship Bahamas in January, drawing a great amount of attention, and it is highly conceivable that other big names will be at future tournaments, such as the upcoming Monte Carlo events. And big sports names could easily be paid for a singular ad campaign rather than putting them on a constant sponsorship payment program.
Many people have had issues with PokerStars through the years, though any company as large and prominent as PokerStars, as well as one who has had to endure the industry changes of the past decade, is going to face criticism. And a shift in focus away from professional players toward recreational ones is going to draw ire. PokerStars had to know that was going to happen.
However, this industry needs PokerStars. Of course, other sites from the top contenders like Party and 888 to the up-and-comers like Unibet and IDN are an integral part of the industry as well. But PokerStars has not only been a staple in poker but an important reason for the game’s growth.
PokerStars has no plans to give up on poker. But it should still be said that poker players around the world need PokerStars. As countries begin to realize that nationalism is a failed experiment and the dot-com market is more ideal, the game will grow again. I only hope that PokerStars is still around to see that day.