Online poker sponsorships have evolved over the course of the past decade. The first sites to sponsor poker players set a trend that grew to unbelievable heights during the poker boom, while Black Friday nipped that practice and made sponsorship opportunities much fewer and further between.
A look at the main Team PokerStars page shows a vast array of players. There are names like Daniel Negreanu and Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier, who seem to have been on the team forever, as well as Chris Moneymaker who made sponsorships a trend in the first place. There are players still there from the poker boom like Barry Greenstein and Victor Ramdin, as well as new faces like Jason Somerville, Jaime Staples, and Kevin Martin.
Win a Tournament, Get a Sponsorship
When online poker was at the height of its popularity and advertising money was flowing like water, sponsorships were abundant. Full Tilt had so many “Red Pros” that many often joked about the lack of qualifications necessary to obtain a FTP deal.
One-time sponsorships were very common as well. When players made televised final tables at the World Series of Poker or other events like the World Poker Tour, representatives were on site from the major online poker sites to wheel and deal to pin a patch on key players. And experienced players knew how to negotiate lucrative deals. For those who didn’t, there were sometimes agents available to help with the deal-making for a cut of the paid fee.
PokerStars was somewhat more selective with its sponsorships, but they nabbed most winners of major tournaments to don the PokerStars patch each year. Longtime PokerStars Vice President of Corporate Communications, Eric Hollreiser, reflected on that time, remembering the battle between the sites to sponsor players on poker television shows as “an arms race for sponsored pros.” He recalled, “This was mostly between PokerStars and Full Tilt as each company sought to land the next big player or to get patches on players at the final table of the WSOP Main Event.”
Dramatic Industry Changes
Black Friday did the most damage to the global online poker market, as the United States players were locked out of the bigger sites like PokerStars, and Full Tilt came apart at the seams, taking millions of poker economy dollars with it. Players who had money on Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker were also out of luck, and their money was out of commission.
Hollreiser pointed out that other changes led to the dramatic change in the market as well, like the “steep decline in young men watching television.: “Players moved away from their desktop computers where they previously multi-tabled, while new players wanted more casual action on their mobile phones. Fans lacked poker programming on television and had to resort to YouTube videos, archived programs on Poker Central’s website, and Twitch streams to watch the game. In place of patches on pros at the weekly televised poker tournament, the industry leaders like PokerStars had to shift their marketing dollars to newer and bolder campaigns. Over the past three years. PokerStars’ marketing strategy has shifted to using celebrities in our major advertising campaigns to attract new audiences to poker, which is why you’ve seen Rafa Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Neymar Jr in our ads.”
Switching and Twitching It Up
The opportunities for players to obtain sponsorships seem devastatingly low due to the current state of the industry, but spots are available. The key is making oneself an essential part of the game, someone offering a portal to new players and audiences, a person who stands out from the rest.
Jason Somerville is the epitome of that player, having worked diligently over a long period of time to attract a loyal audience via Twitch due to his entertaining and welcoming personality. In spite of his home being located in the United States, PokerStars decided he needed to be on its team and signed him to a Team PokerStars Pro deal.
“Twitch is an exciting new communications channel, and Somerville has really blazed a new trail on the new medium,” Hollreiser mentioned. “We’ll continue to test the channel with Jason and guys like Kevin Martin and Jaime Staples who are willing to put in the hours needed to build a following. It may one day prove to be as important as TV in reaching new audiences and engaging with players, but for now it is on a much smaller scale.”
So, if Twitch is down more than a few notches on the notoriety scale from sports celebrities and other big names, how is a player supposed to aspire to and work toward Team Pro status?
Hollreiser explained: “There is still very much a role for sponsored pros in the industry to serve as ambassadors for the brand and for the game. Today, sponsored pros need more than a collection of World Series bracelets to be effective: they must be dynamic, well-spoken ambassadors who are active in social media and who can authentically engage with diverse audiences of hardcore poker fans, recreational players and newbies.”
He also noted, though, that there will be fewer members of Team Pro going forward, and the PokerStars ambassadors who do maintain sponsorships will be doing so with more activities targeted to specific players, whether online, at live events, or through various forms of social media.