I am not an economist. In fact, my relatively low amount of training in that area makes me hesitant to even write this piece, but I feel compelled all the same, because it seems like a necessary topic to bring up. The World Series of Poker (and its parent company Caesar’s Entertainment) has been and probably always will be the standard barometer for the health of the poker industry. That means that when WSOP numbers are up, the poker community seems to be more healthy, and vice versa when those numbers are down. This year, despite the shutdowns of the largest online poker sites within US Borders, the WSOP still had a very strong turnout. Some analysts were wondering if former US online players were “liquidating” their poker bankrolls and taking one last shot at glory this summer. If that was the case, we’ll see a sharp drop next summer. But all of these factors together have me wondering as a tournament enthusiast: Has the WSOP Brand itself been spread too thin?
Remember, this whole notion of a poker tournament being used to decide who is champion of the world is a very new idea, historically speaking. This Main Event (2011) was only the 42nd running of the tournament, and of course players were dealing hands of poker long before 1970 and the advent of the WSOP. So while the WSOP concept is relatively new, it has grown and expanded rapidly in short order. Consider the fact that the first few World Series had a small handful of events – but the 2011 Edition (including WSOP-E) will award some 64 Bracelets. You heard it correctly – sixty four championship events in a single tournament series. Not only that, but there is a booming global presence of the WSOP brand beyond those 64 events thanks to the WSOP-Circuit. This nationwide tournament circuit offers a full tournament series menu in 16 different casino locations, each one offering in the neighborhood of 20 preliminary events, followed by a Main Event which award a WSOP ring and a seat in the Main Event the following July.
Has rapid expansion actually diluted the brand? This is a common occurrence in other sports and entertainment leagues, such as the NHL or MLB expansion teams that fail to regularly produce competitive teams, while also creating a greater financial strain on the league AND diluting the talent pool even more by adding roster spots that must be filled. These leagues have learned that ill-planned expansion is far worse than no expansion at all, and they actually could take a lesson in well-executed expansion from the WSOP and its swarm of national/global poker events. The comparisons aren’t perfect, but as the WSOP has expanded and added events, they have always done so by taking on additional risk and liability. What if the players don’t come? What if that casino/resort offers sub par service? What if they priced the events poorly, or offered an unpopular variety of games? Those things could all derail a WSOP-hosted event in a hurry, but notice what happens. The WSOP introduces a new event, places it in a visible position, markets it well to the appropriate players, and lets the results speak for themselves. The $25K Heads-Up Event and the $50K Players Championship at this summer’s series are perfect examples of this. They were well-placed in the order of events and well-promoted to those who could afford them, and both events enjoyed great success, crowning very worthy champions. But WSOP-Circuit events are equally well-built. They offer lower buy-in tournaments ($300-$500 Events are very normal at circuit stops), which in turn makes a bonafide WSOP tournament accessible to the everyday player. If tournament directors want to try a different (new) event, they offer it at a lower buy-in. If they want to attract repeat customers, they offer a season-long points race with a championship tournament at year’s end. The WSOP and Caesar’s have really got it figured out when it comes to large-scale poker event management and marketing to the players that are waiting to come through the door.
So back to my original question: Has the WSOP spread itself too thin? In a word – No! If anything, they’ve built a product that might actually serve a niche role for players who used to play online but are no longer able to, because it offers reasonably-priced live tournament play. The brand has expanded responsibly, with the end result being that virtually anywhere that you might live there is a WSOP Circuit stop within a day’s drive of your home. Caesar’s has made poker’s most recognizable branding accessible to YOU! As live play continues to grow in size and scope around the world, the WSOP and its related series of poker events will likely continue to expand and grow to meet the demands of a global poker market. Sounds like a nice future to me. Good Luck at the Tables!!