Status on Online Poker in the U.S.

online poker USAThe big question these days is where is poker in the U.S. headed? Two recent reports, one in the Wall Street Journal Technology section and the other in the Digital Biz section of CNN Online, analyzed and wondered about the effects of Black Friday on online poker, the player pool and TV ratings.

More than 10 million Americans played online prior to April15, 2011, when the U.S. Federal Government raided Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker, creating an online poker room environment that would soon be devoid of American players. The effect has been seen not only with online play but also to a degree on TV as the popularity of poker shows has declined. The big question many analysts are asking is “what’s next in the world of televised and online poker?”

Healthy WSOP

The World Series of Poker (WSOP), which was recently held at the Rio All Suite Hotel and Casino on the Strip in Las Vegas, did not see a decline in player attendance. A total of 6,865 players competed in the Main Event, paying $10,000 each, which was about equivalent to last year’s pool. Also, an average of around 400,000 viewers watched the WSOP live events on ESPN and ESPN2 recently. ESPN will start airing taped segments from the entire WSOP tonight and the Final Table of the Main Event will be aired live later in the year when the nine finalists reconvene to duke it out for the main title and gold bracelet.

As far as the WSOP is concerned, there still seems to be a healthy interest in the game. But the WSOP is this biggest game of all poker games by which all players match their skill and talent. The paydays are huge with the winner of the Main Event taking home around $9 million.

But there will be something missing tonight and from the rest of the WSOP shows on ESPN. A few things actually won’t be there—mainly two of the biggest sponsors—Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars. It’s hard to advertise at the biggest poker event in the world when you’re under indictment for breaking U.S. laws related to online gambling. The two online poker sites have been major sponsors for years.

Although there seemed to be a lot of action at the WSOP, Dave Behr, a poker industry executive and analyst, noted that “The atmosphere was definitely deflated” Behr continues by observing, “The continuing fallout from the Full Tilt situation — notably the total silence from Full Tilt Poker as to when U.S. players might expect to receive their money — put a damper on the whole Series. Every week that went by, the FTP situation seemed to get worse and that in turn siphoned some of the pageantry out of the World Series of Poker.”

U.S. Market May Open Up

The news that the U.S. online market may open up has created some excitement. But the news that it could take years for it to do so has tempered that excitement. Even a bill that is ultra friendly to online poker, such as the one sponsored by Republican Congressman Joe Barton from Texas, will take time to wend its way through the House and Senate and the various committees.

And although eventually there will be online poker in the U.S., those rooms that are located in other countries will be kept out at least for the first two years. With that news various providers of poker services and software have been trying to make connections and sign contracts with land-based poker rooms in the U.S. who will be in a position to legally offer services.

Recently, it’s been reported that 888 Poker, which is in the U.K., and Caesars Entertainment Group, the largest land-based casino group in the world, have been involved in a series of talks. Also, in June of this year Playtech, which is based in the British Virgin Islands, inked a deal with Scientific Games in the U.S.. Together the two companies created Sciplay with the idea that Playtech and Scientific Games would supply the California Online Poker Association (COPA) with online poker technology for fun games. That contract put Playtech one step away from being the provider for full out, money-based online poker in California, where a majority of the online poker players live and play.

Whatever the future of online poker in America may be, it’s clear that those who think and act the quickest will find themselves in place to reap the benefits.

TV Ratings Down

Along with the online predicaments that poker has faced is the fact that the TV market has shown a marked decrease in viewership. In fact, it’s simply a matter of time before most of the six or so shows simply fold. These shows have aired on various networks, including ESPN, News Corp’s Fox Broadcasting and Fox Sports Net and Comcast Corp.’s NBC. Many of these same networks have enjoyed millions upon millions of dollars of advertising revue from the major online poker sites.

Now all of that advertising is gone and most of the shows have been cancelled or will probably be cancelled by next year. Brian Balsbaugh, founder of Poker Royalty, and agent representing poker players in sponsorship contracts, believes that of the shows out there only the WSOP and World Poker Tour will be left at the table. He may be correct about the former but on the latter, Fox, which is the network that carries World Poker Tour, is on record as saying it does not plan to broadcast any more poker shows.

Shows that look to fall under the axe include Poker After Dark (NBC), which is sponsored by the deeply troubled Full Tilt, The PokerStars.net Big Game (Fox), which has been cancelled and North American Poker Tour (ESPN), which has also been terminated. The World Poker Tour, which has not been cancelled but may be if Fox does get out of the game, may stay if it can find some action from another network.

The Future

Although overall, the WSOP managed to be a success, there was pallor that analyst Behr sees as being foreboding. “My prediction,” says Behr, “is that the steep drop everyone feared this year will become a reality in 2012.” He may be right as the convenience of online play continues to elude Americans, which may diminish interest.

 

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