Monday, May 12, 2008

What I Would Do If I Owned a Company Called Harrah's/Caesar's and Wanted to Make Cash Off of Poker

So again, to recap my previous take(s) on Harrah's/Caesar's changes this year to the WSOP Main Event final table: boo.

With that out of the way, I definitely agree that changes were necessary, so I'm not coming from a belief that the WSOP is sacrosanct and that no sacred cows shall be touched. Last year I got the chance to kick around at five different WPT/WSOP events, from beginning to end, rubbing elbows with players, reporters, spectators, media, and tournament staff, and there were more than a few face-palm moments, where I could only shake my head at the future prospects of poker here in the US.

Tournament poker in the US is most definitely not headed in the right direction, as far as even maintaining the current level of popularity of poker, much less to spur growth to turn it into a spectator sport like NASCAR or horseracing or even, gasp, bowling. And, sadly, the problems are fundamental and running pretty deep, to the point that slapping a band-aid on it by trying to increase the hype surrounding the Main Event final table (which is all Harrah's format change is, even in a best case scenario) is pretty pointless.

The UIGEA restrictions are of course a huge handicap to poker's future (and Harrah's potential to profit from it) but that's outside Harrah's control (well, sort of, if you ignore the whole lobbying aspect), so I'm basically going to ignore that and try to focus on issues that Harrah's faces directly regarding poker that they can directly control.

Once cool thing about my gig with PokerRoom is that I get to hang out with the qualifiers they send to WPT and WSOP tournaments, as my job is more to chronicle the trip and market the experience as opposed to spending my time writing about the same hands and the same pros that other media outlets are doing. Most of the PokerRoom players are playing in their first major live event, so I get to see it through a unique lens, as well as getitng the chance to hear their thoughts on things, what their friends/family/spouses think about the whole thing, etc.

Over and over and over again (and then again, some more) I hear the same thing, which basically amounts to the following statement: "I'm amazed at how un-spectator friendly the entire tournament is." People are amazed that there's now way to see chip counts, no way to identify players and what table they're at, and no way at many tournaments for spectators to even enter the same room that the tournament is being held in. They're usually a little baffled that poker is as popular as it is in the US, as its not like any other sporting event they've ever been to, as far as how difficult it is on spectators and fans to follow the action.

To be fair, the above isn't the fault of Harrah's or the WPT. There's not a dedicated poker room existing in the world right now that can comfortably accommodate tournament fields in excess of 500 players (much less gargantuan WSOP fields), so casinos inevitably have to shoehorn big live tournaments wherever they can, whether that be in generic conference rooms/ballrooms, a mix of the Fontana Room/poker room at the Bellagio, etc. In some cases that space allows for spectators, who are able to watch tables closet to the ropes, but in other cases it doesn't, if the layout of the room prevents it.

Since the spaces used are typically generic and multi-function spaces, there's no infrastructure in place to improve the experience at all for spectators, such as monitors or display screens of any sort to show a camera feed of tables, display chip counts, etc. Likewise, these spaces don't allow for multiple camera feeds of different tables, audio feeds from the tables, or any sort of multimedia experience. They're just big empty spaces that are used for trade shows and conferences or are bars/restaurants that just moonlight as a poker tournament room.

With that in mind, are there solutions to those problems that would make live poker tournaments much more spectator friendly? Well, sure. Chip counts are easy as far as using RFID technology, and slapping up monitors is simple enough to display both chip counts and live camera feeds of multiple tables. Audio feeds are simple enough as well, as far as being able to hear table chatter. Piping all of that to a comfortable location where spectators can enjoy it is, again, pretty trivial. Think sportsbook, but just for poker, with the ability to tune into the table of your choice, kick back, relax, drink a beer, and watch the action. Allowing spectators access to every table in a physical sense is a logistical nightmare but I don't think that's what spectators are really after. Yes, it's really cool to stand a few feet behind Doyle and watch him play, live, in the flesh. But after 15 minutes of that, well, been there, done that, and I think most people would gladly trade standing there for sitting back in a comfortable chair with the ability to watch the action of any table in the tournament.

Yes, it'd just be a live feed without hole cards. Yes, that kind of sucks. But it wouldn't suck that much, and to a random person who walked into that room who'd played poker in college but had never watched a WPT/WSOP broadcast, they'd think it was pretty damn cool.

The above issues are pretty obvious ones to anyone that attends a WPT/WSOP event. Just as the root causes are, as well as the solutions. And again, to be clear, I'm really not blaming most of the casinos for the situation, as they do the best they can given the circumstances. If you host a big live tournament once or twice a year, you make do as best you can to find space for it. It doesn't make any sense for a casino like Fallsview in Niagara Falls to roll out some fancy-dancy set-up such as outlined above if they only host one WPT event a year. It'd make more sense at a place like Bellagio, given the number of tournaments they run each year, but that's a hard, hard sell, given comparatively how little money they make from poker as opposed to a bank of slot machines in the same physical space. Casinos just aren't going to sacrifice the necessary space for such an undertaking when they have more profitable ways of using that real estate.

So is my argument torpedoed then and there, as far as focusing efforts on making live tournament poker more spectator friendly, and focusing on that as far as encouraging future growth instead of random changes to the Main Event final table format? Cool idea but no practical way to implement it? I don't think so, as there's another option. While it's a pretty radical proposal, I think tournament poker would greatly benefit from getting out of the casinos altogether.

I hate to hold up the ill-fated PokerDome as an example of what I'm suggesting, but it's not far off (minus the cheesiness). I'm too lazy to do the math but the majority of big live events are held in Las Vegas, and the trend seems to be heading more and more in that direction. So you're basically talking about creating a space (whether built from the ground up or reconfiguring an existing space somewhere) that's built with poker in mind, and is capable of holding a major live poker event (up to the size of the Main Event) but still provides a comfortable experience for both spectators and players. You'd need raised arena seating where spectators can watch a live featured table, as well as a sportsbook-style lounge where feeds are available for all of the action, free WiFi for poker junkies with laptops, etc. You'd also need the physical space to accomodate a field of 2,000 players, so space for 200 tables, and cameras and mics in place to cover each and every table. You'd need restrooms, food and drink facilities, gaming licenses, and likely nine thousands other things I'm forgetting.

Tall order, indeed. But not impossibly tall, especially considering the resources a company like Harrah's possesses. As far as spectators, you're probably talking about max capacity of at most 2,000-3,000 spectators, as you're simply never going to draw a huge crowd of 50,000+ people to come watch a live poker event. That means you're not talking an impossible large/expensive arena that needs to be created for spectators, or an overall ginormous space, even when you factor in space for the tournament tables. We're used to thinking of it in terms of the cavernous Amazon room packed to the gills with a full starting day field during the Main Event, but there's no reason all the tables have to be in a single big honking room. It's an awe-inspiring sight, true, but you could easily go vertical, and have four or five floors, each with 40-50 tables. That space could be entirely behind the magic curtain and not physically accessed by spectators, with easy access for players to bathrooms and smoking lounges on each level, drink service, monitors with sports of all sorts for the degenerate action junkies, a craps table for TJ, etc.

Another plus is that with a dedicated space it'd be much easier to market poker to the random person that wanders in, ranging from the cheesy sort of thing as far as final table of wax poker legends that you can st with and have your picture taken to a poker Hall of Fame exhibit with assorted memorabilia, as well as informational stuff about satellites, about the game itself (selling the skill versus luck argument), about current legalization efforts and the true realities behind them, etc.

There's also nothing stopping you (aside from gaming regulations and licensing, which I'm glossing over and which could potentially be a roadblock) from running cash games and satellites there as well when there's no big tournament in action, or hosting the final tables of events held at casinos around town (or the US, for that matter, if this delayed Main Event final table format does fly.) Convince some of the big high stakes players to play in a regular big game. Offer space for poker boot camps, tradeshows, and what-not. The facility doesn't necessarily shut down and go dark when there's no major live tournament action going on.

An extra side benefit is that such a setup would make the poker media's job infinitely easier when covering events, which can only be good for the long-term prospects of poker. Any person who has ever covered a poker tournament as media would instantly salivate at being able to tune into a live feed of any table and to know instantly the chip counts and names of every player in the field. What's good for the spectator is good for the media, which can only be good for the game.

As far as drawbacks, well, first and foremost is that it'd be pretty damn expensive. No dodging that, so it'd take someone with deep pockets and a vested interest in poker to make it a reality. It'd also have to be a company with experience of jumping through all the regulatory hoops to make it fly, as well as experience running major live poker tournaments. Someone like, oh, I don't know, Harrah's maybe?

You can argue that basing it outside of existing casinos will make it impossible for the target audience to wander in (casual fan who played poker back in the day but has no idea of the riches that could await them now), but I'm not sure I buy that. Do people somehow wander to the Rio (which isn't exactly located in a prime Strip area) then also walk nine miles down a long hallway away from all bright lights and slot machines only to happen upon, finally, weary and near-death, at this big huge poker tournament that they didn't know about before? I just don't think so, so I think the impact is minimal as far as locating a poker facility outside of an existing casino. It'd be slightly inconvenient to players as it'd be impossible to stumble out of your room and catch an elevator down to the tournament room, but that's already the case for many players, as not all players stay at the Rio, the Bellagio, etc.

So that's my very long-winded completely unsolicited advice to Harrah's. If you want to build up the visibility and popularity of poker in the long run, invest some cash in the short run to make it slick, appealing, and spectator-friendly. Convert all those casual fans to dedicated long-term customers. Stop cramming major live poker tournaments into sterile, unfriendly environments. Do the legwork to build and grow a fanbase instead of milking the WSOP for whatever short-term bang you think you can get. Las Vegas provides you with an unending pipeline of ripe prospects for the picking, who you can easily hook on poker, all of whom go home and then continue to consume your product in televised form (cha-ching). You're currently trying to sell a half-finished product and aren't meeting with the success you'd like. Instead of slapping lipstick on it, take a step back, give it a complete makeover, then take three steps forward.

You're simply never going to see the success you'd like without improving the product and experience itself, which improves its marketability, which increases the chances that television viewership will increase, which improves the odds that more sponsors will sign on, which finally puts you on track to see the sort of revenue and profits that other sports enjoy that offer an intergrated enjoyable experience for fans and players alike. Arbitrary changes such as the new final table format may very well boost interest in the short-term, but that's doomed to fade again in a few years if you don't address some of the root issues plaguing tournament poker at the moment.

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