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Main Event needs new identity to attract new players

14 July 2014

By Vin Narayanan
LAS VEGAS -- The World Series of Poker needs to borrow a page from Lebron James's playbook.

When James decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers this week, he didn't just go back home. James reset the narrative on both his decision to leave the Cavaliers and the metrics for success in Cleveland.

Lebron’s time in Miami wasn't just about winning championships. It was about leaving home to find himself and understand what’s important in life. It was the college experience he never had.

And his decision to return to Cleveland isn't about multiple championship titles. It’s about bringing one parade to a place that’s never had one.

James changed the aspirational narrative to better fit new goals and a new reality. And he changed it because his current one was broken.

Measuring success by championships wasn't adding to the legend of James. And he knew his window of opportunity to do that had closed in Miami. So he changed the story.

The World Series of Poker needs to do that with the Main Event.

Since 2003, the dominant aspirational narrative in poker has been Chris Moneymaker. Amateur wins $40 satellite and goes on to win the WSOP Main Event -- if he can do it, so can you.

Raffi Boyadjian, a limo driver from Waltham, Mass., plays on Day 2B of the 2014 World Series of Poker Main Event.

Raffi Boyadjian, a limo driver from Waltham, Mass., plays on Day 2B of the 2014 World Series of Poker Main Event. (photo by Vin Narayanan/Casino City)

There have been some variations on the theme, like PokersStars' Sunday Million -- go online and win $1 million in a $215 tournament. But the message is always the same. Spend a few bucks, win millions.

That aspirational message works really well with the $1,500 buy-ins at the World Series. And two of those tournaments saw record fields. The $1,500 Millionaire Maker (7,977 entrants) tournament and the $1,500 Monster Stack (7,862 entrants) both had bigger fields than this year's Main Event.

But it’s a narrative that no longer works for the Main Event.

That’s part of why the WSOP guaranteed a $10 million first prize in the Main Event this year.

“The $10 million was part marketing, part what we hope will help us next year when ESPN airs these shows and people see this $10 million out there that you can win for playing this event,” said Seth Palansky, vice president of corporate communications for Caesars Interactive Entertainment (CIE) and the World Series of Poker.

"We need to do more to get new people into the game," Palansky told Casino City. "Getting new people into the game at a $10,000 buy-in level is harder than it's ever been.

Registration was up at this year’s Main Event, but whether the $10 million guarantee can generate consistent growth is an open question.

The Main Event fields are too strong and too competitive for an amateur player to plunk down a few bucks in a satellite and win $10 million. And everyone knows it. The last time we had a “true” amateur at the final table was Darvin Moon in 2009.

Online poker did its job and did it well. It created a generation of highly skilled poker players who play the game extremely well.

As a result, winning the Main Event isn’t an achievable dream for most players. And more importantly, there isn’t a new generation of players coming up behind the online boomers.

The average age of the Main Event field jumped from around 38 years old to around 39 years old.

That’s not a good thing. In the 90s, poker rooms were closing all over the place because their customer base had grown too old. The horse racing industry is dying for the same reason.

The widespread adoption of online poker in the U.S. will help ameliorate this problem. But it’s not the solution, only part of it.

Online poker, the way it was pre-Black Friday, isn’t coming back any time soon. It took brick-and-mortar casinos nearly 60 years to expand from the Las Vegas Strip to the rest of the country, and nearly 35 years from when Atlantic City first added casinos to its landscape.

Online poker won’t take as long to spread across the country. If everything in Internet time happens twice as fast as in “regular time,” it will take at least 17 years for online poker to gain widespread adoption. (And please don’t talk to me about the domino theory. The only place the domino theory works is in dominos.)

Even if online poker starts to appear in America’s biggest states quickly, it still won’t be a panacea. One of the dirty little secrets about the online poker boom is that it was built on the backs of college students with lots of free time, great Internet access and entertainment habits that hadn’t been fully formed. And with a global liquidity base, they could play any game they wanted, at any time and for any stakes.

These players adopted poker with a passion that made them dream of winning big. They became lifelong enthusiasts and can’t dream of a life without poker.

In a regulated online poker world, these players won’t be picking up online poker until they’re 21. And that changes the growth dynamic. At this point these players will have already gone through four years of college where they’ve adopted entertainment options that don’t include poker. Then they’ll come out of college with jobs in hand (hopefully) and only a few hours a week to spend on poker. And when they do play online poker, it will be time-zone limited because the global liquidity is gone. They’ll be able to get a good game for a few hours each day. That’s it.

The Main Event can’t rely on the Moneymaker narrative -- even with a $10 million guaranteed first prize -- to drive sustained growth in the event.

So what should the narrative be? The tournament where poker players live out their dreams.

The WSOP should embrace being a “bucket list” item for all poker players. They should embrace being the best-run big tournament in the world. They should embrace the fact that every poker player wants to test their skills against the best. And they should embrace the fact that the WSOP Main Event is the only place to do that.

The WSOP Main Event narrative needs to focus on the ordinary player who wants the experience of a lifetime. It needs to focus on players like a Boston limo driver playing in honor of a son who passed away, a Texas chiropractor who dreams of playing against the best and the survivor of quadruple bypass surgery looking to live life to the fullest.

These are the aspirational stories poker players can relate to now, because they know they have no chance of winning the Main Event.

The World Series needs to work with its television partner, ESPN, to make sure these stories are part of the Main Event broadcasts. These stories are as important -- from a marketing standpoint -- as what happens on the felt.

These are the stories audiences can relate to. These are the stories that are going to convince other dreamers to take their shot at the Main Event.

The WSOP needs to change the Main Event narrative to make the tournament bigger. What better way is there of changing the narrative than embracing the best parts of yourself?
Main Event needs new identity to attract new players is republished from

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Vin Narayanan
Vin Narayanan is the managing editor at Casino City. When he's not writing or editing stories, he likes to play Chinese Poker, Badugi, Razz and any other "non-traditional" poker game. He also thinks blackjack is his best game and loves game theory.

Before joining Casino City, Vin covered (not all at the same time) sports, politics and elections, wars, technology, celebrities and the Census for, USA WEEKEND and CNN.

A proud graduate of Michigan State University, Vin can be found on most nights and weekends trying to find a way to watch the Spartans play football or basketball.