Recently in an ESPN.com article, there was a whirlwind of fury that has stepped from the top of the poker world down to the message boards of the average fan. ESPN writer Steve Rosenbloom brought the controversy regarding the sponsorship of players and their inability to wear sponsorship logos on the World Poker Tour or the Fox Sports Network broadcasts. Noted professionals Howard Lederer, Annie Duke, Erick Lindgren and others bemoaned the fact that they could not make an additional income through such sponsorship and, in essence, that it was wrong that they couldn't do this.
When such a situation rises up, there is the immediate, knee jerk reactions that arise from all sides. Many have said that the players don't need the additional income; others have said that there should be a player revolt over it against the WPT and Fox. Still others have said that it is much ado about nothing, that the players are grandstanding, that the WPT is being cheap, and on and on. What needs to be done when these things come up is to take a look at the issue from all sides.
Let's roll the clock back to just around five years ago. Poker was not the cultural phenomenon that it is today. There was little (or no) poker on television, let alone the multitude of celebrity poker shows that exist today (for better or for worse!). Only hard core poker players and fans could tell you ten professionals that were playing. You rarely ever heard of "free" poker being played in bars or nightclubs, and it was even rarer to hear how law enforcement was raiding private homes games. In fact, about the only time you heard anything regarding poker was the local motorcycle club holding a "poker run" to benefit a fallen brother or local charity.
Interest in the game was there, but it was limited. ESPN Classic sometimes would run the final table of one of the World Series of Poker Main Events from a past year, but it was normally on the graveyard shift and never in prime time. The WSOP had grown, naturally, from its inception, but the numbers of players that were there were basically the professionals feeding off of each other.
Online poker was in its infancy. Even some of the most respected names in that field, such as ParadisePoker, PartyPoker and UltimateBet were in their beginning stages and players were hard to come by, with the general public not interested in playing what was perceived as a video game.
With all of this in mind, then, look at the chances that Steve Lipscomb took in 2002 when, armed with his own funding and an idea, he began shopping the idea around to the television world to have televised poker tournaments, organized much like the professional golf tour. He met with pretty much every network on television, with all saying to him that the idea wasn't worth the time to put on television. Even with the development of the hole card camera, which allowed the viewing audience to see what the players were holding, it was still just a card game, with nothing of interest to keep an audience tuned in to see what would happen.
The Travel Channel was the only network who took a bite of the apple that Lipscomb was showing, and even then did it on a very limited basis. While the World Poker Tour was born, Lipscomb wasn't even then sure that the Tour would last. It wasn't until a long term contract of seven years was signed and agreements were made that Lipscomb's dream became a reality.
In inking the deal, the World Poker Tour was bound by many conditions. There were concerns about logos around the Final Table, what the players were wearing on their clothes and many other issues. In fact, the Travel Channel itself had millions yanked from its coffers when they advertised ParadisePoker's online room during the broadcasts of the first year of the Tour by the government.
To this day, for those of you who do not peruse the financial pages on occasion, the World Poker Tour has yet to have a year in the black. While the company is publicly traded under World Poker Tour Enterprises (stock symbol WPTE), the money that is made from that and its other outlets, such as merchandising, is basically turned around and put back into the business.
The World Poker Tour turned the world onto the game that we love and play. It has brought millions into the online poker rooms and B&M casinos around the world (an estimated 60 million in the United States alone). The professionals that play for a living, instead of cannibalizing each other, have a whole new feeding ground that seems to be never-ending. And the money to be made seems to be endless.
This is not to say that the professionals do not have some room to argue. Yes, they should have the opportunity to make deals to enhance their business. They should be able to gain sponsorship and alleviate some of the financial strife they face. And they should have the opportunity to be able to make their voice heard and shape the face of the game. One thing that cannot be argued, though, is complaining about the deals that are already in existence.
Basketball great Michael Jordan played the first decade of his professional career under the same contract that he signed when he was a rookie out of North Carolina. He never held out for more money or a restructuring of his deal, even after winning three championships and being considered the greatest player in the game. It was honor to completing that contract that held him to it (admittedly, the millions he made from sponsorships didn't hurt, either).
There has to be a middle ground that all can find. The WPT came up with the Professional Poker Tour to alleviate some of the roadblocks to player sponsorship. You are seeing more "dotnet" commercials and such on poker broadcasts and the players can wear the name of the company but not the "dotcom" part ("PartyPoker" for example, versus "PartyPoker.com"). And the players are beginning to get the sponsorships that they desire to alleviate the pressure on strictly winning. When television contracts come up for renegotiation, it would be a great time to discuss the issue, but for now let's all enjoy the bounty that has come to our great game. Additionally, let's not start feeding off of each other like we were doing just a short time ago.
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