These days, few people would argue that poker isn't as big as any other sport, save the NFL, NBA, MLB, or PGA Golf. Certainly, we have seen WSOP reruns getting higher ratings than live NHL broadcasts, and outdrawing every tennis broadcast that isn't the final day of a major.
But despite all its success, poker has not been allowed to walk the path that all of the above sports have walked (profitably) for decades - the path of player sponsorship. Never has a 3.2 inch piece of embroidered fabric caused such a stir as in the poker world, where the rules about logo usage comprise 60% of the TV release forms you must sign to play in certain televised events. Have you ever seen a frazzled TV production assistant break out a ruler and measure a logo on a players shirt while the player is wearing the shirt? I have.
Oh, but wait, you say you just saw the WSOP on ESPN and your favorite player was wearing a logo? Or you saw the National Heads Up Championship on NBC (That's network TV, folks - not cable), and eventual winner Phil Hellmuth was proudly wearing his Ultimate Bet cap. Your eyes did not deceive you; indeed players can wear logos on TV...at least sometimes.
It is long overdue that TV and this business come to grips with the fact that logos are OK in poker just like they are OK in every other televised event. Indeed, if anyone out there can find me six square inches of free space on a NASCAR automobile, I will send you a prize.
To be fair, much of the blame for this must fall squarely on the players. The players inability to organize and unite in the interest of common issues has hurt, and continues to hurt them greatly. If even just the ten or twenty most televised players in the world would decide to boycott the ten events with the most stringent logo rules until the logo issue was resolved, the issue would be resolved right away, and everyone would win.
Depsite the fact that everyone can win, TV still refuses to change policies that, although only a couple years old, are clearly outdated and no longer practical. TV is smart enough to know that it is in their benefit to let players wear logos. In every other popular sport or game, the cycle of promotion, and endorsement begins with the player. Players are featured in ads, and embody the organization that they wear. Consumers buy this merchandise because they want to be 'like Mike.' What drove the resurgence of golf in the mid 1990's? One word: Tiger.
All competitive events that can draw big viewing audiences are star-driven. Very few people watch an event purely for the love of the game - look at the TV ratings any time a major sport has used 'replacement players' during a labor dispute - no one cares. For whatever reason, we as human beings get attached to the people playing the games we love. We can walk the fairway and daydream about hitting the shot that Tiger would hit, or playing alongside him.
But, this is where poker is different. Recreational players can play with the stars they dream about playing with. This fact alone makes it all the more critical that the game be allowed to promote its stars to the fullest extent possible.
Players feel very strongly about this issue.. 2005 WPT Mirage Champ Gavin Smith calls it a "travesty" that players not be allowed to wear logos.
Obviously, much of the blame falls on programming like the World Poker Tour, and the 'Poker Superstars' series. But, what the average person may not know is that often times these programs are at the mercy of the outlets that air them. Many times, theses logo rules and restrictions come from the channel that airs the program - not the producers of the program itself.
Still, to me it comes back to stars. If the WPT, or Poker Superstars were to go to their outlets, and say "Well, we've just learned that these 25 players aren't coming to our next tournament because of the logo restrictions," those restrictions would change - fast. Clearly, commercials for online poker rooms not only run on these events now (there was a time when the outlets wouldn't run online poker ads), they dominate the ad space being sold on these events. If the players were allowed to freely (in a fair and tasteful manner) promote a sponsor, the ad dollars, sponsorship dollars, and revenue opportunities for both the players and the outlets would increase significantly. The TV people can't find a great reason to say no anymore, but I can think of millions of reasons for them to say yes.
As an addendum to this column, I would like to point out the reason I chose to write this column now. I am playing in a private, non-televised event next week with a bunch of other amateurs, and I have just been told that I will not be allowed to wear any logo apparel in this event. Stop the madness, people!!!
Until next time....Play to win.