Ty Stewart left a plum marketing position with the National Football League 13 years ago to build a business around the World Series of Poker.
Despite a federal crackdown on Internet poker, the recession, and a prolonged bankruptcy reorganization of WSOP corporate parent Caesars Entertainment, the tournament not only survived but prospered.
Today, the WSOP brand is synonymous with poker.
“We pretty much shielded ourselves from any friction,” said Stewart, executive director of the tournament since 2005. “We expanded our social game, added more licensing partnerships and grew the brand. I truly believe we’re one of the best business cases in the gaming industry.”
In addition to its annual six-week run in Las Vegas – currently underway at the Rio Hotel-Casino – the WSOP Circuit Event runs from August through May, with 28 stops at casinos throughout the U.S. The WSOP holds its annual World Series of Poker Europe in October in the Czech Republic.
The company’s Internet presence has also expanded. A free-play social game version of the WSOP attracts thousands of users, while WSOP.com has grown its presence substantially since New Jersey joined the interstate gaming compact with Nevada and Delaware.
“We’re committed to poker, and our customers care about poker year-round,” Stewart said. “With our platforms, someone can touch our poker brand 365 days a year.”
The crown jewel in the brand, of course, remains the annual Las Vegas poker extravaganza.
Last year’s WSOP hit several high-water marks, offering 74 events, attracting nearly 121,000 players from 11 different countries and paying out $231 million in prize money. This year, the 49th tournament, the WSOP is offering 78 events in which the winner earns a coveted gold and diamond bracelet, and the cumulative prize money should crack last year’s record total.
Stewart, who spent seven years with the NFL and is credited with growing league platforms like the NFL Opening Kickoff Thursday night showcase game and the NFL Draft, has secured promotion for the WSOP on products ranging from beef jerky to beer to candy bars.
The WSOP circuit events moved beyond Caesars’ company-owned casinos to other locations, including Bicycle Club Casino in Southern California, Foxwoods in Connecticut, and Hard Rock Hollywood in Florida. The Circuit starts in August at Harrah’s Cherokee in North Carolina and ends next May at Harrah’s New Orleans.
“It’s an approach that brings our brand to all gaming markets,” Stewart said.
Through all its platforms, the World Series of Poker has awarded nearly $2.7 billion in prize money over the past 49 years. Stewart predicted the figure would cross the $3 billion mark when the 50th World Series of Poker concludes in 2019.
“We’ve been able to take a brand, design it and keep innovating it,” he said. “We are always looking for ways to better the brand.”
The Crown Jewel
Caesars (formerly Harrah’s Entertainment) acquired the World Series of Poker tournament when the casino operator bought regional gaming company Horseshoe Casinos from Jack Binion in 2004. Later that year, Harrah’s sold the downtown Las Vegas Binion’s Horseshoe, but kept the poker tournament. The event was moved in 2005 to convention space at the Rio.
The WSOP tournament room at the Rio (photo credit: Antonio Abrego/WSOP
The tournament has long grown beyond its roots as a high-stakes game of Texas Hold’em played between big gamblers – friends and customers of Jack Binion’s father Benny Binion – inside the smoky downtown Las Vegas casino.
This year’s 78 events have buy-ins ranging from $365 up to $1 million for a charity event that raises money for One Drop, which provides sustainable access to clean water in communities throughout the world. The WSOP has raised more than $20 million for One Drop since 2012.
The tournament has 15 different $10,000 buy-in events; those are considered “world championships.” But there are also events with buy-ins for $25,000, $50,000 and $100,000 and more than 30 events with buys of $1,000 to $1,500.
“We added something for everyone, from the recreational player up to the high-stakes player,” Stewart said.
The Rio’s poker room relocates to the convention center during the tournament, where cash games and satellites offer players seats in many of the tournament’s events.
“We contribute a very significant portion of the Rio’s annual EBITDA,” Stewart said. “And the players love the Rio because it has a huge parking lot.”
The Main Event
The highlight of the World Series of Poker remains the Main Event, the $10,000 buy-in No Limit Texas Hold’em, which is considered poker’s world championship crown.
Entrance to the WSOP at the Rio
Last year’s Main Event drew 7,221 players, with a prize pool of more than $67.8 million. New Jersey resident Scott Blumstein took home the title and $8.15 million.
Stewart expects another field of more than 7,000 players when the Main Event begins July 2. It concludes July 14.
Last year, the WSOP ended the November Nine format, in which the final table took place nearly four months after the last nine players were determined.
The televised format for the WSOP has also changed. PokerCentral streams events throughout the tournament, with 16 final tables shown on its PokerGo platform. Another 30 final table are covered on PokerCentral’s Twitch channel.
The Main Event and $1 million One Drop championship will be broadcast on ESPN and ESPN2, with additional streaming on PokerGo and Twitch.
The events are shown on a 30-minute delay, as required by Nevada gaming regulators.
“Live streaming provides the best viewership,” Stewart said. “It’s something that our players enjoy and allows for more comprehensive coverage.”
Possible change in Las Vegas venue
The World Series of Poker uses all 60,000 square feet of the Rio’s convention center. There have been hints of moving to another venue, possibly even a Las Vegas property not owned by Caesars.
Stewart said the tournament might switch to the proposed $375 million Caesars Forum Meeting Center, which is planned for 29 acres behind the Linq, Harrah’s, and the Flamingo, just off the Strip. The 550,000 square-foot space could open in 2020.
“It’s an option, but it would be a huge undertaking,” Stewart said of moving the tournament.
Internet gaming growth
The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in May that allowed individual states to legalize sports betting could have an added benefit – the potential for expanded Internet gaming in other states.
Caesars operates the real money wsop.com brand in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware. There are now bracelet events online – one drew nearly 3,000 entries and had a $1 million prize pool – and winners can earn seats in live action events at the Las Vegas tournament.
Pennsylvania legalized online gaming earlier this year, and several states looking into approving sports betting regulations – Michigan, for example – are considering online gaming.
“I think the states will see bright future for sports betting and with regulations, other gaming choices might come along,” Stewart said. “Our New Jersey (online) business is up 70 percent in poker. We think there is a strong future.”
Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.
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