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Pollack -- The Man Behind the World Series of Poker

WSOP Commissioner Discusses Changes and Poker’s Future

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Jeffrey PollackThere’s less than two weeks remaining until the start of the 40th World Series of Poker. Despite all of the preparation that needs to be done for the 50-day stretch that will witness tens of thousands of people crowding into the Rio, WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack appears calm and composed. The madness is about to begin, and he is ready for it.

The World Series of Poker has come a long way under Pollack’s tenure. Hired in 2005, just a year after Harrah’s Entertainment acquired the rights of the WSOP brand, Pollack used his past experience at the NBA (where he was head of marketing) and NASCAR (where he was managing director of broadcasting and new media) to transform the WSOP into one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

In this sit-down interview with Card Player, the WSOP Commissioner reflects on some of the major innovations his staff has made to the World Series in his four years there. He discusses the importance of the history of the WSOP, the new features of this year’s Series, ESPN coverage of the events, and even Rep. Barney Frank’s new bill.

Part 1 of the interview is below. Part 2 of the interview will debut Monday.

Card Player: How has Harrah’s incorporated the history of the World Series and built upon what the Binion family started?

Jeffrey Pollack: First, we are mindful of the history and the tradition and the heritage of the WSOP. We see ourselves of stewards not only of the brand, but also poker’s most important event. We take that stewardship very seriously.

The second thing we’ve done is to work hard to engage the players as much as we can. The interesting thing about the World Series as a global sports brand compared to other sports brands is that all our players are customers. We are a customer-service oriented business, and that has driven our desire to make sure we keep improving the experience of the WSOP each year.

We also created the Players Advisory Council, and that institution has really been about bringing not only some of the best minds in poker to the table, but also attempting to have a diverse perspective of opinions. We haven’t made a meaningful decision about event schedules, structures, rules, et cetera, since 2006 without the input of the Players Advisory Council.

Those are really the pillars of what we’ve done. The other thrust to our ownership has been modernizing the business. When I got here, we talked about the WSOP at the time as a 36-year-old startup. There was this great brand, this very important tournament, a tremendous sense of community around the event, but from the standpoint of being a modern sports property, there was some work to be done.

The work that we’ve done has included a broader media outreach, our ESPN deal was renewed and extended, we’ve reintroduced our website twice over the last four years, we have extended the brand to video console games, mobile games, we’re in USA Today in a manner in which other top sports properties are, and we’ve reached out to the news media within the poker industry and generally in a new and more professional way.

We’ve attempted to modernize all of the media and communications related to the WSOP. We’ve also started to mainstream the brand with leading consumer product companies. The partnership that we have with Miller and Hertz and Kraft and other companies, those are some of our initial steps to further injecting the WSOP into Madison Avenue.

We still have a lot of work to do there. Poker and the World Series of Poker are still relatively tough to sell, but we’ve made a lot of progress.

CP: Why is the World Series of Poker tough to sell?

JP: It’s tougher to sell because it’s Vegas, because it’s poker. Proctor & Gamble, one of the largest consumer product companies in the world, has a global ban on affiliating any of their brands with gaming or poker. We’re not for everyone, but I think we’re for more companies than realize it, and it’s been our mission to help companies recognize how powerful our platform is.

We’ve extended internationally, creating WSOP Europe. It’s the first time bracelet events have been awarded not just outside of the states, but outside of Las Vegas. In two very short years, I think we’ve created out of the most prestigious poker events outside of the United States. And that’s about our intent to bring the WSOP to new markets in a very authentic and relevant way.

CP: Do you foresee the World Series of Poker Europe having events outside of London?

JP: Sure.

CP: Do you have any idea for a timeframe for that?

JP: No, but we’ve said from the beginning that the World Series of Poker Europe may move to different cities. We’re not tied to London, though London has worked well for us for the first three years. Beyond that, we have the ability to move the tournament wherever we see fit.

The other thing that we’ve been focused on is innovating. The delayed final table format has probably been one of the greatest innovations that poker has ever known. Certainly, for the World Series of Poker. We created a live experience that’s never been seen in poker before and we created a new kind of excitement around our telecast. What we did was shift the paradigm, and that’s what we set out to do — we changed the paradigm from who won to who will win, and last year I think was a great success.

We were vilified when we made the announcement that we going to delay the final table, but we had a good sense of the potential outcome. We were willing to take the risk, and it paid off. Now, it’s a given that the final table will be delayed and played in this format. I think that’s a tremendous accomplishment in just a year.

CP: Now you’ve worked in a number of sports industries, most notably NASCAR and the NBA. How does this job differ from those jobs, and how is it similar?

JP: Let’s start with the similarities. They are very similar. Don’t tell anyone, but me, Ty, Seth, Craig — we sort of took the playbooks from NASCAR and the NBA and the NFL and we’ve applied them to what we do with the World Series of Poker. (Pollack is referencing Ty Stewart, Director of Sponsoring and Licensing for the WSOP; Seth Palanksy, WSOP Communications Director; and Craig Abrahams, Director of Broadcasting and New Media for the WSOP.)

We’ve attempted to bring the best principles of sports management to the World Series of Poker, and those principles come directly from the practices of the best sports properties of the world, which we’re now counted among them.

In some levels, the business is very similar. It’s different in that our season is relatively compact. This year, we have 57 events over the course of 50 straight days, although Wimbledon isn’t that long, the Olympics isn’t that long. It’s a very concentrated exercise, in terms of WSOP Las Vegas, but with the World Series of Poker Europe and the delayed final table format, our season has actually extended from May through November for the “majors,” and we still have the circuit tournaments running from September to May.

We are very quickly becoming a year-round brand in terms of how you can touch it and feel it and experience it.

Another difference, as I alluded to before, is that the players are customers. That creates a different imperative in terms of customer service. Our customers aren’t just fans, they are the participants in these events, and that again compels us to keep innovating and to keep improving the experience every single year.

Sports marketing fundamentally is about the selling of hope. Fans have the hope of their favorite team trading for the right player, drafting the right player, winning a game, winning the season, winning the world championship. But as a fan of other sports, you don’t have the hope of also being a participant for the most part.

The World Series of Poker offers a brand of hope that is infinitely more accessible. You can watch it on ESPN in November and decide that you’re going to enter it the following May. And when you enter, you have a pretty good shot at being seated at a table with one of the best players in the world, and have a pretty good shot at coming from obscurity to winning any one of our bracelet events.

You can’t buy your way onto an NBA court, so we are very different from the other sports properties by virtue of how accessible we are.

We’re also different in that we’re not an athletic competition. When we say we’re “sport,” that’s because we’re on ESPN, we’re what sports fans like to watch, it’s about competition and strategy and thrills and excitement, and while it requires a certain mental endurance that I certainly don’t have, we understand that it’s a non-athletic competition.

Check back Monday for Part 2 of Card Player’s interview with WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack.

 
 
 
 

Comments

SevenKidsPoppy
over 9 years ago

Cross my heart, Playtex Apparel might be a better fit than Proctor & Gamble from what we've seen in recent years, but I digress. I have two issues with the Commish: (1) How do Pollack, the PAC, and ESPN plan (sic) and institute a 17-week build-up to the main event final table and not factor in the time that it would take to produce and turn around Day 2 in November, namely the heads-up match for the championship? 2008's nontelevising of Eastgate v. Demidov was inexcusable and should never be repeated. It's not as if last year was the first time the WSOP was televised and no one had a hint as to the logistics required in getting it done. (2) Pollack's decision to not televise the $50K HORSE and other non-NLH events dismisses the following: watching nothing but NLH gets boring after a while (as does playing nothing but NLH), and while televising only hold'em events might get ratings in the short run, it will contribute to hold'em's overexposure and will eventually be bad for even that game's ratings; to stimulate interest in poker and build the fan base and grow the industry, you need to show more games, not less. Viewers are getting more knowledgeable and competitive in all games of poker, not just hold'em. (3) Overcoverage of Days 1 and 2 of the main event skews way too much on the side of entertainment and human interest features (fine in the right proportion) above the telecasting of the strategy and intensity of final table play that showing several events (and therefore several final tables) brings. After you've seen Days 1 and 2 the first time and in some cases the second, you remember it, don't want to watch it again, and avoid it like the plague whenever it's on again. Final tables, however, are viewed again and again by people who think they might have missed a critical decision or tell that won or lost a bracelet.

 
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SevenKidsPoppy
over 9 years ago

OK, that's 3; sue me.

 
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