Since Henry Orenstein helped to propel poker into the mainstream by inventing the hole card camera, poker has been floundering around attempting to find its direction. The World Series of Poker win by an approachable accountant/amateur player named Chris Moneymaker allowed marketing gurus to promote the sport as the game for every man. Poker insiders later awaited a huge influx of new women poker players after success of female players such as Annie Duke and Kathy Leibert. When ESPN began to focus on some of the poker legends such as Doyle Brunson, TJ Cloutier, and Dan Harrington, poker was sold to us as the great generational gap closer which allowed all to play on equal playing field. When 20-somethings began to crash onto the scene and score big wins, we were led to assume that the future of poker was in the youth movement. Since the popularized, “TV” style poker is still in its infancy, television producers and poker industry insiders are still attempting to find their way.

ESPN and the World Series of Poker obviously combine to shape perceptions of poker via their coverage and presentation. We got a solid insight into the direction that the World Series and Harrah’s Entertainment planned to take the WSOP when they hired Jeffery Pollack to be the commissioner. Pollack is a sound businessman with a savvy marketing mind. Pollack’s background? Well, he came to us from the world of NASCAR, where he was managing director of broadcasting and new media for NASCAR Digital Entertainment. Did you happen to notice one of the most recent advertising efforts for the WSOP? Well, popular NASCAR driver Robby Gordon is now zipping around the track with the familiar WSOP-emblemed chips adorning his side panels with card suits across his hood atop the bold lettering showing the World Series of Poker on ESPN.

It seems pretty clear that many in poker are eyeing NASCAR as the model to follow for focusing our sport. It may indeed be a solid choice to mimic. Just as each driver is sponsored by popular companies & products such as DuPont and Viagra, poker pros are getting their financial backing by Ultimate Bet, Poker Stars, Party Poker, and other top online poker sites. Likewise, each race is sponsored and funded by larger companies. We hear about races named the Pepsi 400 and Subway Fresh 500 in NASCAR, just as we are now seeing non-poker companies and products headline tournaments such as Milwaukee’s Best Light and Amber Bock. In addition, many poker insiders see the market that NASCAR appeals to as the hotbed for poker as well. You see, NASCAR seems to resonate with young-middle aged males. Seeing that the entrants into the 2006 WSOP were overall 97% male in gender with a huge majority of those being in the 21-40 age range, it seems to be the audience for NASCAR may indeed mimic poker’s.

We have started to build the star power that NASCAR enjoys. We know that fans of racing will turn on the TV to watch their favorites win, and their least favorites lose! Fans of Earnhart Jr. love to cheer their hero while booing Jeff Gordon. Tony Stewart’s legions of wild fans will always shop at Home Depot, since his car is sponsored by that company. Similarly, we have people who watch poker just to root for Doyle Brunson and against Hellmuth or Matusow. We have loyal followers of Phil Ivey that only play online at Full Tilt Poker. But unlike NASCAR, our stars are often not on the biggest stage. We can be certain that all of racing’s elite will be appearing at the Daytona 500, but we have superstars like Jesus Ferguson and Howard Lederer that will not appear at the World Poker Tour. Allen Cunningham was the only known player down the stretch at this year’s biggest stage, the WSOP Main Event. We regularly see poker announcers attempting to build excitement around poker tables filled with amateurs who we are likely to never see play on TV again. If we are to truly follow NASCAR’s path, we will need to find a way to be certain that the star power will be visible and drive the sport. A new push for invitation-only events and qualifying regulations (such as the Professional Poker Tour) seem to be propelling us in that direction.

With the World Series of Poker being headed by an ex-NASCAR aficionado, it certainly seems that poker is starting to get a solid future direction. We will be looking at the way that racing has been promoted and built in our efforts to make poker an even greater part of the sports market. We will be finding sponsors, establishing stars, and marketing to men in hopes of propelling poker to the next level. Poker has enjoyed a great start, but there is still much work to be done. It should be interesting to watch it all unfold in the coming years.

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By John Carlisle, MA, NCC
John is a National Certified Counselor (NCC). He has a Master of Arts degree in Counseling from West Virginia University, and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with a minor in Sociology from Lock Haven University.