GPL And The State Of Poker Sponsorships In 2016
So a new initiative called the Global Poker League looks set to launch with their initial draft in a couple weeks in Los Angeles. It’s a team format where players who are in the top 1000 of the Global Poker Rankings can take part if they choose to. In order to take part in this initiative, you would obviously have to sign some kind of legal contract.
I’m lucky enough to have one of the best poker business minds available to read any and all contracts that come across my desk. Brian Balsbaugh, of Poker Royalty, has been my agent and close confidant for over ten years now. I’m not well versed in legal jargon, but thankfully Brian is.
I read on Twitter that there may have been some controversy surrounding the contract being offered to players. Admittedly, I haven’t followed the threads in great detail, but I don’t really need to in order to share the following opinion.
The “fairness” of a contract issued to a player is in the eye of the beholder. What one player may see as unfair, others may have no issue with. A contract in itself, cannot be inherently unfair since it holds no power unless both parties agree to it. If you deem a contract unfair, there is nothing forcing you to sign it. You always reserve the right to find a compromise by negotiating the terms of a contract, sign the contract even though you feel like it’s not ideal, or, you can simply not enter into the agreement.
I haven’t read the contract personally. I saw a few excerpts from it that some players raised issue with. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it’s my understanding that players will be putting up no money, the company itself will be investing money into it, so outside of a players time, possible likeness rights, agreeing to various things involved with promoting the league, it’s a free roll. A free roll that you can choose to take part in if you agree to the terms of the contract. If not, that’s OK too. You simply choose not to sign the contract and would obviously not have an opportunity to take part in the free roll.
People have asked me if I think the GPL is going to work. The truth is, I have no idea. I hope that it succeeds, and I hope that those players who choose to take part in it thrive, while also bringing in a new audience of players and fans to the game. What I do know, is that millions of dollars are being spent on this high risk endeavor with no guarantees of success. It could be a huge win for the company, but it could also fall miserably. Most start up companies, and especially poker leagues, do not have a solid history in terms of success.
So if someone is going to take this on and really try to make it work, it only makes sense that they would have some requirements of those players that wanted to take part. A partnership where both the players and the GPL’s interests are aligned. The GPL hoping to create something big enough to show a profit, and the players who take part would also hope that it succeeds as they would benefit financially.
Now, depending who you are and where you are at in life, the contract just might not make sense for you. For an aspiring professional without any plans to market himself and create a brand from poker, there isn’t really any downside to selling your likeness rights. The value of those rights wouldn’t hold much value. The same might not be true for a higher profile player who does profit from his or her brand.
So for example, it may not make sense for Phil Hellmuth to sign a contract that said, “You may not endorse any other product or company for 10 years.” That may not make sense for him. Maybe he already has other lucrative things going on that he couldn’t pass up and signing the contract would cost him money.
When I started my career in poker I was simply a player. I grinded hard playing both cash games and tournaments. I used to post on poker forums as well, not with the intention of branding myself, but simply because I loved the game and I loved to talk poker. Later, CardPlayer magazine asked if I would write a column for them. At first I was hesitant because I didn’t feel like I was qualified at such a young age, but eventually I took on the “job” of writing a fresh column every two weeks for what I think was $150 a column. I clearly wasn’t doing it for the money.
As poker started to grow, so did my own personal brand. I used to answer my own fan mail and spend 3-4 hours a day personally responding to 50+ emails a day. A young Erik Saagstrom (Erik123 of online poker fame) e-mailed me at the age of 14 asking for advice on playing poker for a living. I wrote him a personal e-mail, as I did for anyone who sent me one, advising him that there is always time for poker so he should enjoy his youth! He ended up winning millions playing online and live poker when he was finally old enough.
I was often asked to do interviews. I never got paid for any of them. The World Poker Tour asked me to host a special edition called “Hollywood Home Game” which required me to do about three days of work on set. I did get paid for that, I think it was about $250! Again, I didn’t do it for the money. I did what I did to help promote the game of poker. To do my part in bringing new players into the game, and also opening myself up to whatever possibilities arose.
Back in 1999 I won the US Poker Championship in Atlantic City and it aired on ESPN. My first ever poker appearance on television. I happened to be wearing a Nike hat and a Nike tracksuit. After winning the tournament, this guy gave me his card telling me he might be able to get me an endorsement deal with Nike.
That deal never happened, but the idea that deals like this could exist in the future didn’t seem all that far fetched to me at the time. In order to get there, though, it would require some sacrifices. Time spent doing a lot of things that I wasn’t being paid for, or being paid much less than I would be making if I was grinding at the poker tables. I chose to do it, because I had a vision for where poker could go and how I could play a role in helping it get there. And yeah, I could also make a lot of money through endorsements!
Jason Somerville, has followed in those footsteps and has created a brand for himself with a new generation of players. He wasn’t all that much different than his peers in terms of skill or notoriety, but the reason Jason was able to achieve the success he has is because he had a bigger vision for himself, one that would require a lot of time and hard work.
He continues to work hard and is now reaping the benefits of that work, but it wasn’t always that way. When he started, he put in the hours creating free content for all to see, spending both time and money on resources, but without any revenue coming back his way. Some of you may look at what Jason or I did and said we were being taken advantage of. Putting in work and not being reimbursed sufficiently. I won’t argue that, but I think he would agree that we looked at it like you would an investment.
The landscape for poker sponsorship has dwindled significantly since the golden era in 2004 when online sites and other companies were throwing fist fulls of money at players just for wearing a logo. Currently, there aren’t a lot of opportunities out there for the new generation to create revenue through poker endorsements. I don’t blame those who see no value in exposure, doing interviews, or promoting the game of poker. I don’t begrudge those people one bit, and I don’t think they owe anything to poker. Poker is an individual game and there is nothing wrong with players doing what they think is in their own best interest.
Having said that, when a free roll is dropped in your lap with either no, or minimal risk, it seems like it might be worthwhile to give it a shot. Nothing could come of this GPL thing. It could end up being a waste of your time… or, if the investors are right, it could be an opportunity for you to make some money without having to have your set hold up against a flush draw going into the river.
(Disclaimer: I have no affiliation or contract with the league as an owner or a player, however, I have offered some time to helping out at the GPL Draft)