Players aren't bluffing in logo battle
It is perhaps the hottest issue among professional poker players: gaining sponsorships and being able to wear logos at the tables.
Pro poker players, see, don't want to rely solely on winning to support themselves if they don't have to. They endorse products like any other competitor in any other sport or game. That's why golfers look like NASCAR vehicles, and that's why NASCAR vehicles look like, well, NASCAR vehicles. It called making money in your sleep.
That's why Annie Duke represents the UltimateBet.com website and the ESPN Poker Club product line. And why Daniel Negreanu and T.J. Cloutier represent the Poker Mountain website. And why Howard Lederer, Erick Lindgren, Chris "Jesus' Ferguson, Phil Ivey, ESPN.com Poker Columnist Phil Gordon, Andy Bloch, Jennifer Harman, Erik Seidel, John Juanda and Clonie Gowen represent FultTiltPoker.com. And why Lederer and Lindgren cut the first real mainstream deal among poker pros to endorse Knob Creek bourbon.
Hey, playing poker for a living is expensive. Take the upcoming World Poker Tour Championship at the Bellago.
"Next week, I'm playing in a World Poker Tour event where I cannot wear logos," Lederer, the "Professor of Poker," begins, "and on top of that, I'm going to be paying $25,000 to enter and I will be charged $500 to play. I'm going to be charged $25,500, of which only $25,000 will go into the prize pool. And on top of that, there will be 3 percent taken out of the $25,000 to pay for dealers and floor staff. So, the players are paying for the dealers essentially, the players are paying a fee to the house, and we're not allowed to wear logos."
From a player's standpoint, endorsing in a vacuum isn't really endorsing at all.
"We're not even slaves," Duke says. "We're people paying to pick the cotton."
Simple reason for the prohibition of logos at World Poker Tour events, says Steve Lipscomb, creator and CEO of the WPT.
"The broadcast agreement that we have is very specific about what kind of sponsorship can or cannot be involved in the show," he said. "If we allowed it, we would be in breach of our agreement with the Travel Channel.
"What most players want to put on is an online poker room, which we're specifically prohibited form putting on the Travel Channel's air."
But wait. There's more.
"The thing that galls me is I am forced to sign a document that essentially gives the World Poker Tour the right to use my image that they've filmed, not just at the final table, but at any time during the tournament in any way they wish for an unlimited amount of time in any type of media," Lederer continues. "That would include using my performance and my image to help promote products that might specifically compete against products that I endorse."
The answer to that pretty much is, welcome to the world of television.
"You'll never find a television show that you won't find someone signing exactly that," Lipscomb said. "Ben Affleck, if he wants to play in our event, Tobey Maguire, they have to sign the same release. What we do is make television. We make content. If I'm restricted from being able to use that content to do other things, we don't have a business." "You want to wish that the people who benefit -- and Howard Lederer is one of them -- from the positive things that have happened, you want to wish they had a gratitude they don't always have.''
Some clarification here: Poker player can wear logos at tables on World Series of Poker events shown on ESPN and the National Heads-up Championship on NBC scheduled to be shown in May, but they cannot have the dot-com on them. For instance, Duke can wear a shirt that says UltimateBet, but not UltimateBet.com.
Players also are allowed to wear logos on the Professional Poker Tour begun by the World Poker Tour. But no broadcast deal has been announced for those events, so, again, it's a logo in a vacuum.
But on the regular World Poker Tour events and the Fox Sports Net "Poker Superstars Invitational," zip, zero, zilch.
"We boycotted the 'Poker Superstars' show," Lindgren said. "If people are wondering why some of the good players aren't in the Fox Sports Net 'Poker Superstars'-- why Gus (Hansen] isn't there, Phil Ivey, myself, Daniel (Negreanu) -- it's because they wouldn't allow logos of any sort. We're not talking just online companies. We as a group decided to boycott it. Annie Duke, Howard Lederer. That's why they have such a weird lineup."
Some player frustration over logos goes back to Lipscomb's convincing players to allow their hole cards to be shown via lipstick-sized WPT cameras built into the table, the biggest reason any kind of poker works on television. Some players felt that would give away much of their game plans, but they believed there would be a payoff later.
"I was certainly led to believe that, hey, it's in your best interests, we'll make you stars, show your hole cards, this is good for the game, and let's see what happens," Lederer said. "Quite frankly, there's no doubt that the WPT has held up their good-of-the-game bargain. The WPT opened the door to a lot of what is happening in poker, and I'll forever be grateful to the WPT for that.
"But I also feel like part of the bargain was that the players would somehow be at least invited into the dialog of how do we further promote, how do we also make sure the players will be taken care of, and that never happened.
"I still feel like the WPT in some ways almost has the attitude that they're owed something. When you look at their share price (World Poker Tour Enterprises) and the large sale of stock that Steve Lipscomb made a couple weeks ago -- I'm not sure of the exact number, but it's in the eight figures -- I don't particularly feel like I owe the WPT anything. I feel the WPT has just done fine."
One thing has nothing to do with the other, Lipscomb contends.
"If someone believes that anyone who creates a business and once it is in a state of I'd say modest profitability and good future growth, if they don't believe the people who took the risk should reap any reward, there's just not much you can say," he said.
Besides, Lipscomb adds, poker players looking at his stock transactions are looking at the wrong thing.
"The total amount of prize money that existed in poker events the year before we started was probably, oh, I don't know, maybe $4 million, and this year it's $70 million -- seven-zero," he said.
What's more, Lipscomb points out that he not only heard the players' frustration over logos, but responded by forming the World Poker Tour's Professional Poker Tour and worked with a player's advisory committee to do it.
"The World Poker Tour said, 'Hey, look guys, we can't do it over here (meaning the Travel Channel). We'd like to move with you and try to help create these kinds of sponsorship opportunities, so we're going to launch on the come the Professional Poker Tour and put up $5 million of our resources so you don't have to buy into these things and try to create something that allows an integrated sponsorship of players and sponsors,'" Lipscomb said.
Lederer argues that allowing logos on any broadcast would prompt other advertisers to bring more money to broadcast outlets, production companies and players. All in. Everybody wins.
"Ultimately, if the WPT isn't going to invite the players in any meaningful way, the players are going to have to act in the best interests of the players and, frankly, in the best interests of the game," Lederer said. "Bringing in mainstream sponsors like Knob Creek and others is good for the game and good for the players."
Here's one way this gets resolved: the formation of a poker players association that works with casinos, sponsors and broadcast outlets. Because that's what has happened almost everytime the group playing the game believes it's being exploited -- rightly or wrongly -- by the group in charge of it. Just ask baseball. And football. And basketball. And . . .
Steve Rosenbloom is a contributor to ESPN.com and writes a syndicated poker column for the Chicago Tribune.