NBA gambles on poker deal

Originally Published: January 24, 2005
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony in your hands could mean you have a royal flush.

As part of its entrée into the poker playing craze, the NBA has licensed caricatures of its biggest stars on playing cards. Team logos will appear on a hardwood poker chip carrying case, and the NBA logo is emblazoned on the chips themselves.

Shaquille O'Neal
Shaquille O'Neal has been an ace for the Miami Heat this season.
All Pro Deal, which will make both products, is selling the playing cards for about $10 and the chip set for $129.

The poker chip business has turned into a huge industry since television networks began broadcasting poker tournaments in recent years. Sales of chips alone grossed more than $500 million last year, according to Daniel Sustar, president and owner of Trademark Poker, one of the largest chip distributors in the country.

It's not clear whether the NBA will be able to make a dent in the marketplace. Many poker fans, who dream to be like the pros, often purchase chips endorsed by the professional poker players. Phil Hellmuth has earned more than $100,000 in royalties from his chips, according to his agent Brian Balsbaugh.

The NBA might be trying to get a piece of the poker pie, but the poker industry is seeking a piece of the licensing market that is traditionally where the major sports leagues profit most -- jerseys.

Balsbaugh said at least three poker video console games will be available this year and some of his clients already have their own hockey-style jerseys, which could hit major retailers soon. The jerseys have the player's name on the front and, instead of traditional numbers on the back, two cards representing the number. The jerseys retail for $149 and are available on the Internet.

Yao Ming
Yao Ming has been criticized for being soft in the low post. No word whether that's why he's a Queen of Spades.
"If the NBA can put Allen Iverson on cards, we're going to tread on their world and sell jerseys of our poker players," Balsbaugh said.

Player ranking in the card set is based on a statistical formula: Garnett is an ace. McGrady is a king. Yao is a queen. James is a jack. Anthony is a 10.

This is not the NBA's first association with the gambling world. Sacramento Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof own the Las Vegas-based Palms Casino and Hotel. The hotel has a sports book, though bets are not taken on NBA games. NBA logos have been on scratch-off lottery tickets for many years.

"The sports leagues used to be the people that would fight like crazy to keep gambling as far away from their sport as they could," said Edward Looney, executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, who frequently met with league officials in the past. "We don't see many of them anymore. And if they want to do things like this, they can no longer say that they don't want people to gamble on their action."

Said NBA spokesman Matt Bourne of the new alliance: "We're responding to the market trends and how people are spending their leisure time."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter