It seems like every professional poker player in the world is sponsored by an online poker room. From the biggest name legends to the young internet stars to the latest player to win a big World Series of Poker or World Poker Tour event, the major poker rooms are lining up to sign whomever they can. All of the leading poker rooms except Party Poker, that is.
A few years ago, Party Poker was the behemoth of the online poker world. Since the legislative shake up in the United States, Party Poker has fallen to fourth in cash game traffic, largely because it has shut out U.S. customers. But what has stayed the same is that it has kept out of the race to sign spokespeople. Back in the day when Party Poker was king, the venerable Mike Sexton was the face of the site. He, of course, played there, but it’s not like he was known to spend hours upon hours online. Sexton was from poker’s “old school,” having been friends with the likes of Stu Ungar, and was best known as the colorful and charismatic announcer on the World Poker Tour.
But now, the only hints of Mike Sexton’s presence on PartyPoker.com are three old pages found when searching for his name on the site. Party Poker has no sponsored pros or spokespeople today, at least none that are publicized.
In the meantime, PokerStars has almost 30 resident pros, including mega-names like Daniel Negreanu, Barry Greenstein, and Greg Raymer. Full Tilt Poker, which was launched seven years after Party Poker, has used the lure of playing and chatting with famous pro players as a way to attract customers. Founded by pros, it now lists almost 140 professional players, including Howard Lederer, Phil Ivey, Gus Hansen, Mike Matusow, Jennifer Harman, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, and Patrik Antonius, as well as a few serious amateurs, as having some sort of affiliation with the site. Both are now the two largest online poker rooms in the world.
So why has Party Poker refused to get on the celebrity poker player train? It’s anyone’s guess, really, but I’ll put my poorly thought-out theory forward. Party Poker, in addition to being a very solid online poker room, advertising itself well, and developing a strong affiliate base, had a first-mover advantage in the internet poker market. No, Party Poker wasn’t the first online poker room, but it was probably the first very successful one. In this way, it was similar to eBay, in that being the first good, successful site of its kind allowed its business to grow faster and stronger than its competitors. The ball was rolling just fine, so Party Poker didn’t need to spend money on pitchmen.
Additionally, for a long time, Party Poker’s image was to be a poker site where casual players could feel comfortable, where people could get together and have a poker “party.” Professional players do not really fit that image. And while many, many internet pros played there because the competition was soft (again, Party Poker was known for its casual players) and the tables were always full, there was not a particularly impressive loyalty program in place to pull heavy players from other sites. Party Poker was a place for people to go to just have fun.
Then, after a while, the biggest name poker pros got scooped up by other rooms. And even if Party Poker could put together an attractive compensation package for some top pros, they would probably be unlikely to make the switch because Party Poker is no longer a U.S.-facing site. It is doubtful that it is a coincidence that the most famous contemporary pros represent almost exclusively poker rooms that allow U.S. customers, including Ultimate Bet (Phil Hellmuth, Annie Duke) and Doyle’s Room (Doyle Brunson, Todd Brunson, Mike Caro, Hoyt Corkins). Despite the U.S. government’s efforts to put the clamp down on online gambling in the States, the country is still a large market, offering players excellent exposure.
If, someday, the online poker market opens back up in the United States and competition explodes amongst online poker rooms, things may change. Party Poker might be able to poach some players from other sites. In the meantime, Party will just need to stay the course.