One of the most discussed topics surrounding the 2009 World Series of Poker final table, outside of the actual poker play, was the sponsorship and logo wearing status of the members of the November Nine. According to WSOP rules, no more than three players at the final table are permitted to wear logos for the same entity and no logos can be added or changed once final table play starts. Thus, the online poker rooms were jockeying for position in the months leading up to the final table, trying to ink those players who had not cemented a deal.
Here was how the sponsorships stacked up for the November Nine:
James Akenhead – Full Tilt Poker
Steven Begleiter – Full Tilt Poker
Eric Buchman – PokerStars
Joseph Cada – PokerStars
Phil Ivey – Full Tilt Poker
Darvin Moon – None
Kevin Schaffel – PokerStars
Antoine Saout – Everest Poker
Jeff Shulman – Spade Club/CardPlayer
As one would expect, the two largest, most-visible online poker rooms, the ones which sent the most players to the WSOP, Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, each filled their allotment. Shulman is a CardPlayer executive, so it was a given he was going to wear gear for SpadeClub, CardPlayer’s monthly-fee poker room. Darvin Moon was the big prize as the overwhelming chip leader entering final table play, but he refused to sign with anyone.
Aside from, “Is Darvin Moon crazy for not taking money from a sponsor?”, the question that many had about the sponsorship race was, “What’s the big deal?”
To me, it’s actually a very understandable question. Those of us who have a keen interest in poker are already very much aware of PokerStars, Full Tilt, and Everest, not to mention other rooms such as Party Poker, Ultimate Bet, and Cake Poker. Stars having three players at the final table doesn’t make us think any more of them. Nor does the fact that one of the poker rooms signed a specific player. None of us knew who Steven Begleiter was before he made the final table, so the fact that he signed with Full Tilt didn’t elevate the status of the second largest poker room in our eyes.
The thing is, though, the internet poker establishments aren’t trying to get our attention. They already have it. They want the eyeballs of the very casual poker player and the potential new poker fan.
Think about it. Home Game Larry in Middle Everywhere Town, USA likes to play every few weeks with his buddies for a few bucks and few beers. He saw a commercial on ESPN for the WSOP and when Tuesday night rolled around, he remembered that poker was on, so he flipped to the telecast. Larry couldn’t help but notice that three guys were wearing the logo for one poker room and three, including the winner, were wearing logos for another. He had heard of online poker, but had never really thought about trying it. Slightly intrigued, he visits the sites, decides to create an account on one or both to play for free, and away he goes.
Or maybe Average Jane, who doesn’t know anything about poker, stumbles upon the final table broadcast and watches for a few minutes. She sees the logos, checks out the websites out of curiosity, and tries them out. After all, she likes games, and poker looks like it could be fun.
The poker sites want the new players. They already have the current ones.
It is notable, too, that only one player was sponsored by a poker room that does not accept U.S. customers. This could be a coincidence (particularly because Antoine Saout was also the only non-American at the table), but I wouldn’t be surprised if the non-U.S. sites didn’t fight as hard for November Nine players. ESPN is not available in most countries outside of the U.S., so those poker rooms like Party Poker or Titan Poker wouldn’t be getting the attention from players in their target markets.
As both the WSOP and online poker continue to evolve, the sponsorship game will change. It will be interesting to see how things shake out next year.

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