Heartland Poker Tour: Back and Better Than Ever

It’s June 2013 and Heartland Poker Tour Director of Operations Jen Mastrud is in Las Vegas to oversee a project that will bring the august presence of Doyle Brunson to the HPT’s broadcasts for this 2013 season. “It’s just going to be Doyle talking about Doyle, basically — his life in poker, the evolution of poker,” she says. “We’re giving that as a gift to those who like poker.”

Working Brunson into telecasts seems like a natural fit for the HPT, whose target audience is the sort that appreciates poker’s history and knows the 10-time WSOP bracelet winner’s bio by heart. Like Texas Dolly, the HPT has both enjoyed great success in poker and weathered its storms. Things are looking brighter today for the humble Midwestern-born poker tour than they ever have before. But not too long ago such an outcome was far from assured.

Heartland Poker TourWhen the Heartland Poker Tour first began in Minnesota back in 2005, poker was in the midst of its boom and the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour were in perpetual reruns to sate the American viewing public’s seemingly endless appetite for the game. HPT founders Todd Anderson and Greg Lang filled a gap in the market by providing low-cost tournaments with television coverage in overlooked locations like Colorado, Iowa, and Michigan. The tour’s events may have been held at casinos far from the glitz and glamor of the competition, but the money the winners earned spent just as well as dollars won in Vegas, Atlantic City, or the Caribbean.

The players were drawn in by the poker and drawn back by the tight-knit group running the show. While the major-league poker tours made poker a serious business, the HPT team kept the players coming back year after year by focusing on creating an enjoyable atmosphere for everyone in the tournament regardless of whether they won money. That philosophy led to consistent expansion at the players’ behest, with the tour eventually reaching bigger markets like Las Vegas, Chicago, Florida, and St. Louis. The HPT’s other focus was full TV coverage. Each tournament produces two full hours of content captured by 16 high-definition cameras, presented by two commentators and one floor reporter. That’s enough content to air a one-hour episode every week of the year to more than 100 million households through DirecTV, DISH Network, and various cable providers and local network affiliates.

Perhaps just as important as the raw numbers of the HPT’s success was how it was obtained: namely, without sponsorship dollars from offshore online poker. That wasn’t a big deal early on. But post-Black Friday, it became huge, particularly for a company running a fledgling poker league that been conceived before the government crackdown on online poker, when all that easy money was still floating around just waiting to be grabbed by anyone with a camera and a poker table. In June of 2011, Federated Sports & Gaming, the now-defunct parent company of the Epic Poker League, made an offer that Anderson and Lang couldn’t refuse. HPT became a subsidiary of FS&G before the Epic Poker League had even played its first event. By February of the following year, with Epic foundering, the deal had already had a huge impact on the HPT’s business — and not in the way the company’s founders had hoped.

“They had hoped that the baby they built would grow into a big superstar,” says Mastrud. “And they sold it to the wrong people.”

Suddenly everything was coming apart at the seams. Nobody would sign a contract of any kind with HPT, given the uncertainty brought on by FS&G’s bankruptcy filing. TV affiliates and casino partners declined to renew their relationships with the tour. “It was really a crazy time, pretty stressful,” says Mastrud. The tight-knit family of HPT producers, cast, and crew — many of whom had worked for the company since its inception — had no idea how much longer they might be able to stay together.

With no new business and no long-term security at all, the HPT team spent time going to the movies and drinking mimosas in the office. And why not? FS&G made a big show of the fact that they were restructuring rather than liquidating assets as a show of their dedication to the people who worked for the company, but the company’s restructuring plan called for using revenue from the Heartland Poker Tour to keep the rest of the company running. FS&G’s chairman, Jeffrey Pollack, had praised the company as a “great success story” less than a year earlier when he bought it. Now his worthless company proposed using that success story as fuel while it came up with some way, any way to begin paying down the millions in debt it had taken. Never mind that a concrete plan for generating its own revenue is usually what you do before you begin operations and acquisitions.

“They had good intentions and wanted to do good things in poker, but their business model was just very weak. It wasn’t sustainable,” says Mastrud, who was the HPT’s spokesperson at the time. “It damaged our brand pretty quickly. It was a pretty amazing, rapid fall — much quicker than we thought. I was against it from the start. I didn’t really give it much hope. But it unraveled much quicker than I would have ever thought. It was a crazy time.”

Eventually the FS&G restructuring fell through and HPT was purchased at auction by Pinnacle Entertainment in June 2012. Pinnacle offered positions to Anderson and Lang, the HPT’s founders, but they moved on to pursue other television ventures. With the HPT family scattered, the question was how Pinnacle would move forward with its new asset. In the end, it looked to those who had been part of that family to keep things going. Mastrud was promoted to run the tour’s operations. Fred Bevill, the fan-favorite commentator who has been to every HPT event from the very start (and picked up a wealth of production expertise along the way), became the executive producer.

“Not only do I think we’ve survived because we haven’t had sponsorship dollars tied to online poker, but also because we just do good business,” Mastrud says. “We don’t screw anybody over. It’s a real quick way to shorten your longevity in the business, I think. We’ve kept our noses clean. We’re good people to work with. People like working with us, and we have a good solid reputation.”

The opportunity for both was undeniable, but so was the task facing them. Casino clients and TV affiliates that had hit the road over the previous year had to be replaced. And the HPT crew that had built up so much experience over seven seasons of production had scattered, meaning a new crew had to be hired and trained. The first key to the new backing from Pinnacle. In short order, HPT had 10 new employees and was back to work trying to build an improved product that would make everyone forget about the FS&G debacle.

Where Pinnacle relied on those who had helped make the HPT a success in the past, Mastrud and Bevill did the same. They looked to the tour’s most important asset, the players, for guidance on how to improve their product — and they got plenty of it. “Our players tell us what they want,” says Mastrud. “They’re extremely vocal, as poker players usually are, and we mobilize to do what we can to accommodate them. We’ve been really responsive, I think more so in the last year than at any other time just because of the support with Pinnacle. They’ve really challenged us to think of things differently.”

The first major change was the tour’s tournament structure, which had come in for a lot of criticism over the years. “We actually had a joke at HPT for years that went, ‘Knock-knock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘Your structure sucks.’ That’s all we heard,” Mastrud says. To remedy the situation, HPT reached out to Daniel Negreanu to help them give build a structure that focused on more value for the players. “Daniel was amazing. He understood our time constraints, and he understood where we needed to be and who our players are. Actually, Allen Kessler said that it’s the best structure out there right now for the buy-in, which is quite a compliment.”

In a move that brings the tour up to par with the competition, live coverage is online now throughout HPT tournaments. “That’s been huge,” Mastrud says. “We started in the Midwest, and we were not on anybody’s radar for a long time. So it was hard for us to really realize that people wanted this information, that people are really following along and paying attention. So we did have to hire for live updates and build that into our site because people really seem to want that information.”

Player requests for improved commentary on HPT broadcasts also led to the hiring of the affable, well-respected poker pro Maria Ho. The hire made her the first female full-time commentator on a poker tour. “We’re really proud to have been able to offer that opportunity to a woman, which is like a footnote really because she deserves to be there regardless. She got the job because she knows poker, because she’s a winning player, and because she has a lot to offer. But it’s exciting for us to kind of break new ground.”

There have been other new developments on the media side of things. TV episodes are now syndicated to markets throughout Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, North Africa, and the Middle East in addition to the United States. On average, a single episode will air 425 times around the world during a single week. The HPT also live-streams all of its final tables on the Internet, using a slightly pared-down setup from the full TV production, and poker pros like Gavin Smith and Tiffany Michelle have been known to drop in and do guest commentary.

For all the changes, though, the HPT’s good-time ethos from the old days remains firmly in place. “People say that’s what sets HPT apart. It’s not ‘serious business.’ It’s still serious money on the line, but it’s a lot more relaxed,” Mastrud says. “People are there like a vacation, to have fun, and that’s what we’re going for. We want people to come out and have a good time.” And with the added value from the new structure, players have more reason to have a good time than ever before.

With the tour running at full steam and even more successful than it was before the debacle that led to it being placed on the auction block, the new management isn’t ready to rest on its laurels. Deals with new casino partners are in the works and will take the HPT to some brand new locations before 2013 is finished. And 2014 promises to be even bigger and better, with new stops on both the East Coast and the West Coast and more tournaments scheduled than in any previous HPT season. The first event will be a weeklong cruise on Royal Caribbean with a $1,100 main event; every player who makes the final table will win a package to play in the main event of another HPT stop later in the season and will be featured on an episode of the TV show. Offering such a prize is another first for the tour, and management is hoping it will prove to be a hit with the players.

All things considered, it seems safe to say that the HPT is well on the way to repairing the damage done to its brand. And it couldn’t be more fitting that the comeback campaign is being led by two of the staff who had to weather the worst period in the company’s history. “We’re really happy with where we are now,” Mastrud says. “This is the best possible outcome. We are just so fortunate. There’s a lot of people at Epic that lost their jobs. For Fred and I to have come out of this, still doing what we love — we’re so grateful.”

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July 2013