If you build it (right), they will come

WSOP numbers are proving the doubters wrong

Quiet please, cynics. The World Series of Poker is alive and well.

The 2014 Millionaire Maker attracted 7,977 entries, featuring 6,226 unique players. The 2014 WSOP Seniors event set a record with 4,425 players. The $1,000 pot-limit Omaha event became the largest non-hold’em event in WSOP history. The $1,500 six-handed no-limit hold’em event grew 48 percent. The $10,000 Razz championship set a record with 112 entries.

World Series of PokerThe WSOP hasn’t quite reached its halfway point, but it’s easy to say that the 2014 festival will be billed as a success when all is said and done. Attendance has trended upward due to smarter scheduling and the appeal of the Millionaire Maker, but more than that, the poker economy itself is showing signs of revitalization. There are new sponsors pushing their products at the Rio, new efforts in covering the event and a buzz most recently seen around the Rio in 2006.

So, the real question is …` why?

Over the past few years we’ve seen that the WSOP is recession proof. Millions around the world love to play the game and dream of playing on the world’s biggest stage; while the Average Joe will never skate in the Stanley Cup or take a snap in the Super Bowl, anyone can sit down at the felt with Phil Ivey if they have the dough. It’s the appeal of the challenge that drives people to the WSOP year after year and, for the first time in a few years, we’ve seen masses of amateurs make the trek.

Of course, making the pilgrimage to the Rio as an amateur isn’t cheap, and the funds needed have to come from somewhere.  The most logical place to look is the infusion of nearly $100 million back into the poker economy last February when PokerStars, as part of a purchase agreement, agreed to pay back the players whose Full Tilt accounts were frozen in 2011 on Black Friday. In a poll conducted on Twitter at the time the return of the FTP funds was announced, 80 percent of respondents said that they’d play more poker as a result.  The majority of players whose bankroll disappeared were recreational amateurs, grinding out the smaller stakes for the goal of relaxation and the thrill of making a couple bucks. Those were the players who simply enjoyed the game but yet had WSOP aspirations. You’ll find a lot of those players in Las Vegas this summer to play in the WSOP: they have their money back and what better way to reimmerse themselves into the poker community than at the premiere poker festival in the world?

As for those who made their living playing online before Black Friday, their reimbursements were typically quite larger; Blair Hinkle, for example, waited nearly two-and-a-half years to get his seven-figure bankroll back. Many of them, including Event 22 winner Chris Wallace, had to make critical life decisions as the time of the Black Friday indictments, but regardless of where life has taken them over the past three years, the WSOP was and will always be part of their culture.  Even despite the lack of a strong staking community, which thrived pre-Black Friday and had always helped drive attendance, participation is still up due to the influx of cash; whether this will continue once that money has been spent will be the story to follow for next year’s event.

In my 2014 predictions piece a few months ago, I offered a few reasons why growth for the WSOP seemed logical and one of my main focuses there was the expansion of online poker offerings. Players have returned back to the online game since heading to Las Vegas, creating a momentary boost for that effort. While that boost isn’t sustainable year round, it has translated to live growth during the festival in the form of satellite seats (195 at this writing), perhaps the only aspect of this growth than can be a result of the WSOP’s actual initiatives.

The WSOP has also partnered with numerous casinos around the country to continue to feed into the madness of the main event. Even the addition of a few hundred seats in the main event, which is likely according to the WSOP’s Bill Rini, dramatically changes the perception of the game from the outside. Having a good story to tell after the event is over is equally as important to the poker community. A successful main event will be seen as a sign of a healthy poker industry, and that is pivotal to the ability of all who benefit from poker to acquire new sponsors and investors.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from the first few weeks of the WSOP is that the current leadership team has been at this for enough time that it knows how to do things right. Sure, there will be hiccups and unexpected drama, but for the most part, it knows that when someone walks down the lengthy hallway and into the convention center, they’re a potential customer. It knows that pushing pre-registration is key and that an expedited cage process is ideal. It knows that, since Black Friday, it needed to do more in terms of on-site satellites and, for those that want to get back online, to make it easy to sign up and get started. Most of all, it knows what the bracelet means and how to market the WSOP in a way that can attract mainstream attention. All those small things, which require 10 months of planning before a single hand is dealt, are the real reasons the event is successful.

It’s not if you build it, they will come; it’s if you build it to the best of your ability, you’ll find success. The 2014 WSOP is already at that point and with the biggest tournaments ahead, it’s only going to get better.

July 2014