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WPT President Adam Pliska: It’s The Best Job in the World

TAGs: Adam Pliska, audio interview, Lee Davy, Ourgame, World Poker Tour, WPT

WPT President Adam Pliska: It’s The Best Job in the World Audio

Lee Davy sits down with the President of the World Poker Tour, Adam Pliska, to talk about the work that has led to them achieving their most impressive financial performance to date, and what it takes to lead such a dynamic company.

Adam Pliska is a leader, pure and simple. You only have to spend a few minutes in the presence of the man and you know he’s just got it.

WPT President Adam Pliska: It’s The Best Job in the WorldHe carries the title ‘President’ but you don’t feel the need to bow in his presence. Instead, you want to buy him a beer, and shoot some pool with the man. He understands people. He knows how they tick, and he acts accordingly.

He’s also a very savvy businessman. How do I know that? He has been the President of the World Poker Tour (WPT) for a very long time. That means he’s doing something right. Let’s find out what that is.

You lead one of the most prestigious poker tours in the world. Tell me a little bit about your personal journey – the challenges that you have faced, and the principles that guide you.

“Everyone has a unique story on how we ended up in this poker world. I was a TV producer, and a lawyer, for many years. I was producing this TV show, and my girlfriend at the time said she was going to Berkeley. I said, “I’ll go to Berkeley with you,” and I ended up getting my law degree. I was hired by the US Senate to be the lead counsel for the Intellectual Property Division for the Senate Judiciary Committee. I turned them down because a friend of my mine had started this company called the World Poker Tour. He wanted to know if I could come in for three weeks to clean up some legal stuff. Three weeks turned into three months. I found out that it was everything that I could have hoped for in regard to entertainment. There was licensing, a sports element to it, there was TV – all of these interesting things came together to make a business that felt right to me.”

What was your original vision when you became President and how has that altered over time?

“For years, I was behind the scenes crafting the deals. To me it was this fascinating puzzle. Poker was exploding, but the question was: “How do you create a business and brand that was long lasting?” Back then everyone was out with a bucket collecting all of this cash that was dropping from the sky.

“When I became the President of the company there was already this wonderful brand. I didn’t create the WPT. I hope, that one day, if I am going to leave my legacy, I will be remembered as the person who helped stabilize the company and made it a strong permanent business. I think we have a great incentive, along with the other major poker tours, to have good healthy solid businesses. This evolution of the poker world has been so quick. What was important was to find the business opportunities and grow this to stabilize it. I am a big advocate that we need good healthy tours and businesses out there.”

You mention other tours such as the European Poker Tour (EPT) and World Series of Poker (WSOP). When you look at your competitors what emotions and feelings come up for you?

WPT President Adam Pliska: It’s The Best Job in the World“They are rivals in the strictest sense of the definition, but they are not rivals that I am trying to eliminate. I don’t want them to go away. Their health and vitality is good for our business and the poker market in general. There have been lesser type ventures out there that I don’t believe are good for the market – and I don’t support that. But the bigger tours are not going away.

“Some of the things we have seen on the WPT – like our expansion into sponsorship – I am not trying to monopolize that. I want that for the entire industry. Both the EPT and WSOP have a very interesting product. We have our own niche, but I respect them all. There will be times when it won’t exactly work out, but it’s always better that we do co-operate.”

Do you work together effectively?

“It’s certainly gotten better. I have spoken to Edgar {Stuchley} at the EPT, and Ty {Stewart} at the WSOP. It’s not always going to work – and that’s OK – but there is a spirit there. Everyone understands that this market is not only big enough for all three of us, we are somewhat inter-dependent on each other. As long as the products put out there are good quality, you will have the support of the WPT.”

What drives you?

“I didn’t come from the poker industry per se. So for me this is a personal journey of managing people. There is nothing more exciting than helping people who have vision, and passion, to achieve those things and make this community better.

“It’s the best job in the world. You always hear of people saying they discovered people or they were responsible for someone’s rise to success – that’s a myth. No one creates a talent. We have a lot of staff who are exceptional, from commentators, to models, to anchors – and you can play a meaningful role in their development.”

“I am a coach. That’s my job; I am just renting this position. My goal is to make sure we have a solid foundation and the company can run for many of years into the future.”

Define leadership.

“The number one thing is hiring the right people and giving them the room to make mistakes. We all make mistakes. If you allow people to go out there and try things, just like poker, you can make the right decision and get the wrong outcome. As long as you are willing to support that – great things can happen. Get out of their way and don’t make things complicated for them.”

It must be hugely satisfying to unearth talent?

“In truth the return is so much more satisfying than the contribution. Lynn {Gilmartin}, Mike {Sexton} and Vince {Van Patten} are just a few examples of people with incredible talent. It doesn’t matter where they are working, or what they are doing, they will always make it to the top. Lynn is not only a great gifted talent; she is a good human being. My job is to clear some paths and allow her to shine. For me, I just am glad that I contribute to their journey. I’m happy that I get to work with people that I admire, and that they are a fun group of people.”

Can you give me an insight into the financial performance of the WPT?

“Sure, it’s not something that is normally discussed, and it’s probably the most interesting story about the WPT. In 2003, when we went public, thank goodness we did because that money sustained it for many years. It had never made a profit. I don’t think we have ever spoken openly about this. For 7-8 years it never made a profit. Then in 2008 it was in a very difficult position. In 2009, it was interesting time for me. Should I take a position as President of the company or leave to do something else?

“Since that time – I will give you some context – we sold the WPT in 2009 for $12 million dollars. I suspect that most people would not be interested in selling it for $50 million today. It has grown substantially. In 2009, we had 14-events and now we have 70-events. What I like to think are better and more quality events.

“We really focused on what our product was and did some heavy reflection. The product we had in 2009 had diminished. Competition and a number of things contributed to making the product really suffer. Now we have a multi-million dollar sponsorship program that literally didn’t exist a few years ago. We have a tour management program that is so successful we can focus on the quality and marketing of events. It’s been great. This year has been the best financial year the WPT has ever had. I would say three times better than at any other time. We are certainly in a good place.”

What are your key metrics?

“We have a lot of events and what we don’t want to do is have too many events. We are always monitoring how many people are coming through the WPT. We have seen a huge rise in the number of people who are having a WPT experience. That might not have a direct financial effect on us, because that’s not how our business model work, but it’s important to us. It shows how important the product is.

“The ratings of the TV show is another key metric. This year – and I have never seen this in my experience – we had our highest ratings. We are going into 13-seasons and we are still having the numbers we are. It’s tough. You are talking to the same audience. How do you keep growing that? We have a remarkable production group that are always thinking about that.”

What are the biggest opportunities for poker tours today?

“Our group has shown over the past year or two that there are tremendous sponsorship opportunities that are not being exploited. We were guilty of that. For years we went without a substantial sponsorship program. Eventually we asked why? After some reflection we looked at this and we developed a program where the sponsors could understand what we had to offer. Sponsors needed to know what their return was. They know that now.

“We have just announced a deal with OurGame. This is a major step forward for us. They are a remarkable partner. They have one of the major social media networks in China. They sent 700 social media players to our event in Sanya. You can read that as the ability to inject right into the ecology of poker. When we say we are going into China, and expand, it doesn’t mean we are doing a bunch of one-of-stops, it means we have a partner who is going to inject players into our product. You are going to see a huge boom out there.”

You have brokered fantastic deals with the likes of Hublot and Monster. How difficult is it for a poker company to attract sponsorship deals with non-gambling companies?

“For years I couldn’t get it. We had the ratings but people weren’t biting. We hired an outside firm and it didn’t turn into anything. We hired people to take a look at the inside and it didn’t turn into anything. In the end we had to eat some humble pie. We must have been doing something wrong. What we learned was the market had changed. The biggest problem with sponsorship is that people are trying to serve up 2006 sponsorship in 2014. It doesn’t work anymore. You need a dynamic, integrative system that quickly gets back to these sponsors the value that they’re getting. You need to be able to react to that and be flexible for them. The biggest buzz we have is our sponsors are renewing. They keep adding on because they see the value. That’s because we have dedicated people in place to ensure they get what they need.”

I don’t think the main tours are talking to the players enough. What’s your opinion on that view?

“I think it’s a fair criticism and I will tell you what we have done to address it. The first thing we did was hire Matt Savage as our Tour Director. It was important that people felt comfortable talking to us, and Matt is a big advocate for talking to players, and people feel comfortable talking to him.

“We have started to initiate surveys and more importantly we have had some serious conferences on the results. We will be doing some things in the next few events as a direct result of that type of feedback. In addition to that we have started to invite players to small forums to talk about poker. I can’t tell you that it’s the most democratic system; it’s not – but it’s been tremendously useful.

“The WPT is not immune to what every poker tour is susceptible to. You are in your own hamster wheel – you start to read your own PR. The nice thing about poker players is they are honest. They just come out and tell you. I am open to feedback. We are not going to tell you we know all the answers – we don’t  – but we are evolving. We will continue to make mistakes, but also continue to get better.”

Hublot WPT Shot Clock – when is it coming in?

“In 2004, we ran this show called The Professional Poker Tour. It was an invite only group and we used the shot clock and they loved it. I would like to introduce it, and Mike Sexton loves it. I think we need to experiment with it at an event. I am hoping as we go into Season 13 that we will at least try it. It creates some production issues, but I think it only enhances the drama and I would like to see it.”

What are the biggest misconceptions about the WPT?

“Over the years I have heard people ask whether the WPT is going to be a marketing vehicle for online gaming. The irony of that is literally over the last few years everyone has been holding their breath for an online gaming entity in the US, and the WPT has never had better years whilst everyone has been waiting. It’s a nice healthy growth – a good foundation.

“Another misconception is that we control every aspect of the tour. We have a lot more influence, but we are still dealing with gaming regulators and casino partners.”

How complicated is it to host a poker tournament the way that you want to host it, but also satisfying the needs of the venue?

“It is tough, but it used to be tougher. It’s not like we are hungry for events anymore. This allows us to be a little more choosy. But it’s still a task. Another task – the most difficult one – is the scheduling. We aren’t only scheduling our events. We are scheduling around EPT events, WSOP events, HPT events. It’s a balance. I give a lot of credit to Angelica and Hermance who have to deal with the casino partners.”

“On another note, people are always saying that poker is a male dominated experience. The interesting thing is, this is the first year that the WPT has had more senior executives that are women and not men. That’s the great thing about poker – it doesn’t discriminate. It can, but you don’t have to let it.”

The Royal Flush Girls have come under fire from females within poker regarding how their role affects the wider society on issues relating to sexism. What’s your view on this?

“I take the hiring of everyone who touches the WPT brand very seriously. The Royal Flush Girls is a very tough position. They are not used in the same way that models are used in traditional sports. They are ambassadors of the company. They are making celebrities of the players who are our family on the tour.

“We had 900 people auditioning for the roles that we have. It’s very tough. If you know the quality of people it’s different. These are playing a very different role and I am proud of all of them. For example, Jeannie served seven years in the air force, and Angelique has recently left because she has got one of her apps approved. They are great people, I am proud of them and happy that they are part of the family.”

You have a three tier structure of buy-ins. Was this always a plan of yours?

“It’s like everything. It’s a mix of plans and adaptation. There are actually four tiers. There are the $500 events, the regional events, the WPTDeepstack events, the Main tour events, and then Alpha8 events. It really is serving one of our goals, which is to provide product at every level.

“The WPT brand is about you being comfortable to jump on the train at anytime. If you want to play for free then head over to ClubWPT and play online. We got a lot of first time players in our first $500 buy-in and they were very excited. If you play on the Main tour that’s a great feeling for people.

“We thought the Alpha8 would be so different than it is. Because it’s a $100,000 event we thought it would be so intense. Instead it’s got this wonderful feeling of togetherness.”

Lessons learned from Alpha8?

“Originally we had planned a lot more Alpha8 events. I don’t think that’s wise. We need to be mindful of the poker ecology; it’s a lot of money. We originally thought we could do about 20 events, but we need to be thoughtful about that.

“They are special. But they are can’t supplant the main tour. It’s tough to organize $100,000 buy-ins. We have just had our biggest event at The Bellagio and it’s tough.

“On the other side it makes for a fantastic show and gives viewers a different view of poker. It’s getting very tough to get a final table where people tune in and know the players. The fields are so big that you might not recognize a lot of them. Alpha8 fixes that problem perfectly.”

There have been a lot of poker companies dropping sponsored players of late. What’s your view on the model and what it brings to a business?

WPT President Adam Pliska: It’s The Best Job in the World“I love the WPT and that it’s a multi-media brand. That’s my focus. There are better people to speak about this issue than myself. I think people are looking at the online gaming market and the tolerance for waiting has changed, and people are saying, “let’s have a more conservative position until this opens up.”

“I think there is great opportunity for poker players in the future. It’s just the market needs to shake out of it. People are trying to figure out what this model is? Ultimately, one thing we always remember at the WPT, and real money gaming sites are going to have to remember, is this is all about the players. They are our actors. They are our stars. We may have experiments with celebrities, but we will always come back to our players.”

If you were to leave a set of principles for your successor to take the brand onto the next level – what would they be?

“The number one thing is you have to be humble. Don’t get caught up thinking this is about you. This is about this extraordinary family of talented people working for a higher goal. As long as you wake up every day and are in admiration of that you will be happy every single day.

“We also have a very flat management structure. I have department heads – and they run their business – and then there is me. The speed to which a player comes up with an idea and it gets to me is very quick. It’s unusual, but you have to do this, you have to be nimble and quick.”

“Finally, we treat everyone like family. When I was the GC the thing I was the proudest of was that we talked to people and figured things out. We got through tough times together. I used to tell the legal team if you ever come into this office happy that you got someone then you are fired. We are not trying to eke out a little bit of work; we are building long-term relationships. We want people to say that the people at the WPT were classy people and they had great relationships with us.

“You need to enjoy everyday. This is a very wacky strange world of very highly intellectual people out there. If you are excited by it then the next person will also do a great job.”

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