Inspired by PokerStars’ decision not to renew the contract of Bertrand ‘ElkY’ Grospellier, Lee Davy, obtains the view of Eric Hollreiser, VP of Corporate Communications for the Stars Group, and shares it with you in a short history of the PokerStars Ambassadors.
Mihai Manole won the first-ever $30,000 Platinum Pass. It was a moment as perfect as the first time you fall into perfumed breasts. The chance to win millions. The opportunity to release your cycle clips and fly.
Does the name sound familiar?
It does to me.
When I first clambered onto the shoulders of poker, I chose Full Tilt as my home. Manole was a ‘Red Pro,’ a distinction that sent my hands into hysteria. I thought he was something special. They all were.
Back then there was a war going on.
PokerStars v Full Tilt.
In the pre-Black Friday days, PokerStars had over a hundred sponsored pros; Full Tilt had double that number. Times were different. Poker had burst onto the TV scene like a rocket. The average Joe was sitting at home playing on his desktop while the sweet smell of bacon filled the room and he seriously believed he could become a pro.
The theory was simple.
Hire the very best pros in the world. Cover them with logos and use them as human billboards. If Joe wants to be a professional poker player, then let’s not be the ruin of the man. Let’s give him his dream. Hold the mirror up and watch him smile.
With two giants after your signature, some of the contracts were lucrative. The smartest amongst them managed to negotiate longer-term deals that enabled them to become fused with the brand.
People like ElkY.
Black Friday came. Full Tilt died. The arms race died. The TV deals dried up. The dream of becoming a professional poker player ended. And those left in the game had one hell of a mess to clean up when it came to sponsorship.
One thing I never thought about until I spoke to Eric Hollreiser, VP of Corporate Comms, for The Stars Group, the apparent obviousness of the point eluding me, is you need a lot of human resources to manage a hoard of ambassadors efficiently.
As a survivor of the 2008 Economic Crisis, I know only too well the difficult decisions that a business has to make to survive when nobody wants your product. When Black Friday showed up we all thought we were doomed.
With no need for a walking, talking billboards, the axe came out. Except a core group of ambassadors that aligned perfectly with their mission and message, as contracts came to an end, Stars didn’t renew them.
After Black Friday, there were fewer poker markets available. The new focus was on hiring ambassadors who were great spokespersons representing the game and the PokerStars brand to a broad range of demographics.
Hollreiser told me that around 2015 it became clear that to grow, focusing on the professional side of poker wasn’t going to work. The mass marketing of the athletes was the way forward. Boris Becker, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo, Fatima Moreira de Melo, Ronaldo Nazário and Neymar Jr are just some of the stars of sport, past and present, who have represented the brand.
During my discussion with Hollreiser, he confirmed that the split testing between the attraction of the pro poker player and the celebrity sports star showed unequivocally where the value lay. And there was another dream ticket – the celebrity who loved the game. Neymar Jr was perfect in this regard.
But these beauties cost a pretty penny. PokerStars didn’t cut Ronaldo and Neymar Jr because their value lessened. They left to make way for the likes of Usain Bolt and Kevin Hart. New faces; new genres; new markets.
And the number of old-school ambassadors kept falling as those contracts ended.
The Digital Breed
When it became clear that recreational poker players were finding it tougher to remain in the game, PokerStars and the rest of the industry switched focus quickly. The ambassadorial role had to change also.
Recreational players play poker for fun. Yes, they want to make money, but primarily, poker is a form of entertainment. The younger crowd began consuming content via YouTube and Twitch. A new breed was born.
Everything changed when streaming became the next big thing. Hollreiser reminded me that although PokerStars’ Live events are an integral part of the business. The butter meets the bread in the online poker room.
Traditional live event pros like Daniel Negreanu would always remain an essential part of the PokerStars strategy, but there were new veins of value in streaming.
Hollreiser knew he wanted Jason Somerville from very early on. He saw in Somerville the future of the ambassadorial grind. A very articulate, humorous, spokesperson, who loves the game and shows recreational players that the game is fun and entertaining.
“As soon as he left Ultimate Poker I snapped him up,” Hollreiser told me.
By this time, Hollreiser’s view of what made the perfect ambassador was changing. He spoke very fondly of the decision to hire Jennifer Shahade, for example. A spokesperson for mind sports, an analytical approach, a chess champion who appealed to successful young women.
Stars utilised Liv Boeree’s academic prowess and philanthropic pleasures to great effect. The astrophysicist, rock star who travels the globe healing the sick covers a broad range of appeals. Next month, she takes the stage at TEDx Manchester to talk, amongst other things, about poker.
Maria Konnikova is another potential starlet who could follow in the footsteps of Shahade and Boeree. A two-time New York Times Bestselling author has a serious platform and loves the game, likening it to a ‘laboratory of life’.
But it’s Twitch that excites Hollreiser the most.
We began our discussion talking about the poker boom and the desire for youngsters to become professional poker players. I recently took my teenage son to the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure (PCA), and he was excited I was interviewing Jaime Staples, Kevin Martin, Lex Veldhuis and Jeff Gross, not because he knows anything about poker, but because he harbours a desire to become a professional streamer.
The interactivity on Twitch is unique. Players like Somerville, Staples and Martin are brand makers. Not only do they represent PokerStars (and it helps that they play on Stars when streaming), but they lead tribes of men and women who spend hours watching these people play poker.
Why let ElkY go?
Hollreiser didn’t want to go into the specifics, but it was clear to me that Lex Veldhuis, for example, is a more dedicated streamer than ElkY, and that matters. Veldhuis is red hot right now. Not only is he spending countless hours on his Twitch stream promoting poker as a form of entertainment, but he has a personal Discord Channel where Veldhuis’s followers are becoming a family.
Trust is vital, especially in a game where you exchange money. Recreational players, lured by the love of live streaming, are beginning to trust poker because they trust the players. Suddenly, PokerStars has a face, not a logo, and it comes in the form of Somerville, Veldhuis, and co.
The PokerStars v Full Tilt sponsorship wars are a thing of the past, but there is a new war brewing. Hollreiser was nothing but complimentary about the rise in prominence of partypoker, taking Negreanu’s recent line in my interview, that it’s about time.
I still believe ElkY has value, and expect him to sign for partypoker or 888Poker, but after spending 40-minutes on the phone to Hollreiser listening to him talk fondly of the transformation from human billboards, sports stars to streamers I can see how it makes sense for the old to make way for the new.