Friday, November 21, 2008

The Secret Struggle of the Starmaker (on Marketing the 2008 WSOP Main Event final table)

Mistakes were madeAnother interesting episode this week of the Gary Wise podcast, Wise Hand Poker (the 11/19/08 episode). Wise interviews Barry Greenstein for the first half of the show, and the two discuss the recent World Series of Poker Main Event final table, the new “red pro” forum on PokerRoad, and other matters. Wise then has Harrah’s Sports and Entertainment Director of Communications Seth Palansky on and they continue the discussion of the delayed final table and the relative success of the experiment.

During the latter interview, Palansky reveals some of Harrah’s intentions regarding marketing the “November Nine” and building hype around the ESPN broadcast. He talks about how they’d apparently decided “to treat the Nov. 9 as a finale, like you would a movie opening, which means you don’t want to strike too early.” Comparing the final table to a much-anticipated movie premiere, Palansky explained “You’re trying to get people to the box office, to make the decision to purchase a ticket and go watch a new movie. So the real crux of the promotion should have been around the last couple of weeks.”

Apparently (according to this here post-mortem), various factors, including the Olympics, the presidential election, and even the economic crises made it more difficult for promoters to “strike” at that crucial time -- i.e., the last two weeks before the table was played and then shown on ESPN. Sounds a little strange, frankly, given that everyone knew back on May 1 when the Olympics and the election were scheduled.

Palansky goes on, though, to cast further aspersions in the effort to explain why the November Nine was not the huge cultural phenomenon organizers had envisioned it to be.

He also blames the players. That’s right. Now that the final table has finished, the Director of Communications for Harrah’s has decided it is okay to suggest the players themselves were somehow to blame for the failure of the idea.

On Wise’s show, Palansky said he wanted to “break” the news that two of the November Nine had been offered the chance to do guest spots on mainstream talk shows -- the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and the Ellen Degeneres show -- and both turned down the opportunities. Wise was unable to get Palansky to identify which players were the ones asked, but on the 2+2 thread about the interview Dennis Phillips’ agent says he was not made any such offer. Gotta believe that. I mean, I know Hard-Boiled Poker is the cat’s pajamas and all, but I can’t imagine Phillips would do an interview with me (and about 200 others) and not do one with Jay Leno or Ellen Degeneres! Scott Montgomery also chimes in on the thread to say that he doubts the claim is even valid (“umm, i think this whole thing sounds like a load of bs to me” says Montgomery).

After passing along that item, Palansky then offers lengthy judgment of the players who he says refused the chance to take poker to the mainstream:

“But one of the reasons why I wanted to come on here with you tonight Gary, was to express a concern I do have for some of the advice and some of the moves poker players are making. Because if you want to mainstream a game, and if you’re trying to get corporate America to buy into what you’re selling, you need Tom Bradys, you need Peyton Mannings, you need Michael Jordans, etc. If we have guys that aren't willing to take that mantle, or the same ten, twelve guys that you see getting a lot of attention at the Main Event early on: the known names for their antics or whatever the case may be. If people want to leave it just to those dozen, they can’t grow the game. For all the others, they’ve got to take advantage of the opportunities that get presented to them, and it’s unfortunate that in situations where we had a successful pitch and an opportunity for our players to be on that national stage, they chose not to.”

(Thanks, by the way, to Kevin Mathers for doing the transcribing work.)

I don’t even know where to begin, there are so many incorrect assumptions underlying such a view. Not to mention the fact that when the final table delay was first announced, WSOP Commish Jeffrey Pollack made it abundantly clear that nothing in particular would be expected of the nine who made the final table in the way of promotional activities.

For one, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of poker players, generally speaking, many of whom don’t want to be Peyton Manning (or Phil Hellmuth or fill-in-the-blank). Secondly, there’s a misapprehension about the tournament itself, wherein the cash prize for winning far exceeds any possible benefits a guest spot on Leno might bring a person (and thus should be weighed accordingly).

There’s also a fairly misguided view about poker’s place in popular culture. Palansky comes to poker via the National Football League where he also served as Communications Director. His comments seem to suggest that poker is perfectly analogous to football, both in the way it is played and presented and its place in the public consciousness. Poker has a real problem, I think, if those in charge of promoting the WSOP are going to continue to operate under this assumption.

In the 2+2 thread, Shane “Shaniac” Schleger” offers his rejoinder to such a view. He finds it “disingenuous and frustrating to blame player apathy or laziness for not helping to ‘grow the game,’” pointing out how Harrah’s, the WPT, and other corporations haven’t exactly compensated players generously (or at all) in the past. He goes on to call it “delusional” to think any of the nine who made this year’s final table were “going to have the motivation and charisma to try and become the next Hellmuth,” and thus thinks a “new strategy” is in order.

Over on the Big Poker Sundays radio show, Schleger suggested that like Scott Montgomery, he was doubtful Palansky was even being truthful with his claim about the Leno/Ellen offers.

I can’t imagine why Palansky would make up such a thing, although it does uncannily recall Lou Krieger’s recent observation, voiced on his podcast and repeated on his blog, that he “expected to see these guys on all the major TV shows, much the same as you see movie stars trotted out on the talk show circuit whenever they have a new film to promote. It was really disappointing that none of them got a chance to talk poker with Letterman, or play some cards with Ellen, or appear on any of the morning network shows. That would have been a real build up.”

Even if the claim is truthful, I can’t say I see the purpose in throwing the November Nine under the bus this way except perhaps to try to bully the next group of poker players who make the 2009 Main Event delayed final table subsequently to perform more closely to Harrah’s wishes. Which -- even if successful -- would not necessarily produce desired results (to my way of thinking). ’Cos poker ain’t football. Nor will it ever be.

I guess there is one aspect of all of this that relates to poker -- the idea of blaming others when things don’t go one’s own way.

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Blogger Gene said...

Like you said, it's hard to know where to begin when discussing how wrong-headed this all is. But even if everything Palansky said was true (and I'm of the opinion that practically none of it is) why would you say it in PUBLIC? You're publicly trashing the guys who made the final table of the WSOP crown jewel? Is this going to make future final-tablers eager to get into bed with Harrah's?

The ratings for the final table were up 50% this year. It was a success! So what if Nike and Toyota and Coke didn't rush to put their logos all over the November Nine. First, I think pushing the NASCAR paradigm on poker is ludicrous. Second, how anxious are big-time corporate sponsors going to be to play second fiddle to Milwaukee's Best Light and online poker sites that operate in a murky legal landscape?

11/21/2008 1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Gene.

11/21/2008 9:17 PM  
Blogger Random Table Draw said...

This just blows me

11/23/2008 12:03 AM  

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