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More than the Games

As poker's popularity skyrockets, many of the top names in the game are making more money as media darlings than as competitive players
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Antonio Banderas, Nov/Dec 2005

(continued from page 1)

This was not lost on Brian Balsbaugh who, through most of the 1990s, was a sports agent focusing on professional golf, a game with famously large tournament purses that are rivaled by those offered at World Poker Tour events. No doubt, though, he also considered the fact that lucrative sponsorship deals turn winning golfers into extremely well-paid athletes. In 2003, he launched Poker Royalty, a company devoted to managing and marketing poker players in the same way that mainstream sports stars are handled.

Cut from the slim, handsome and confident mold that Jerry Maguire made famous, Balsbaugh is a hard-working, hard-hustling guy who came into poker at a time when few other people saw its potential. As a result, he's scooped up many of the game's biggest players for representation and has contributed mightily to the poker-is-bigger-than-poker cash grab. "When I first started, there was a stigma attached to poker; it sounded absurd for a Fortune 500 company to sponsor a poker player," says Balsbaugh as he sips bottled water near the Bellagio's jam-packed poker room. "I became encouraged when I looked at NASCAR and X Games and saw the evolution of sponsors. It always starts with something endemic—motor oil for NASCAR and skateboards for X Games—before the other advertisers come in. With poker, the online sites were the first sponsors. Then came poker products, such as chips and instructional materials. Now we're at the outskirts [of mainstream] with Oakley sunglasses and liquor and beer. The others will follow."

The degree to which someone such as Balsbaugh can help his clients was on display during the taping of NBC's Heads-Up event. For that single poker tournament, he quickly procured $300,000 worth of sponsorship deals, leading 10 or so players on the show to make no less than $25,000 each, which more than covered their entry fees. In time, predicts Balsbaugh, "We'll laugh at the notion of a guy like Daniel Negreanu spending $300,000 per year to play in tournaments that other entities are filming."

One player who won't be laughing, if the big free-roll comes to pass, is Howard "Poker Professor" Lederer: a former chess wizard turned mega-sports bettor turned poker pro who personifies all things brainy about the game. (He initially hated the nickname when it was bestowed upon him by poker commentator Jesse May; now, with all the positive attention it's brought him, he loves it.)

Like most of the top-winning pros, Lederer is happy to put his own money at risk. He wants to be fairly compensated for playing and for having his likeness on TV, but he prefers for the producing entity to sweeten the pot rather than merely provide it. "Poker is different from, say, golf," explains Lederer. "Top poker players make money by putting up money; we gamble. So I think something gets lost in the pure free-roll aspect. I say the production companies should make the players put up money—lots of money—and they should put up a lot of money themselves. I'm thinking $20,000 from each player and $20,000 per player from the tournament [producer]. Do that, have amateurs getting in, allow logos, and you really have something."

Indeed, in the currently rarefied world of big-money poker, prizes that used to seem juicy now elicit yawns. "I was in San Diego, playing with Phil Ivey and Gus Hanson; I was stuck $1.3 million before getting back to even," remembers Daniel Negreanu, winner of the best overall player award at the 2004 World Series. "Then the next day I had to fly to San Francisco to spend three days trying to win $200,000—if I finished in first place. I was like, 'You're kidding, right?' It's disheartening to play these tournaments with no buy-in"—and no chance at a seven-figure payday.

For Lederer, the ancillary growth of the game has allowed him to sign pacts with the online poker site, Knob Creek Bourbon (Phil Hellmuth says that this is the $100,000 deal that he turned down) and an instructional DVD producer. Plus, Lederer has enough notoriety that he (like Hellmuth) has his own poker fantasy camp. "Life is richer now; I wake up every morning and know what I'm going to do that day. It's hectic, but it's fun," he says. The downside of all this, Lederer admits, is that the quality of poker ultimately suffers. As one who has moved out of the biggest cash games and into the higher-profile (but ultimately softer, less profitable, less financially risky) tournaments, he says, "Some of the best players in the game are very distracted right now. A lot of that is due to the fact that there are life-changing businesses to be built. And these are opportunities well beyond [poker]."

Not all of the opportunities are hard work. Poker's über-celeb of the moment is Negreanu, a Toronto native. He was tapped to throw out the game ball on opening day for the Blue Jays, and when the National Hockey League hosted a charity hockey game, Negreanu signed on to be a celebrity coach—and he says he attracted more autograph seekers than the hockey stars did. Right now he is the fresh young face of poker—with deals that are highlighted by his own Xbox poker game, being released through Microsoft and Sony, and a plum gig as "poker ambassador" for Steve Wynn's new eponymous casino. A friend of Negreanu's tells me, "He's going to make $1 million in 2005 without needing to play a single card."

Early in our conversation, I ask Negreanu whether or not this is true. He smiles and says, "If I don't make at least $1 million this year, I will be sick to my stomach." He lets that sink in, then adds, "What I mean is that a million is a low estimate, and that within the next couple years $2 million is attainable."

He'll make the money through sales of his Xbox poker game, speaking engagements (Negreanu, a high school drop-out, lectured the MBA-intensive marketing department of Kraft Foods on applying poker strategies to marketing and management), and endorsement deals such as the one he has with Clear Edge, a non-stimulant vitamin that supposedly battles mental fatigue (perfect for the tail end of a 36-hour poker marathon). Like other players who are finding fame and fortune beyond the felt, Negreanu has the four qualities that Balsbaugh seeks in a sellable player: A unique look, a good personality, a solid poker résumé and the desire to be marketed.

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