In an industry that has seen its fair share of ups and downs, it's important to remain positive, think progressively, and forge ahead despite a rocky landscape. Online poker has dipped in recent years, and there doesn't look to be any help coming anytime soon in the form of more U.S. legislation. In the live realm, though, operators are doing well, and a large part of that success has to do with people like Adam Pliska behind one of the game's most prominent brands.
"Legacy is a very big issue," Pliska said when asked about the ability of the World Poker Tour to continue to do well despite the industry's ups and downs. "For the WPT, I think if you look at the main components of the business — the television side of the business, the tournament side of the business, and the social side — they all have this one quality, and it's about narrative."
As President and CEO of the WPT, Pliska fits the mold for everything you would be looking in an executive, especially one of for poker brand. He's restored growth in a tour that was declining, delivered new-age sponsorship opportunities, and fostered new, budding relationships as recently as this week. If I was going to relate Pliska to someone in a similar, but much more mainstream role, I'd suggest another Adam — Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA.
"This show continues to get better ratings every year, and it's in its 14th season," Pliska went on to say. "That's a remarkable, remarkable statistic, but the reason why is because it's not just a taped poker show. There is a narrative, there are producers who think about what is going, what is the story that's being told, what's very important. Obviously you can't get all of those hands in a one-hour show, so you have got to be able to tell a story. Very few people know that all of the World Poker Tour is actually composed with an orchestra, all of the music is composed. We're literally telling a story."
Silver has received much praise for an enlightening and dynamic mindset, helping to continue to make the NBA what this writer believes is the most modern major sport in America today. This is something the WPT can be analogous to.
"We don't want to just put on a tournament where you go and you play and either you cashed or you didn't cash," Pliska said. "Our goal is to make — whether it is the WPT champion or the first-time amateur player — feel like they've had some kind of journey, some kind of experience, from the moment they walked in, to the people they meet, to the opportunity that they had, to the moment they leave. I think that's our focus on that journey that makes a difference. When there's just so many opportunities and you can go anywhere to play, you want to feel like this."
To go a little deeper into the comparison to Silver, let's quickly take a look at the NBA's current "This Is Why We Play" campaign. As written by Omari White from The Source, the campaign "captures the emotions behind basketball's universal appeal, showcasing stories of what motivates, inspires, and excites teams, players and fans both on and off the court."
If we take those words and alter them a little bit to showcase poker, we'd get: "the campaign captures the emotions behind poker's universal appeal, showcasing stories of what motivates, inspires, and excites players, fans, and media both on and off the felt."
Hearing what Pliska said about the WPT's legacy and philosophy surrounding narrative of the brand, it's highly evident he sees the WPT as an entertainment brand. That's much more than just a poker tour, just like the NBA is much more than just a basketball league.
"One of my favorite events is down in South Africa, and it's a moving experience," Pliska opened up about. "For instance, it was my first time going to South Africa and, yeah, the event's going on and that's exciting, but suddenly you go out and see the natural arts and you're bonding with people, and you go down and see where Nelson Mandela was locked up, his birthplace, then suddenly you walk away just feeling like you've grown a little bit. I think that matters when you put that into the TV show and you try to emphasize that about the tournaments because I think that's where we distinguish ourselves — making sure the few days that you're with us, you had an experience."
One of those experiences taking center stage right now is the season-ending event at Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Florida. The WPT Tournament of Champions is ready to take place next week, and we can compare that event to the NBA's All-Star Game. Before we get into the WPT's goal with the new event, it must be pointed out that the decision to put this event in place of the WPT World Championship hasn't come without criticism, specifically from yours truly. I'm someone who has always put the WPT World Championship on a pedestal as one of poker's most prestigious tournaments. The field was smaller than other WPT events, but much more elite and the buy-in was much larger. Simply put, there weren't many events that compared, a small handful at best.
While I'm sad to see it go, the more you hear Pliska put his thoughts into words, the better sense you get as to why the WPT made the decision to go with the Tournament of Champions format.
"I think if you really focus on what we've done in the last five years especially, it's been about celebrating the champions, and really making the Champions Club something that one wants to aspire to that actually means something," he said. "I'm a little bit embarrassed to say, but it was not more than a few years ago when someone would win a championship of the WPT and they would get a little certificate that looked like something your kid got at his school for doing the best homework project. So we really put a lot of realizing that at that point when we'd gone past 10 years and looked at the incredible players who have achieved that position and what it's taken. We really concentrated on building it up, building up the Champions Club and making it worthwhile. The WPT has always had a very unique issue with its championship. It's been been well regarded and it's got a lot of attention, but as it was constituted, really it was a very, very tough field and a very, very expensive buy-in. The good news is that champions showed up, so you could focus on champions, but [the Tournament of Champions] really zeroes that in."
When it comes to the criticisms given to the decision to go with the Tournament of Champions over the WPT World Championship, Pliska acknowledges them and believes the WPT tried to find common ground for an event that all players could enjoy, not just champions.
Just like there are people who hate the NBA All-Star Game, it's hard to argue against it being fun, entertaining celebration of the game's best-performing and star players. It's more than just that one game, too, and the WPT Tournament of Champions event, while just one tournament, is part of a much larger festival.
"I've heard those people that are frustrated because they aren't able to play and they wanted to, and I'm sensitive to that, so that is one of the reasons we wanted to make sure that there was another major event that you could play in at the same time," he said. "As I like to say, you're going to go there for the money, for the main tour event, and then they're going to go for the ego and the prestige of the Tournament of Champions. We're going to do a lot of fun things, and we're going to celebrate the champions throughout those few days. They're going to feel like the celebrities that they are, and they're going to feel like this is what it actually means to be a champion."
As any good forward-thinking, business-minded person recognizes, it's better to be proactive than reactive before it becomes too late. Oftentimes there are sacrifices that need to be made, and here that involved seeing the unimpressive numbers the WPT World Championship has produced in recent years and deciding a change needed to be made.
In Season 12, the WPT moved the World Championship from Bellagio in Las Vegas to Borgata in Atlantic City. It also cut the buy-in from $25,000 down to $15,400. In the six seasons before that point, the numbers of entries in the WPT World Championship were 545, 338, 195, 220, 152, and 146 in order of Season 6-11. The move and lower buy-in helped bump entries up to 328 and increase the prize pool by more then $1.3 million, but after that positive changes the numbers slipped again for Season 13. Entries last year dropped to 239 and the prize pool was less nearly $1.4 million.
"One of the things I've heard a number of people say that they really wanted to play this year, and while I'm sensitive to that, I once heard Geraldo Rivera — and this is the one time I'm going to quote Geraldo Rivera in my entire life — 'You all clammer for PBS, but I've seen the numbers.' It's a little bit about what we have here, which is that I know there's a lot of people now for which it's restricted and wanted to play, but the numbers have not been overwhelmingly large in terms of the Championship, because it's a very tough field and it's a very large buy-in. This allows us to get in our strong suit and to really do what we do best, which is provide a canvas where people can play and compete, and we can focus on their achievements and celebrate that correctly, so that's what we're doing."
If you expand your thinking to the entire Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open schedule, the series is massive and has something for everyone. As for "another major event" to be played, there's actually a couple.
First, there is the $3,500 Showdown Championship with a $2 million guaranteed prize pool. To reach that guarantee, this event needs 625 entries. That would make for quite a large field and create hefty paydays, but if anyone knows poker in South Florida, a four-figure field size is certainly in play, and then you're looking at over $3 million up for grabs.
Next, you've got the $10,000 Seminole Hard Rock Finale, also with a $2 million guaranteed prize pool. Whereas the Showdown Championship has a smaller price tag and allows for reentries, this event ups the ante in both cost to enter and allowing just one bullet to be fired.
Lastly, for those really looking to get the adrenaline pumping there is the $25,500 High Roller. This event does have reentries allowed and it comes with a $1 million guaranteed prize pool. If this event and the $10,000 one don't satisfy the appetites of those upset with the WPT doing away with the World Championship, then the WPT is just never going to win.
The point is, the WPT recognized two things through all of this. One, the old WPT World Championship model wasn't going the way they had hoped, even after the move. Two, there is certainly still a demand for higher buy-in events, as was vocalized by a lot of the playing community.
"This to us is our party, this is not just another event," said Pliska. "My direction to the staff was, 'Let's use this as our celebration.'"
And celebrate they will.
To appease players even more, the WPT then went and added money and prizes to the WPT Tournament of Champions purse, plus Monster threw in a 2016 Chevy Corvette.
"Thanks to Monster, as they and Noel Lee have been such great champions for the WPT as they believe in the same thing that we do, which is it's about the story, the people, and being very personal and interactive," Pliska said regarding the Corvette offering. "We were talking to them about the Tournament of Champions and they wanted to do something unique, and it was their suggestion to bring also in addition to sponsoring the event a contribution of a Corvette, which is great. Speaking of the Corvette, they're going to have to get it somewhere around the world because a lot of the champions are based in Europe. But again, I can't say enough about how much I and we at the WPT appreciate Monster, but also all of our partners."
Those other partners he points to include Hublot, Aurae, BBO Poker Tables, Shadow Creek Golf Course, and the Tiger Woods Foundation, all of which have pitched in to offer something for the WPT Tournament of Champions.
"I think the Aurae gold card is a really cool thing, too," Pliska said. "I still haven't gotten one myself, but Lynn Gilmartin already has hers. It really is a solid gold MasterCard and it's insured by Lloyd's of London if you lose it. It's a credit card that's made of solid gold, and it comes with that year of VIP and concierge services that are wild, they're crazy wild. This is the ultimate, you know, I need a helicopter in the middle of New York City or I need to wear the green jacket at the Masters. It's that type of stuff, and there will be some more things that we do, that are just small little touches. I won't tell you that this is going to be the greatest thing that ever has come from poker, but what I will say is that we're really going to try. We're really going to try to make this meaningful and sentimental and make it special."
There's also the host venue, Seminole Hard Rock, which has worked with the WPT for several years now. WPT events at Seminole began in Season IX with the Seminole Hard Rock Showdown. Including that event, there have been nine WPT main tour events at Seminole Hard Rock.
"It's just a terrific venue, it's exciting, and we're very proud," Pliska said of Seminole Hard Rock. "We're having our casino summit there, so literally all of our casino partners are flying in from all over the world. It's just one of those places where you know you're going to have a good time, you're proud to be there, and it just seems like a very great place to be celebrating not only the Tournament of Champions, but also a massive event. It's home to the largest event we've ever had. Over the last five years, if you add it all together, the prize pools amount to over $27 million."
With lofty ideas come great risk, though, and that's not something that is lost on Pliska. He believes in his vision, but he also understands you have to check the results, make adjustments, and look to improve.
"We'll learn from it, and I'll be very honest with you afterwards, where we messed up and where I think we succeeded," he said.
Lastly, Pliska was asked about the relationship with the company's new owner, Ourgame International Holdings Ltd., which acquired the WPT in June 2015 for $35 million.
"It has been the most wonderful blessing," he said. "What Ourgame has allowed us to do [is to] to have fun and really play with the brand. I think if you look — and you're probably more sensitive to this than most people — we didn't do a lot of things in the last nine months of 'Hey, look what we're going to do!' because we're finally with a group that we're in for the long haul and our idea was, 'Let's wait until we can prove it, let's use our actions.' Obviously with things like the Tournament of Champions, now that we're going to do it, we're going to talk about it. They're incredibly supportive, and they're opening up great opportunities for us."
A couple of those new opportunities Pliska focused on were eSports and social gaming. If you ask him, with Ourgame's support the future to get more involved more in these two areas is bright.
"They have a massive commitment to eGaming," Pliska said. "The unique thing about the World Poker Tour production is that it took poker, which people thought was a very hard concept to digest on TV, and it made it much easier for the fan to digest. We'll be very much involved in their eSports business in a similar sense, so that gives us other areas to work with. Their relationships in China — [Ourgame has] 500 million registered users on their platform in China, 23 million active users on their poker platform just in China alone — this allows us to send lots of social gaming players to things. If we went back a dozen years and we were able to take not only just the online gaming players that were coming from sites like partypoker and and PokerStars, but also social gaming players, just think, they sent 800 players to our event in Sanya last year. You should see the interest that grows and their guidance out there in Asia, plus their relationships with the online distributors. Here and in Europe, traditional TV is a very big deal, but if you're in China, mainland China and most of Asia, you're traditional TV is similar to watching PBS. Maybe your parents do it, but you're not doing that. But the online distribution stations have been tremendous, and Ourgame has been great in terms of that relationship. I couldn't be happier and we have a lot more exciting things coming up. With their support — and I probably said this then, but now I'm sure — that the acquisition is the thing that guarantees that the World Poker Tour is around for the next 15 or 20 years and able to grow and not have some of the pressures that others do.
"I think we're starting something very important here being in a place where we're strongest."
*Photos courtesy of the WPT.