The WSOP looks to innovation to drive attendance for years to come | poker news

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David Tuley
The WSOP hopes innovative events like the Colossus will continue to bring players to the tables.

Adapt or perish.

Few phrases apply so universally to so many different elements of life and the world we live in, but it’s perhaps the most appropriate approach to apply in the poker world – an ecosystem that has had to change quite a bit to be relevant stay and stay as healthy as possible for the past five years.

Many of these changes were detrimental to both casual and serious players. Rising costs and shrinking fields have caused rake to surge, price point changes and shrinking prize pools across the industry. The lack of online poker in the United States (outside of Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware and a handful of highly questionable offshore sites) has prompted more pros to either play a lot more live poker than before or leave the country, just to play online . Combine that with the resources that are more readily available to players to improve much faster than in the past, and the live fields for most major tournaments are tougher than ever.

Maintaining a consistent attendance has never been more difficult, and while the simplest conclusion for tournament organizers is to hold as many no-limit hold’em events with as low a buy-in as possible to attract as many people as possible, the reality requires far more nuance in execution to appeal to both casual gamers and top-level pros alike.

That’s not to say that no-limit hold’em won’t be the most popular game now and for some time to come. Innovation can sometimes be as simple as finding the right gimmick, guarantee and mechanism to set an event apart from any other generic no-limit hold’em tournament in the world – and that’s something the World Series of Poker has done better than anyone in recent years with the Millionaire Maker, Monster Stack and most recently the Colossus.

“Every year when we look at the schedules, our goal is to make things bigger and better than the year before,” said Ty Stewart, executive director of the WSOP. “I think we saw with Colossus that we really hit a nerve and brought a new breed of player – more recreational – to Las Vegas and the World Series of Poker.”

The Colossus brought in a diverse crowd that is rare for non-Main Event tournaments. In its second year, Colossus attracted 11,713 unique players from 89 countries, continuing the trend from the first year of attracting an unusually high percentage of first-time bracelet event players – and that’s clearly one of the main goals for the future.

“I hate the concept of a ‘poker world’ because it feels very isolated,” Stewart said. “We just want to bring the mainstream into play and make it as accessible as possible.”

To call a guaranteed prize pool or first place prize an innovation may be overkill in and of itself, but it’s far from the only adjustment the WSOP is trying out. In their ongoing quest to reach the widest possible audience while providing a fun diversion for players who spend all or most of the seven weeks in Las Vegas at the WSOP, something new yet familiar has made its way onto the schedule for 2016 – a tag team event.

Teams of two to four players pay a combined buy-in of $1,000, with one member of each team seated at a table in the field.

“This is an event where we hope to see husbands and wives, frat brothers, friends from work, or anyone else who would like to put a team together,” Stewart said. “I think we’re going to see a really diverse cross-section of people all enjoying poker and that’s an amazing thing.”

[+] EnlargeDoyle Brunson

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
Even the great Doyle Brunson didn’t win all his WSOP bracelets alone.

While this particular format is a new experiment, there are also some precedents for team-based events in the history of the WSOP. In addition to a more recent non-bracelet experiment called Dream Team Poker in 2009, the late ’70s and early ’80s featured mixed doubles events in seven-card stud and no-limit hold’em where multiple bracelets were awarded before being subsequently eliminated The WSOP disappeared in 1983. One of those bracelets went to one of poker’s all-time legends.

“With the creative concepts we’re exploring, we want to make sure they align with the DNA of the World Series of Poker,” said Stewart. “When we looked back and saw that an icon like Doyle Brunson – one of his bracelets was in the mixed doubles event. We’re really looking forward to this event and I would say it’s an event that I hope will last for many years to come.”

The main demographic that the WSOP (and most companies in the world, by the way) seems to appeal to the most are millennials. The tag team event and other events appear to be attempting to evoke the kind of social experiences typically held elsewhere in Las Vegas in nightclubs or pools.

If history is any indication, success in the first year will determine whether the tag team event becomes a year-long wonder like so many other failed attempts, or grows into a regular feature like the Colossus or develops millionaire maker

“Every year at the World Series of Poker, things change,” Stewart said. “That’s how we approach it to see what’s working and what’s not.”

The trial-and-error method of creating a schedule has worked (and occasionally failed) in a number of ways, particularly over the last few years, and one of the concepts that has stood out the most is one that has become an important part of more numerous other industries – brand partnerships.

In 2015, DraftKings partnered with the WSOP to host a $1,500 no-limit hold’em tournament called “50/50,” which saw half the field finish in the money. Due to a number of factors outside of the poker world, this partnership did not carry over into 2016, but the concept of synergy between compatible brands manifested itself again in the form of an $888 buy-in tournament with 888poker.

“We are increasingly open to finding the creative fit between our events and a brand. Whether the Crazy Eights are coming back or not, we’ll have to see what the response is,” Stewart said. “As far as canvassing for corporate sponsorship goes, it’s a constant and something we’d like to see more of. We’re happy that 888 is taking care of this – I think they qualified about 150 people from around the world, which is really cool.”

It was a small change from a Lucky 7’s event held in 2015, which attracted 4,422 attendees. The Crazy Eights arrangement, which also guaranteed a first place prize of at least $888,888, was extremely beneficial to both parties as 6,761 entries proved to give the concept a major boost and more momentum for similar arrangements in the future brought.

A final notable change to the 2016 schedule was the addition of an event that begins after the $10,000 Main Event is well advanced. The WSOP has made an established event – the $1,111 Little One for One Drop – the last event on the calendar to achieve various goals.

“It’s a charity event and it’s also your last chance at a bracelet,” Stewart said. “And because it’s an unlimited re-entry event, a player can try and hope for a final outcome. It’s a cool dynamic to have both an unlimited reentry event and a charity event that should raise well over half a million dollars.”

Since international players often book trips that take them to the end of the Main Event, it gives them the chance to play for another WSOP bracelet before going home. It also gives the WSOP an opportunity to capitalize on a growing market – post-main-event tournament play. Previously, once the Main Event got underway, eliminated players would head to other hotels that were piggybacking on to the WSOP, hoping to take advantage of those players already being in town. Obviously, the WSOP doesn’t want their built-in edge to go untapped in the market.

It’s another smart game that aims to maximize potential.

“Of course, from a business perspective, we want these players to continue playing with us,” Stewart said. “The [Little One for One Drop] is an event that has traditionally been one of the biggest No Limit Hold’em events of the year – consistently over 4,500 players – and by even increasing the number of days of participation and positioning it as a last shot event, we we hope that we can expand it even further.” The WSOP looks to innovation to drive attendance for years to come | poker news

Ryan Sederquist

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