The Holy Grail
A sponsored pro. An ambassador. A member of Team [insert poker site]. It has many names and it comes in many guises, but it all means more or less the same thing: a poker site thought it was a good idea to patch you up, to identify with you and you with it.
Whether they admit it or not, the Holy Grail for most poker players is sponsorship by a poker site. The decision to turn pro was not a conventional life choice, so representing a site is not just recognition in a community of peers, but also a vindication of sorts.
it used to be the old-school player who had been there at the birth of televised poker
Poker sites have continually changed their minds on what makes a good pro. It used to be the old-school player who had been there at the birth of televised poker, the character. For a while, it was the player who had the big live tournament bink, the Cinderella Story. Then, it was someone from the game’s elite, the aspirational figure.
Now, it is the person who can not just play, but also entertain. The content creator.
The poker pro – a brief history
Online poker’s boom in the 2000s drove the demand for sponsored players, but since 2011, the number of sponsored players across the industry has been gradually shrinking.
Between 2004 and 2011, Full Tilt had, at one time or another, a total of 186 “red pros”. In 2011, PokerStars had 54 Team Pros on its roster. In 2016, that number was down to 40. Today, PokerStars has nine “Team Pro” members plus a small Twitch team. On December 31, 2020, Max Silver tweeted the evidence:
In 2018, partypoker established “Team partypoker”, consisting of 26 players and ambassadors to represent the brand. Today, between Sponsored Pros, Ambassadors, and Twitch Team members, partypoker has 22 people on its books. GGPoker hired a motley “GGCrew” of five and a “GGSquad” of six.
In 2017, Unibet Poker launched its ambassador program. What was initially a combination of pro poker players, community advocates, and esports stars is now a small team of (exceedingly handsome) global and regional poker ambassadors.
Unibet Poker ambassador’s blog packed with advice
Within that Unibet Poker team is Irish poker legend Dara O’Kearney, who has represented poker sites for exactly half of his 14 years in the game. The winner of his first major live tournament, O’Kearney was certainly the Cinderella Story.
A top tournament regular and satellite king who has been a successful staker and coach, he has without a doubt been an aspirational figure to many. The writer of hundreds of strategy articles, the author of two best-selling poker books, and an award-winning podcaster and blogger, he has also been a consummate content creator.
sites often offer other rewards and incentives to creators on a more informal basis”
It was therefore worth taking heed of his most recent blog, where he expounded at length on the topic of sponsorship in the poker industry. “A creator that reaches an audience through Twitch, a blog, a vlog, a podcast, social media or a Facebook group offers far more value to a sponsor than a loud spoken opinion pro or a genuine crusher,” he said. “Even if it doesn’t ultimately lead to full sponsorship, sites often offer other rewards and incentives to creators on a more informal basis.”
O’Kearney’s blog was jam-packed with great advice for a would-be sponsored player. He went on to make the point that players are generally signed to appeal to a specific demographic: “Someone who reaches a small but loyal niche audience is more useful from a marketing perspective for a site than someone everyone knows about but nobody cares much about.”
the community aspect that you bring is one of the main attractions for a site”
Irish Twitch sensation Fintan Hand was signed by PokerStars in 2017 and knows a lot about building an audience, having started from scratch on the streaming platform. Speaking exclusively to VegasSlotsOnline News, Hand said: “Apart for the obvious in expecting value, I believe these days the community aspect that you bring is one of the main attractions for a site.”
O’Kearney also touched on the importance of a social media presence combined with a willingness to engage, explaining: “If you want to be sponsored, you don’t ‘don’t do’ social media. You not only do it, you do it full-heartedly, and you genuinely interact with people.”
Think about who they are representing
O’Kearney’s final point was his most salient, as he introduced the oft-overlooked ethical aspect of sponsorship and its implications for a player’s personal brand. He said that he would never represent a brand he found “reprehensible”. Those who do will hear it from players and fans.
“They will associate you with the actions of your sponsor,” he added. “They may berate you about them on social media or at the table.”
On this point, one needs to look no further than Daniel Negreanu, his past tenure at PokerStars, and his current stint at GGPoker. While at PokerStars, he carried water for the company over rake hikes and after it refused to honour its commitment to Supernova Elites. Since joining GGPoker, he has defended management’s decision to sign misogynist Dan Bilzerian. Negreanu cashes a hefty paycheck each month, but there is a trade-off as he will forever be indelibly linked to the actions of his sponsors.
someone who aligns themselves with the site’s values”
O’Kearney’s wisdom has rubbed off on his many protégés down the years, not least of whom is Grosvenor pro Jamie Nixon, who offered this pearl of his own to VegasSlotsOnline News: “I believe sites look for someone who can be a positive role model, but also someone who aligns themselves with the site’s values. If all parties are pulling in the same direction, it becomes a much easier partnership which can flourish.”
An excellent piece of content in and of itself, O’Kearney’s viral blog was the proof in the pudding of the points contained within, providing a valuable road map for the next generation of sponsored pros.