Is the World Series of Poker bound for the Internet? Numerous reports indicating that Harrah's Interactive and gambling software supplier WagerWorks are planning to launch a WSOP Web site have it that way, but neither company is commenting on the rumor.
Citing "Harrah's insiders," the Financial Times reports that the rumored site could be ready for launch by the second quarter of 2005.
According to the British publication, the WSOP online poker room will be part of a Harrah's campaign to gain a European presence. Harrah's is aiming to build brand loyalty in the United Kingdom in anticipation of liberalized gambling laws that would allow the company to enter the British gaming market. The company would implement this strategy by holding online poker tournaments with accompanying TV coverage.
Harrah's, which recently extended its broadcasting rights in the United States with ESPN, is reportedly shopping around the European TV rights for the World Series of Poker.
Last month the company announced the launch of the World Series of Poker Circuit, which will entail tournaments scheduled throughout the United States. Participants will play in numerous games, with winners gaining spots into WSOP tournaments later in the year. The circuit will have TV coverage in the United States and abroad, with future tournaments being held at international casinos.
A WSOP Internet poker room would not be Harrah's Entertainment's first endeavor in the I-gaming space. Harrah's Interactive launched an online casino called LuckyMe.com in February 2004 in what the company called a "soft gaming experiment." The subscription-only site, which featured instant and numbers games and targeted female gamblers, failed to gain massive penetration in the market and was shut down in October.
The LuckyMe.com site did not accept play from U.S. residents; nor would the supposed WSOP site.
Harrah's Entertainment took ownership of the World Series of Poker this year after Binion's Gaming ran into financial troubles and had to sell off the popular unit.
The company has had a love-hate relationship with the online poker world in its first year as owner of the tournament.
Internet poker sites are credited with fueling a surge in growth for the tournament, which had record fields in 2003 (more than 1,000 players) and 2004 (2,500 players) for the no-limit Hold'em main event, but land-based gaming operators in Las Vegas have kept a safe distance from the online gaming world.
In that tradition, Harrah's has a history of squelching the "Internet factor." Many Internet poker rooms hold satellite tournaments in which winners receive seats in the WSOP main event, and the qualifiers often wear shirts, hats and other merchandise with the logos and URLs of the Web sites at which they qualified. The clothing was allowed for the entire tournament in 2004 until the day of the final table, when Harrah's and ESPN told the remaining players that no branded clothing would be allowed.
Expecting the growth to continue in '05, Harrah's has announced that the prize pool for next year's event will be the largest yet. The 2004 winner took home a grand prize of $5 million.
In launching a WSOP-branded online poker room, Harrah's would be leveraging one of the strongest brands in the poker world. It would also be coming at a time when the company's biggest competitor is expected to launch a similar site. The World Poker Tour, the creation of TV producer Steve Lipscomb, announced a deal in September with WagerWorks to provide a real-money WPT-branded online poker room. The site is scheduled to be up and running in the first quarter of 2005.
The WPT is the highest rated program on the Travel Channel, and WPT executives have been busy in recent months signing deals with international firms to broadcast events worldwide.
Like the supposed WSOP site, the WPT online poker room will not accept play from U.S. residents.
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