ESPN Introduces Free-Play Poker Site

3 March 2005

The propulsion of poker into mainstream American culture was affirmed yet again yesterday as cable sports network ESPN announced the launch of several poker-related programs across its list of properties, including, ESPN Wireless, ESPN Books and ESPN Enterprises.

This morning the sports entertainment company launched a poker page called "ESPN Poker Club" on its Web site. The club features an ESPN-branded play-for-free poker game enabling players to participate in ring games as well as single- and multi-table tournaments.

"Here we've created a business model where you can have a legal environment for blue-chip companies to sell a captive audience to an advertiser"
- Jeff Eltom

The online poker room had acquired well over 2,500 signups just hours after launching--a testament to the popularity of both the network and the game.

The site does not allow real-money wagering, but the platform--supplied by Micropower--is very much like those powering most popular Internet poker rooms and features essentially the same games (Texas hold'em, 7-card stud, 7-card stud hi/lo, Omaha, Omaha hi/lo and 5 card stud).

The software's graphic design, however, is quite unique. Degree, a company that makes deodorant, has signed on to sponsor ESPN's Poker Club for 11 weeks, and the software application is designed to reflect that. Degree recently re-designed its logo as a checkmark and adopted new slogans like, "Degree is for men who take risks," and, "Body Responsive Technology For Those Make or Break Moments." The poker tabletop features the Degree logo, while a banner ad appears at the bottom of the play screen. Other Degree ads appear on and at the top of the lobby screen, while another appears briefly when the program is launched, and a pop-up appears when the program is exited. Further, a special "Degree Men All-In Moment" graphic appears on the table every time a player goes all-in, and the Degree checkmark logo appears next to a player after he wins a hand.

The new site also takes advantage of ESPN's exclusive rights to broadcast the 2004 World Series of Poker. The first 11 weeks of the site's operation will feature the Degree All-In Poker Challenge Online Tournament, in which the winner will earn a free seat in the 2005 World Series of Poker. Players will have four ways to earn entry into a weekly qualifying tournament, and the top 50 players from each qualifier will receive entry into a final tournament to be held May 15.

Jeff Eltom, a Micropower spokesperson who estimates that there are probably 10 times as many people playing online poker for fun rather than for money, says the in-game advertising is a huge opportunity for ESPN to capitalize off of the popularity of poker.

"There's no legal standing for or against it, so that grayness still precludes some people from putting money online," Eltom said. "The trust factor still has to go up--even for banking online, let alone putting money in a poker environment to play online.

"Here we've created a business model where you can have a legal environment for blue-chip companies to sell a captive audience to an advertiser. Play-money players take the game just as seriously as real money players; they play it differently, but they take it just as seriously. You've got a captive audience of typically guys in the age of 18-30 group--which is for many companies the most attractive marketing group ever--staring at your table for hours. Why not put some advertising there, even subconsciously?"

Software companies typically provide gaming platforms to operators in exchange for a share of wagering revenue, but with no wagering taking place on ESPN's site, the deal between Micropower and ESPN entails of a licensing fee and a support fee.

One of the big benefits for Micropower is that many consumers will become familiar with the company's product by playing at the ESPN Poker Club.

"For us its all about getting our platform in the hands of as many people as possible so that they get used to that environment, they get used to our graphics and they get used to our features," Eltom said.

Many players are becoming familiar with the Micropower platform through another one of its licensees, World Poker Exchange, which recently launched two major promotional campaigns. One of the campaigns is a partnership with FHM magazine that includes a new poker-related section of the magazine's Web site that features editorial content, a six-month poker school and several online free-play tournaments. Ten of the tournament winners will be invited to play for £10,000 at a London poker party night filled with the beautiful FHM models and will also receive an automatic seat at the World Poker Exchange London Open. The other campaign includes marketing at colleges and universities across the United States and invites students to compete in free tournaments for prizes, including a chance to compete during spring break in Cancun in a live tournament hosted by Trishelle, star of MTV's "Real World."

Like the FHM partnership, ESPN's poker initiative doesn't stop with the rollout of an online poker platform. is also launching a section dedicated solely to poker, featuring information, playing tips and exclusive columns. Later in the month ESPN Wireless will debut the ESPN Poker Hold'em Tournament, a downloadable mobile application that will enable players to play for fun on their mobile phones against nine computer players.

ESPN Enterprises will release a series of ESPN Poker Club consumer products--poker chips, tabletops and other accessories with the ESPN Poker Club logo--in the late spring. The company is also preparing to roll out books and DVD's later in the year.

Bradley Vallerius

Articles by Bradley P. Vallerius, JD manages For the Bettor Good, a comprehensive resource for information related to Internet gaming policy in the U.S. federal and state governments. For the Bettor Good provides official government documents, jurisdiction updates, policy analysis, and many other helpful research materials. Bradley has been researching and writing about the business and law of internet gaming since 2003. His work has covered all aspects of the industry, including technology, finance, advertising, taxation, poker, betting exchanges, and laws and regulations around the world.

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