Q.& A. | Steve Lipscomb

21 October 2008

Steve Lipscomb, founder and chief executive of World Poker Tour Enterprises Inc., is proud of his accomplishments. His company has grown from an idea to producing the largest televised poker event in over 150 countries in just six years -- the poker industry, as a result, is arguably more popular.

Mr. Lipscomb, keynote speaker at World Poker Congress, told IGamingNews on Thursday that he is looking forward to learning new things that he otherwise would not have seen had he not attended industry conferences. But we wanted to know about what Mr. Lipscomb learned at last year's show, his thoughts on the future of poker and whether or not online and terrestrial poker can live in harmony.

What five new things did you learn last year at the World Poker Congress?

    Well, there was a little piece of software from CyberArts that I thought was interesting. I managed to go in and learn a lot more about the automated tables that are being placed in casinos around the world. I knew something about them. We'd invested in one of the companies, but I went to a session that was entirely based on that and I think I walked out of the room having a very different point of view about that business than when I walked in, meaning I actually thought it was going to have a larger impact on the industry than I thought it might have.

    Let's see, the other three things? I don't know if I can go back. I'm sure there were three more because I never would have said five unless there were five. But I think you get a handful of novel things that you go: "Wow, that's it!"

    There was a guy there who just came up and handed me -- and I won't talk about the product because that's not really fair -- but it was one of those guys who was just so enthusiastic that I wish the world would reward him. But he had the worst idea in the history of ideas. But he had his enthusiasm and I still think that's what it's all about.

Do people pitch their ideas to you a lot?

    The sad thing, particularly as much as I love to play poker, is that it's very difficult for me (unless I'm very anonymous and put a hat on) to play poker anywhere because the poker table is where I get pitched all of those ideas -- or I get told all of the things we should be doing with our television show.

    But I think that's great. One of the great lessons I learned from Lyle Berman, my partner in this business, is that you do yourself and your business a disservice if you're not open to that. It's not always going to be the guy who's got the in and can get to you that's going to have the good idea. So, you do have to wade through that stuff. So, I think I try to be as open as I can.

Are there any pitched ideas that you are in the process of developing and building out?

    Absolutely. We're in the middle of it right now. It's the subscription model, ClubWPT.com. It's one of those that came to me through some folks that we knew in the poker world.

    When it came in it was one of those I didn't know much about and didn't think I would have much interest in, but I'm a believer that there's a segment in the market for something between playing for free and online gaming and I think that's what we're launching now. We're doing television shows on Fox Sports.

Since you're already starting to answer my next question, can you tell me about ClubWPT.com TV?

    We're qualifying six players to play on television every week. So, you come and you play on ClubWPT.com and we have 5,000 tournaments a month, so you got tons of prizes and cash being given away, but in addition to all of that six days a week you can win one tournament and you're on television playing in a tournament.

    I just saw the third program and I have to tell you it's interesting television. These are people that come from all walks of life and because online poker is so prevalent they're just better than when we started the World Poker Tour, even if they were lower-level players. So, it's decent poker, great personalities and you get to watch people have their 15 minutes of fame.

I've actually read the words: "Poker is losing its popularity." Do you think that's a true statement?

    I did the first interview about the death of the poker phenomenon at the beginning of our second season. We're in season seven. We're approaching 100 WPT Poker-made millionaires. We've given away $400 million in prize money and our events continue to be robust.

    So, from the World Poker Tour perspective, I would say we're where we want to be in the world of other significant sports. PGA goes up and down. Poker will do that.

    At this conference, we'll get a chance to talk about the international things that are happening in poker. Anybody who lives in France and was there four years ago would have virtually no idea what was going on in poker. Right now it's just exploding. So, these new pockets are kind of carrying the phenomenon globally and the nice thing is we get to drive them back into the United States market so we can start cross-pollinating those various things.

So, poker will evolve and change with each generation and region?

    Yeah. If you think about how many people were playing poker around the planet when the World Poker Tour began airing in 2003 it was very, very few people.

    So, there literally had been a couple of shows that had been on television in the United Kingdom, but were no longer airing. There was no poker being broadcast anywhere else on the planet in the world, with the exception of ESPN in the late night. All of a sudden, the World Poker Tour format had a big boom in the United States, then Canada, and then we took it and exported that into over 150 countries and territories. All of a sudden people thought: "Wow, great game!"

    Now the European Poker Tour is involved and you see the growth really being pushed by a lot of the online sites. It's exciting to see that there's hardly a market you can bump into in western Europe that hasn't had significant penetration by online sites and by television.

Can you describe the relationship between online and terrestrial poker? Is there good synergy between the two now?

    I think you're starting to see the evolution -- or I would say the inculcation -- of the relationships that are already evolving into formal relationships.

    The best example is that the World Poker Tour aired in season one with two online poker sites as a part of its show -- PartyPoker and UltimateBet. PartyPoker the year before tried to sell its poker business for $3 million to $5 million but couldn't get a buyer. They aired as a part of the World Poker Tour and their site went up nine times that day. They leapfrogged the industry leader, which was Paradise Poker, literally in a day and never looked back.

    UltimateBet went up five to six times when they aired the first season with World Poker Tour.

    I think you see it was an immediate change in the online business. At that time total online poker was maybe $200 million globally. We all know that it's up to $4 or $6 billion, depending on whose numbers you believe.

    As we've developed in the market those events have already inextricably tied land-based events with the online part of the poker business.

    Now the real question in my mind is "what's next?"

    You've watched PokerStars create and put in place the European Poker Tour, which I think has been very successful for them, yet in a strange way that's being supported by other online sites even though it's a competitor.

    Well I think what you're going to see in the next chunk of time is how the larger land-based brands are going to help the online sites continue their growth and maturation.

Mr. Lipscomb will address the subject of online and terrestrial poker synergy at the World Poker Congress on Oct. 29 in Budapest, Hungary.

Emily Swoboda is the senior staff writer at IGamingNews. She lives in St. Louis, Mo.