The World Poker Tour recently wrapped up its 12th season with the WPT World Championship at the Borgata in Atlantic City. While that event was taking place BLUFF Editor in Chief Lance Bradley sat down with WPT President Adam Pliska to reflect on his first season as president and what the future holds for the World Poker Tour, Alpha8 and the business side of the WPT.
BLUFF: Looking back at Season XII, what are the highlights for you?
ADAM PLISKA: This year just had so many great moments. We continued to expand into Asia, not only having a Chinese event that was large, it was a thousand people; it was huge; and getting stuck in a typhoon was the interesting part getting back. We have the event in Korea.
We just had our record-breaking number last week at Seminole. It’s was 1,795 entrants. I was just told that the Ladies Night event that we put together that included five professional players and one amateur player hit one of the highest ratings that we’ve had in the World Poker Tour and that event benefited six really great charities. That was very positive.
We brought Lynn Gilmartin on and people just love her. They gravitate to her. She’s a person who is warm and inviting and appreciates the sport. She not only came on as the anchor first for Alpha8, but they just appreciated her talents and I asked her to join us for a World Poker Tour. She came on also as a producer for Alpha8 and did a good job.
This year we had more women WPT executives than men. That was a change. We had just a number of great events in Canada and the California Swing I think was a big deal. We were delighted that turned out to be so positive; linking those events together and introducing Thunder Valley, which had really positive feedback.
At the end of the day you have to run a business, so seeing three sponsors come on, DraftKings, Monster Products and Hublot. This was part of the process that we had been working on for years. We thought if we could bring in large corporate sponsors and bring them in, it would be good for poker and, believe me, I don’t want this to be just WPT. I hope that the whole wave of corporate sponsorship goes throughout poker.
BLUFF: What are some of the things that you wish had gone better?
PLISKA: There were a couple events that we were shy in the fall and then we kind of picked up in the second part of the season. I think the Korea event could have done better. It was a new event and I think you give yourself points for being in new places and trying new things, but the numbers were not that large. But it did produce the most interesting final table; it ended up being a 58 minute event, so that was interesting.
Sponsorship. We’re very proud of what we’ve done, but I still hope to do maybe even more and I’m hoping to be able to do one more by the end of this season. You have some of those business things that you kind of want to get over the line, but for the most part, honestly, the ratings were the best ratings that we’ve had and I think it was our best year.
BLUFF: The WPT World Championship moved from Las Vegas to Atlantic City. Is Atlantic City the home of this event for the foreseeable future?
PLISKA: We decided that it was going to be the home for this year, but one of the things in moving out of Vegas is that we said that we were going to be open to where the Championship is going to be. So what I can definitely guarantee is the very good relationship that we have with Borgata is going to continue and it will likely expand. Whether it will include the Championship or not, I don’t know.
BLUFF: One of the things that sets New Jersey apart from Las Vegas obviously is the ability to have partypoker and Borgata online poker properties involved. How does the slow pace of regulation in this country affect growth for World Poker Tour?
PLISKA: I used to be with general counsel for WPT and seven years ago people would say “I think in 18 months we’re going to have legislation,” I’d say that’s the longest rolling 18 months of anyone’s life. At least I feel like what New Jersey did was give an example of this is what people are starting to believe; it’s real. It might not be everything we want, but no one questions that this is a business and a regulated business, and it’s like any other business.
BLUFF: Give me one word to describe the first season of Alpha8.
PLISKA: My personal word is relief, because quite frankly you don’t know how people are going to respond to a brand. You bring a new brand out there and you are viewing it in a very high profile. The first Alpha8 at Seminole was interesting because people were still saying, “What is it? I don’t get it. What’s going on?”
I think now, while the universe of Alpha8 is small, it does a very unique thing, especially on TV. It creates more recognizable characters for an audience. One of the things that is happening in the World Poker Tour which is generally good for poker but not always the greatest for TV is that final tables become more mixed all the time and so it’s hard for the very casual viewer to go, “oh, I recognize someone” and relate to someone. What Alpha8 does is show some maybe high-profile business people or a lot of players that people go, “I know that person” and it’s the greatest set ever created in poker. I think it’s beautiful.
This is my surprise. I thought Alpha8 was going to be very intense because you’re talking about a $100,000 buy-in. When you watch Alpha8, you realize it is just the opposite. What I really should do is say that how everything turned out is exactly how we expected it to turn out, but it isn’t true. It almost has this collegial feel to it. It’s very different from the World Poker Tour, which is far more serious intensity at the final table. Alpha8 has this interesting collegial feel which gives you more of a snippet of the lifestyle of players who play at that level.
BLUFF: There has been a lot of discussion lately about high roller events and their impact on the game and the poker economy. Are they good for the game?
PLISKA: I think there needs to be a balance in it. I don’t anticipate that we will push out. I will tell you that we will not push out Alpha8 the way that we have the World Poker Tour. In the last four and a half years of World Poker Tour, we’ve gone up from 14 events to 75 next season or something like that. Alpha8; I think that you need to keep it to a reasonable handful of events. I don’t anticipate many more events. Maybe we’ll add one or two, but right now I think it’s a nice number. And what that number does, does it take people away? No.
I think it’s important for us to remember that we need to continue to have fresh new people interested in poker. All the time, we need to be doing this to sustain the ecology of the poker fan. What Alpha8 does is, when you were a kid and if you played Little League, you probably didn’t go home and turn on cable access and look for the other Little League stations. You looked for Major League Baseball.
Alpha8 actually makes it even easier for an amateur person to watch because I’ve seen a face; I’ve seen that person before. The amount of money seems, even if I’m not exposed to poker, I realize the gravity of the situation. And so I think it has its place. We need to be responsible and we shouldn’t be putting out 20 of them a year, but we’re certainly not hurting anything.
BLUFF: Doesn’t the fact that Alpha8 promotes those same 15 or 20 players, those recognizable faces, actually work against the World Poker Tour and what it’s trying to promote?
PLISKA: We had a solution for that. If you remember World Poker Tour four years ago, I used to say it was God created six people sitting at a poker table. How they got there, we don’t know. What they went through, we have no idea. And the analogy that I made to the company was that was like going to the Academy Awards and just showing the stage. Jack Nicholson is sitting in the front row and Angelina Jolie is there and you’re ignoring them.
So what we did is we introduced the play down. The play down segment has remedied that part. So you suddenly see those familiar faces.
BLUFF: Will Alpha8 Season 2 have more than four events?
PLISKA: It will at least be four events and while we’ve not announced anything, we’ve had a lot of interest and maybe I would stretch it to one more. Originally the plan was something like eight events as part of the whole Alpha8 thing, but it’s not the right time.
BLUFF: Is there a chance we’re going to see the events more connected to the WPT events, just a means of getting players to events?
PLISKA: That’s a good question and the answer is yes. In fact, the answer is as much as we can. I don’t know that it will be every event, but I would think at least two of those events or three of the events would be assigned together.
BLUFF: You mentioned corporate sponsorship as sort of being a big focus for the WPT. Do you still run into that stigma when you approach somebody that this is gambling?
PLISKA: I’m a television person who is looking at numbers. What I do know is poker television returns some of the best CPMs that you could have. So what corporate sponsors should do is be able to go, “Oh, my gosh, this is fantastic.” But we have to remember in the poker world that a lot of people outside of the poker world, they don’t know what’s going on. They heard something called Black Friday, but they don’t know what Black Friday is. They heard something is being legalized and they heard something was not legalized.
And I think that the greatest help to get more corporate sponsors throughout the poker community and including players as well is really good bold corporate sponsors who are willing to take a risk, and they will get the reward for it. The Monster headphones and Hublot and DraftKings, they will see the reward for it in terms of their return. But good for them for being bold. But it’s getting easier, and it should get easier.
BLUFF: How do you get that money from the players? Because one of the criticisms of corporate sponsorship, whether it’s WPT or WSOP, is there’s no money being returned directly to the players.
PLISKA: What the corporate sponsor does is it allows us to operate, and operate in a bigger, more important way. And there are other things that we do obviously. Monster gives away product. Hublot is giving away a watch that’s worth tens of thousands of dollars. You will see that DraftKings is sending people into the event. They send people into multiple events, including (the WPT World Championship). So there are ways of getting corporate sponsorship, but I do want to emphasize this is important because the name value alone helps legitimize this, and as it’s legitimized, that is our best hope that we get other money into the system.
BLUFF: There is a little bit of a controversy surrounding the Royal Flush Girls, and particularly from women players who view them as maybe not the best representation of women in the game. How do you respond to that?
PLISKA: I think that there are some people who responded that way, but it’s interesting because if you look at the women players that are actually friends with a number of them, I think that somewhat obscures that fact. The other thing is the franchise of the Royal Flush Girls when it started, it’s continued to evolve. And if you meet the Royal Flush Girls and you talk with them, you realize they have been really terrific in that voice of the company and are really great people. These are people with substance. These are people who have done their own show. Jeannie (Duffy) was in the Air Force for seven years. One woman has made a documentary throughout Africa. These are interesting people and they’ve played an important role in the development of the franchise.
There will always be tension, and that’s fine. If I didn’t want criticism, I would go into some other kind of business. What I do know is that they’ve been very helpful in increasing the volume of people who watch. I was just told that our Ladies Night Event had these very high numbers. Well, people criticize that as well. People say why didn’t you have this player or why is there a Ladies Night?
What I’d say is there’s a balance, and the best thing that we can do is find people who are substantive people. Lynn (Gilmartin) is the anchor of the show. She starts every show. She ends every show. She’s important to the show. This is the first year that WPT has had more women than men senior executives. All of this is a component.
BLUFF: You mentioned the ratings for Ladies Night being good. What do you attribute that to?
PLISKA: I attribute that to a couple things. First of all it’s different, so people are interested. The other thing is statistically the World Poker Tour has a higher volume of women players as opposed to other poker TV, but you still have a demographic that is primarily male and I think that is how numbers work. As Geraldo Rivera said, “You all clamor for PBS, but I’ve seen the numbers.” I think that’s it.
BLUFF: How do you get more women playing poker?
PLISKA: First of all, I think that the dialog that is going on out there is very positive and I am so respectful of the players that are out there. What the WPT could do is continue to highlight players as Ones to Watch. That’s what we did. We encourage players when they see the positive role models that are out there, and we have done that.
We can (also) continue to bring more women executives into the fold. It’s something I’m very, very proud of at World Poker Tour. It just didn’t happen, but I think we have a very, very strong staff with very strong people, and it just so happens that’s how our talent has turned out, but that’s helpful as well. It keeps the dialog going.
BLUFF: There was recently a controversy at the Borgata with the chip scandal. It wasn’t a WPT event, but are there protocols in place should that happen at a WPT event?
PLISKA: The WPT was directly on the tail end of that event. The best thing that you can do is work with a partner that is a professional partner. There’s nothing else that you can do. It’s like security when it comes to our live streaming product. We definitely have protocols around it, making sure that the people are around, the security, and all of those things. But at the end of the day nothing is going to do more than working with a professional organization that will do this.
A lot of people have said that had that happened in another place, it either could have had a more negative effect on the community because it’s not Borgata and so people don’t feel like it will be taken care of because it’s Borgata. Or you never know if those things get swept under the rug. This is a big professional organization and they take their job very, very seriously. I know how much respect that they have from the regulatory authorities because they are a first-rate place. The World Poker Tour is not open to having an event any place, and that’s good advice to anybody if you are running a tour. You have to be selective.