World Poker Tour adds poker options, expands its reach

It was the match that lit the poker explosion, but as the game has evolved, the World Poker Tour has not burned out.

Aired in 2003 under the guise of a “tour” – but really just a TV show with stops in casinos worldwide – the WPT telecasts on The Travel Channel are credited with beginning the poker boom. Players around the nation saw people not that much different than themselves, playing poker and netting six-figure wins.

But April 15, 2011, “Black Friday”, when the owners of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker, and Absolute Poker were arrested and their sites closed, effectively ended Internet poker in the United States. (The death of online poker meant a dearth of sponsors for TV poker, and the market flattened out.)

So the WPT, like many businesses, had to adapt. WPT, which began as a TV production company, added a free social poker site (PlayWPT), a paid membership site (ClubWPT), poker training (LearnWPT), a championship for pub poker (WPT League), an affordable international tour (WPT500,) and a mid-priced U.S. tour (WPTDeepStacks), all while reaching out to almost every corner of the world.

“We’re a gaming and entertainment company,” says Angelica Hael, vice president of global tour management. “That’s what we’ve morphed into.”

Ourgame International Holdings, Ltd., acquired the company in June 2015.

“The acquisition has been a transformative time and we’re working on a lot of initiatives,” Hael says. “They are the type of parent company that allows you to spread your wings, brainstorm and execute. Never before could we test the waters out. Not only do they let us, they encourage us.”

Season 15, which began this month, has expanded into 18 countries.

“That’s one of things, for me, that I’m especially proud of,” Hael says. “It took some time and was done organically. It was the quality of the countries and the right partners that we had.”

Meanwhile, events such as the Tournament of Champions, held earlier this month at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, are being broadcast globally. Hael noted that the Seminole Hard Rock event was broadcast in seven languages.

She also sees growth in China. One livestream from a tournament in Sanya drew 9.6 million views, even though it was “not a field of huge pros and household names. It was like you and me.”

“We thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what do we have here?’” Hael says.

Also, a “mini-tour” fared well in Latin America, she says. The WPT has partnered with CordigoPoker, the largest online poker company in Latin America.

“That’s like low hanging fruit, but what else can we do over there? We can put our shows on the airwaves, and not do it in English and speak your language.”

“The key to the success of all we’re doing is finding the right partners, they’re the ones who know the region and the entities,” she says.

“How can you really be called the World Poker Tour if we represent only 75 percent of the world?” she says. “We really educated ourselves on the poker side, learned about some interesting entities.”

The WPT also had its first main tour stop in China, with 400 players, which ended April 19 in Beijing.

And last year the WPT signed another five-year agreement with FOX Sports, which Hael says makes it one of the longest-running shows in TV history. The show airs at 8 p.m. EST Sundays and 11 p.m. Wednesdays on FSN, varying by region, with regular re-airs throughout the week scheduled independently by each regional network.

That TV taping helps card rooms elevate their image in the poker world, notes Bill Mason, director of poker at the Seminole Hard Rock.

“The partnership has grown over the last seven years to where it’s a true partnership,” Mason says. “We help each other out; we do what’s best for each other brand.”

Hael says the WPT is always adjusting.

“Fifteen years is hard to stay relevant, to stay strong, and we’re always asking, ‘How do you continuously do that?’

“Really my job is to look at the world and see how we can bring the WPT experience to players,” she says. “The thing that keeps me up at night is how do you continually push the WPT experience?”

Twitter: @NickSortal