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Poker Pros Gamble on Union

Nov 8, 2004  •  Post A Comment

As poker shows continue to multiply across the cable landscape, some players are unionizing in an attempt to battle what they describe as unfair exploitation. Programs such as Travel Channel’s “World Poker Tour,” ESPN’s “World Series of Poker” and the syndicated “Ultimate Poker Challenge” rely on top players to draw gaming fans. Though “final table” participants invariably win a share of the tournament purse, they are typically not paid for their appearance and are barred from wearing sponsorship logos.

“Poker is the biggest game on Earth. It’s outlandish to think the players are on TV and don’t get paid,” said player Louis Asmo. “Actors get paid. People in commercials get paid. For some reason, we’re being filmed gambling with our own money and we don’t get paid for any of it.”

In June, Mr. Asmo founded the World Poker Players Association. Claiming several hundred members, including noted pros such as Layne Flack and Dan Harrington, one of the WPPA’s founding goals is to pressure television producers to compensate players.

The WPPA is claiming two victories so far. First, there’s an upcoming series on GSN documenting the first WPPA tournament, with some compensation for players and limited opportunities to wear logos. Second, “Professional Poker Tour,” the upcoming spinoff of “World Poker Tour,” will give pros $3 million worth of free tournament buy-ins and will allow players to wear a company logo on the breast pocket of their shirts. Steve Lipscomb, creator and executive producer of “WPT,” confirmed “PPT” will give players free buy-ins and allow logos.

“WPPA is basically another group of people who want to capitalize on what we’ve created for their own benefit,” Mr. Lipscomb said. “They want people to believe they’re a benevolent character doing something for the sport, but they’re just one of many groups who want to get their piece. They wouldn’t have put another knockoff show on the air if they weren’t.”

As for the charge that shows such as “WPT” are exploitative, Mr. Lipscomb said that before the success of “WPT” unleashed a wave of imitators and refreshed ESPN’s annual poker coverage, professional poker players “were afraid to even tell people what they did for a living.”

“`WPT’ has literally created a world of opportunity for poker players,” Mr. Lipscomb said. “The smart ones are taking advantage of those opportunities. The ones who haven’t are trying to sulk and turn people negative.”

Incidentally, Mr. Lipscomb has yet to sign a network deal for his professional game spinoff. Though Travel Channel will be given priority consideration due to its relationship with “WPT,” Mr. Lipscomb said, he is weighing offers from several networks.

To an extent Mr. Asmo doesn’t disagree with Mr. Lipscomb. Mr. Asmo also said “WPT” is getting rich off poker players and that he and others simply want a bigger stake.

“I want to see everybody in this game get a piece of this beautiful pie that has been created,” he said. “But if you draw a big circle around the poker universe, money is leaving to outside entrepreneurs.”

Representatives for ESPN and producers for “Ultimate Poker Challenge” would not comment on the issue.

Henry Orenstein, executive producer of Fox Sports’ “Poker Superstars Invitational” who holds a patent on the camera-in-a-table design that allows hole cards to be shown, said he supported the players efforts-to a point. “Superstars” pays big-name professionals $25,000 to participate, but does not allow logos.

“Until late last year players weren’t getting anything; we were the first ones to do it,” Mr. Orenstein said. “But no logos. We’re selling advertising and advertisers don’t want any competition.”

Ian Valentine, senior VP of programming for GSN, which will air the WPPA event under the title “Poker Royale: The WPPA Championships,” described the conflict as “a complicated issue.”

“The paydays for poker players if they play effectively is very good,” he said. “There’s really not enough money in these TV rights packages for it to be competitive with the possible prize money they can make.”

Still, GSN is paying the WPPA, which will pass along some of the compensation to players.

“We agreed to what they wanted, within limits,” Mr. Valentine said. “Yes, you can honestly say they are paid, but there’s not much floating around.”

GSN will also allow logos in a limited form, an issue that can be frustrating for players and producers alike. When unrestricted programs cover poker events, barkers for online gambling Web sites offer final table players cash for sponsorships, resulting in every player sporting a dot-com address.

“There’s this feeding frenzy of online companies that bid for players,” Mr. Lipscomb said. “You’ll get six or nine guys sitting around a table all wearing hats. It’s idiotic”-not to mention bad television.

But the question of whether players are merely documentary subjects for the cameras or active performers worthy of compensation remains an intriguing one. Despite his stance, Mr. Lipscomb contends that a camera inevitably turns poker players into performers.

“We’ve created poker as a sport. It gives everybody playing a whole new level of participation as an athlete,” he said. “But even Michael Jordan wasn’t allowed to tout his wares while he played.”