Wednesday, February 24, 2021

So you want to be a sponsored pro...

I get roughly 50 unsolicited messages a day about poker from people I don’t know, or just barely know through social media. The vast majority of these fall into one of three categories starting with S.

The first category is strategy: generally hands where people want an opinion, which I’m always happy to give, sometimes after some solver work. The second category is staking: usually after some polite pleasantries, my correspondent wants to know if I still stake people, and specifically will I stake them. I’m hoping people thinking of doing this will read this blog because I can say here the answer these days is always no. 

The final category is sponsorship. Whether they admit it or not, most professional and many recreational players crave to be a sponsored player. Some because they see it as free money, and others because they see it as some sort of validation or recognition from the industry. In reality it’s neither, but that’s a topic for another day. In this blog I want to give whatever practical advice I can to players interested in being sponsored one day.

How do you get a deal?

Unibet is my third deal. I basically won the first one in a special promotion. An Irish skin of the Cake poker was sponsoring the Irish live rankings at the time, and they decided to have a special tournament for the top ranked players, with the winner getting a 6 month sponsorship deal. When we got down to three in what was winner take all, chop talks broke out. We all thought chopping the equity was best, but couldn’t agree who would officially take the deal. Now you might be thinking yeah that makes sense, everyone wants to be the sponsored pro. In reality none of us did, for two reasons which probably only make sense to that most rational and least romantic of creatures, the poker pro. While recreational players dream of glory and trophies and acclaim, the poker pro mindset reduces everything to pure Ev. Therefore we saw two problems with being the one to officially take the deal. First, it was basically a negative freeroll to pay the other two guys off before a penny was received. Back then, poker sites went out of business even more frequently than they do now. Second, it presumably involved additional effort and duties for no extra compensation. 

I ended up being the one to agree to pay the other two off. I did this partly because a deal was unlikely if I didn’t agree to be that guy, but mostly because I thought the risk and additional effort could be made up for by the possibility however slim that at the end of the 6 months I’d have persuaded the sponsors it was worth their while extending the deal.

My line was looking very sub optimal after my first meeting with the sponsors in which they made it clear they had zero intention of extending the deal and they saw it purely as a one off prize with some one time PR upside for them over just giving me the cash up front. However I’ve never been anything other than stubborn, so I did everything I could over the next 6 months to deliver value, and was rewarded by a couple of extensions until they were forced out of business by problems on the Cake network.

My next deal was acquired a little more typically: an Irish-facing skin on another network (Entraction) decided they wanted a pro with a high profile in Ireland. By now I had established myself as one of Ireland’s most profitable players both online and live, was contributing strategy to a number of poker magazines, had the most read Irish blog, was the first Irish pro on social media, all of which combined to a high national profile, so they decided I was the man for the job.

Once again, I set demonstrating value as one of my main priorities, and was rewarded by having my contract renewed a few times until the site was forced out of business when Entraction shut down. 

The wilderness years

Over the next couple of years my international profile continued to grow slowly. I was touted for a couple of different deals with major sites, but in each case lost out to an Irish rival. My age was generally seen as a major strike against me. I remember being asked at the time by Stars to recommend an Irish pro:

“We need someone who wins online but plays live too. There can’t be any whiff of scandal around them. He has to be able to talk and engage with people. And he has to be under the age of 30, preferably good looking”

This seemed to be the consensus by now among the sites as to what a sponsored pro should look like. They’d moved past hiring someone on the basis of one big bink, having been burned too often hiring someone who turned out to be a surly one hit wonder with no social skills. 

I remember these years as a time when my hopes of ever being sponsored again not only receded, but also became less important to me. I’m nothing if not a realist, and if I was swimming against the tide of my age, so be it. I’d also reached a point in my career where any supplemental income would necessarily be a smaller percentage of what I earned from poker. Staking and other interests were flourishing. I also remember this as a period where rightly or wrongly I felt some sites were stringing me along to a certain degree, wanting to keep me happy and uncritical. On the most recent Chip Race, Vanessa Kade talked about how leading female players are very incentivised to avoid criticising anyone in the industry if they ever hold out hopes of being sponsored. This is undoubtedly true, but also for men, albeit to a much lesser degree and with some qualifications. It’s much easier for a man to carve out a role and a brand as a squeaky wheel. But that has to be your image from the get go. Lappin and I have often remarked that he can get away with saying almost anything about anyone because that’s just Lappin being Lappin, but people seem to get deeply upset if I say anything even mildly critical. There has never been a time when I said something positive about a site or an event that I didn’t believe because I was hoping to curry future favour, but there have certainly been times when I’ve bit my lip and adhered to the maxim that if you have nothing positive to say, say nothing. 

2015 was a pivotal year. My biggest live score moved me to a point financially where chasing sponsorship didn’t seem like a productive use of my time. I maintained a high profile by starting the Chip Race with Lappin, and I stayed active on social media, but the goal wasn’t to get another sponsor. The following year’s Barcelona EPT was another turning point. As I wrote at the time, the festival was a new low in recreational player experience, and I despaired for the future of live poker if this was the new normal. A Stars insider told me that it was: that owners Amaya were pushing a paradigm that insisted profit in all things, to the detriment of customer experience and acquisition. At the end of the festival, over late night tapas and wine with Lappin, I told him I’d decided to go into full attack mode, sacrificing any chance I might have of ever being sponsored by them. I had in any case come to the conclusion that I was being strung along with promises of a deal “next year for sure” to encourage me not to say anything overtly critical of Stars. I therefore told my cohost I’d made the decision to write a full and frank criticism of what I saw as the problems with Stars live events, and warned him to be ready for some crossfire. Lappin not only agreed with my vision, but said he was planning to pen his own critical piece, so we were burning bridges together. 

After the blogs went viral, some unexpected things happened, as well as some expected things. People we were genuinely friendly with who worked for Stars felt betrayed. Some industry figures who may or may not have been in the pay of Stars came after us on social media. Recreational players and pros alike were overwhelmingly in agreement with our view. And we attracted the attention of Unibet, who shared our view of how the recreational player experience should be, an alternative vision of the future. To our surprise, a pair of blogs that we anticipated would torch any prospects of future sponsorship ended up leading to a deal with Unibet, which was recently extended into its fifth year. 

Shifting paradigms 

When I started in poker, the way you got a deal was you won something big and got a patch and a deal as a bonus. But as I said above, sites quickly found that wasn’t a good approach (strangely this idea that deals should be bonus “rewards” for performances on the felt has lingered among a lot of players: the most common wail I hear from players is “why am I not sponsored already? I won tourney X/win more online than sponsored pro Y”). New cars lose a lot of their value the moment they’re driven out of the showroom, and new sponsored pros suffer a similar fate the moment the novelty of their signing has passed and all the “Pro X signs for site Y” articles have been published. A Full Tilt employee told me that once the sites realised this, the model switched to one off deals: sticking a patch on someone who made a big televised final table and giving them a once off payment. Over time the sites realised that wasn’t particularly cost effective either, and after Black Friday big televised tables were few and far between. 

The numbers of sponsored pros dwindled dramatically until the paradigm shifted again with the rise of content. Content creators were suddenly in demand, be they Twitchers, bloggers, vloggers, podcasters or whatever. Around this time I was asked by Stars to recommend an Irish Twitcher and I told them they should hop on Fintan Hand, a superstar in the making. When Unibet came knocking, this shift suited us: both David and I had very widely read blogs, produced other written content, and had a podcast we could revive. As in my previous deals, I was determined to demonstrate value, as was David, and we set about being what Pads very kindly described on Twitter recently as two of the hardest working ambassadors in poker. 

But enough about do you get sponsored?

When you ask footballers what they’ll do after retirement, they nearly all give one of two answers: management, or punditry.  The problem is that for every 100 retired footballers, there’s less than one manager, and less than one pundit. Poker has a similar dichotomy: almost every successful (and many unsuccessful) player wants to be sponsored, whether they openly admit it or not. 

I’ve written this history of my own sponsorships to give you an idea of what I’ve done to improve my chances in this particular lottery, and also to convey that it’s far from a free lunch these days. So what else can you do to maximise your chances?

Create content

We are still in the era of content. A creator that reaches an audience through Twitch, a blog, a vlog, a podcast, social media or a Facebook group offers far more value to a sponsor than a loud spoken opinion pro or a genuine crusher. Even if it doesn’t ultimately lead to full sponsorship, sites often offer other rewards and incentives to creators on a more informal basis. 

Know your demographic

There are very few genuine superstars in poker who reach and appeal to almost everyone. But that’s ok. Someone who reaches a small but loyal niche audience is more useful from a marketing perspective for a site than someone everyone knows about but nobody cares much about. Players are generally signed to appeal to a specific demographic. Here, some players have a natural advantage. It’s better to be from Brazil than Latvia.  It’s better to be female than male. It’s an advantage to be younger. Tournament players are much more likely to be signed than cash game players. Holdem players have a wider reach than mixed game players. It’s a big advantage to speak English if you come from a non English speaking country. 

Don’t be shy

It never ceases to amaze me when players express a desire to be signed or dismay at not having been already so I ask them for their social media and they reply “Oh I don’t do that”. That’s their prerogative , but if you want to be sponsored you don’t don’t do social media. You not only do it, you do it full heartedly, and you genuinely interact with people. There’s a handful of players who are big enough to not have to talk to people they don’t know, but the rest of us don’t really have that luxury. Here we are back to the small but loyal beats large but fickle idea. Players who are seen as relatable and approachable are more valuable. There’s no easy hack for this: it really helps if you enjoy engaging with people, as I do. I get about 50 random messages from people I only know from social media a day and try to answer them all (if I don’t it means I probably missed it so feel free to ping me). I enjoy talking to people at live events. I also enjoy sitting there silently focusing on the game, but that’s a luxury that largely disappears when you’re sponsored. If you don’t think you’d enjoy that sort of attention, or don’t think you can find the time to answer a guy who wants your opinion on a hand he just played, the life of the sponsored pro may not be for you. 

Which brings me to...

Think about who you are representing

I personally would never represent a brand I found reprehensible. Not everyone feels the same and think they’d happily shill for anyone if the price was right. But this isn’t a purely ethical question. If you represent a brand that is unpopular, or does unpopular things that piss players off, they will tell you. They will associate you with the actions of your sponsor. They may berate you about them on social media or at the table. Several of my friends signed up to join brands they believed in, but lived to regret it when an unpopular change of direction brought the condemnation of their peers. Others signed up to brands they didn’t really believe in and instantly regretted it. So at the very least ask a few more questions than just “How much?” and “Where do I sign?”

Now, if you excuse me, I have about 50 messages I have to answer....



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