Lackluster Competitor Response To WSOP/888 Shared Liquidity Speaks Volumes

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After languishing inside a closed and desolate ecosystem for nearly five years, NJ Internet poker players finally broke free from their virtual shackles at the beginning of this month – well, somewhat.

On May 1, WSOP.com and software provider 888 successfully linked player pools with sister sites in New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware, vastly increasing game selection overnight. The move is a long time coming, and while it won’t create traffic levels anywhere near those seen in online poker’s unregulated Wild West days, it offers a breath of fresh air for an industry which has been in decline for more than a year.

But not only did grinders get to face off against newfound opponents last week, they were also treated to announcements of exciting things to come, like bigger and juicier weekly tournaments and chances to win WSOP bracelets from the comfort of home.

While all the attention and buzz has been a boon for WSOP, it represents potential doom for the state’s other online poker operators, which are likely looking on with a mix of envy and horror.

So what are they doing in response? As it turns out, not that much.

Same old, same old

You might think that facing an existential threat like shared liquidity might drive WSOP’s competitors to at least attempt to up their game, but from the looks of it, most haven’t bothered.

A cursory look at Borgata Poker reveals that, even though the company has recently slapped a fresh coat of paint on its site, it hasn’t really gone out of its way to offer players anything out of the norm. There are a pair of leaderboard promotions in effect, but these are nothing new for the operator. The site’s The Grind promotion is also running during the month, but that rolled out long before the new WSOP.com interstate link went live.

Party Poker and playMGM, both networked with Borgata, are offering the same Sit & Go leaderboard promo, with Party also advertising its normal weekly reload in addition. Pala Poker, the lowest-trafficked NJ online poker site also continues with its regularly scheduled programming, that is to say, mostly static.

The only site seemingly trying to make an effort is PokerStars, which may be feeling the most heat from the new tri-state liquidity agreement. Before May it had mostly run neck and neck with WSOP/888 in terms of average cash game players, but has now been left in the dust. Currently locked out of both Nevada and Delaware, Stars is unable to connect with sites in other states, although this could change when the Pennsylvania market goes live later this year.

Unlike its peers, it has at least done something over the past few days, offering up a 200% reload bonus up to $1,000. In addition, it has relaunched a promo called CardMatch, a minigame appearing on Zoom tables which can reward special prizes.

Admittedly, the match bonus offer is sort of a big deal for PokerStars. The operator has avoided promotions that don’t require some ridiculous luck element like the plague of late. So for it to give away $1k per $500 deposited is significant, especially at a generous 27% rakeback rate. But it’s just one promotion.

Worth fighting for?

There are currently seven poker sites operating on four networks in the Garden State, an absurd number for such a small market. Although the chance to share liquidity across state lines has created new opportunities, it was always a stretch to think that more than one or two sites could thrive inside a single state the size of NJ.

When you take the already limited number of players available and chop them up so many different ways, inevitably, some sites will fall by the wayside.

This has already happened two times in the history of NJ online gambling (Ultimate Poker and Betfair Poker) and could soon happen again.

Indeed, the numbers tell an ominous tale. Already in early 2015, poker revenue across the state’s iGaming licensees began sliding, continuing on a downward trajectory until the launch of PokerStars in March 2016.

But although it quickly became the market leader, PokerStars wasn’t the savior that many had hoped it would be. What became clear was that instead of attracting a huge new wave of new players, Stars was mostly cannibalizing its competitors.

Not to say that this is any of PokerStars’ fault; Even an award-winning poker site backed by millions of marketing dollars can only go so far when there are legal restrictions in place putting a cap on the total pool of potential players.

Gotta know when to hold’em…

There have been very few bright spots in the past year in NJ online poker, at least in terms of pure revenue. So the lack of effort to incentivize players in the face of WSOP.com shared liquidity could be simply operator apathy, or it could signal something more significant.

As it stands now, the state Internet poker market is not in a good place, and might not be worth the effort for the operators slowly being left behind.

Sites under the Borgata umbrella are powered by GVC, which had previously struck a deal with Valley Forge to offer online poker in Pennsylvania (under bwin.party). However, that alliance is now up in the air, and we don’t have any clear evidence that the software company will continue with its plans.

Pala Poker has barely gained any traction at all in New Jersey, and would have an extremely tough time making it in other markets, even pooling players in a state as big as PA.

Both GVC and Pala may soon come to the conclusion that creating a state-by-state online poker network is no longer economically feasible or an attractive prospect.

888/WSOP, on the other hand, is now sitting pretty. It now has a presence in three different states, and will most certainly be involved in the Keystone State market, at the least partnering with Harrah’s Philadelphia.

PokerStars will also be eligible to enter the PA market, and will make a premier partner for any of the state’s 12 land-based casinos.

But while an interstate PokerStars network would eventually pose a huge threat, for the time being, WSOP.com seems to have the upper hand on them all.

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Bill Grinstead

Bill has over a decade of experience working in diverse aspects of the online gambling space. He is currently focused on legal, US online gaming, which he has reported on since the industry first became regulated in the country.

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