Industry Insiders: Online Poker Can Be A ‘Lifesaver For Sports Betting Operators’

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New Jersey is one of only four U.S. states currently allowing legal online poker — Nevada, Delaware, and Pennsylvania are the others — and as of March’s revenue figures, NJ was leading the way with over $3.6 million in rake among operators PokerStars, PartyPoker, and 888/WSOP.

That figure was more than double the not-quite $1.8 million that online poker generated in the state the month before.

It’s no mystery as to why online poker is suddenly on the rise again. The COVID-19 pandemic has more people than ever staying home, searching for entertainment. Online poker play is spiking in New Jersey, in the other three states that allow it, via offshore operators and “home game” apps in the states that don’t regulate it, and in countries with legal online poker all over the globe.

In the gaming industry, online poker — all but ignored for the past decade because it wasn’t driving business like land-based casino games, online casino, and, since the 2018 Supreme Court ruling overturning PASPA, sports betting — is back on the radar of every operator.

Those who offer it are grateful, and those who don’t are envious.

“I think poker is acting as the lifesaver for sports betting operators right now, along with casino content and virtual sports,” said Dmitry Starostenkov, CEO of poker software provider Evenbet Gaming, on Tuesday during the SBC Digital Summit panel titled “Poker to the Rescue?” Starostenkov noted that online poker had already been growing in Europe and in many emerging markets prior to the pandemic, but said, “it’s like a speed-up factor, this pandemic, for online poker.

“What we are seeing now, interestingly, we are seeing high demand from players for sports betting operators for online poker specifically. Even the operators which weren’t very keen on adding the poker vertical into their portfolio are all now contacting us to add poker.”

Double up? Triple up? More?

According to Sergii Romanenko, COO of the international online poker site PokerOK, poker play has doubled in its rooms during quarantine. “It looks like the number of active poker players online is now getting close to 2011,” he said.

Ivonne Montealegre, the founder and event director of the Malta Poker Festival, is seeing data suggesting even higher growth numbers than what Romanenko cited.

“Companies are experiencing 300% growth in their revenues,” Montealegre said.

She pointed out the Microgaming Network’s announcement last September that it would soon be closing its online poker operation as an indicator of how badly the vertical was struggling throughout the decade of the 2010s, particularly for smaller operators. “The big, massive brands are always surviving and thriving — PokerStars, Unibet, the big, big brands. But we were facing a poker industry that saw the smaller brands being really swallowed and having a difficult time subsisting. I would say from 2010, though all this decade, has been very difficult for poker to make the revenues that are needed.

“However, with this pandemic and live poker completely shut down and sports betting [slowed]  down, poker is thriving. It’s a new second wave as big as, or bigger than, the Moneymaker boom. … It’s an incredible time for poker — a golden era again.”

Montealegre works primarily on the live side of the poker business, and she pointed out that quite a few live players who had never tried the online game before — particularly some in the 60-and-older demographic — are giving it a whirl for the first time.

Poker post-pandemic

The critical question for the industry is how sustainable this latest poker boom is. Will it continue after the pandemic has subsided? Starostenkov is hesitant to guess, “because it’s hard to predict anything at the moment.”

Everyone in the online poker business is trying to be optimistic, but Romanenko said that once people are leaving their homes with regularity again, “it will be hard to keep the pace of the last two months. The economic situation has become worse in most countries, and rising unemployment will lead to a decrease in recreational activity.”

That said, Romanenko pointed out three reasons to believe online poker won’t quickly dip back to pre-pandemic levels: 

  1. An influx of new players who’d never experienced online poker before now understand the advantages of playing virtually, including the convenience and the speed of the game.
  2. Some companies that hadn’t allowed employees to work from home before will now see the benefits and will continue to allow it, leading to both continued online poker play during work hours and additional recreation time available due to diminished commuting.
  3. Live poker brands will have seen the perks of moving some of their events online and will continue using online poker to complement their live experience.

On that front, Montealegre referenced the Irish Poker Open, the second-oldest tournament series behind the World Series of Poker, which moved all of its tournaments online this year. “This will mark a trend,” she said. “With live poker, we are establishing new protocols [to diminish the health risk of live poker]. When we are prepared to deploy live events again, we might not be able to do them as massive as we used to … Very likely, we won’t be able to play nine-handed for a while. … We will learn as an industry. Live poker will learn that some online needs to be deployed.”

And the gaming industry as a whole is learning that variety and flexibility offer sustainability.

“Online casino is stable,” Montealegre said. “But sports betting is in big trouble right now, they don’t have a product. So it is a lot about this crossover that we’ve been trying to do for years. We’ve been trying to cross over the sports bettor to poker, and it’s been very difficult. This pandemic has been the catalyst.”

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Eric Raskin

Eric is a veteran writer, editor, and podcaster in the sports and gaming industries. He was the editor-in-chief of the poker magazine All In for nearly a decade, is the author of the book The Moneymaker Effect, and has contributed to such outlets as ESPN.com, Grantland.com, and Playboy.

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