The New Jersey online poker industry turns 6 years old later this month. It is no secret online poker has struggled to find any momentum, and continues to show declining trends year after year.
Last week, however, online poker returned to the headlines, this time in Pennsylvania. PokerStars opened the first legal online poker room in the Keystone State.
That alone is worth celebrating, but add New Jersey’s six-year online “poker-versary” to the mix, and it allows us to write about three of the big unexpected lessons learned along the way.
Lesson 1: Don’t overestimate the importance of online poker
Poker players tend to look at the significance of online poker, and specifically online poker in New Jersey, through rose-colored glasses. They think everyone feels about poker the way they do.
Here’s some news for online poker players: They don’t.
Many poker players think a bigger player pool will solve all of online poker’s problems. While it will certainly provide a boost to the bottom line, online casinos look at online poker differently.
For the casino, online poker is a gateway for players to bet on games with more of a house advantage.
The reality is that online poker will never compete with online casinos when it comes to revenue. Gambling companies only care about the bottom line.
Lower revenue expectations to avoid heartache
If there is one thing, six years of online poker has taught us it is to lower expectations around revenue.
Players invest a lot of time and energy in providing feedback to their favorite online poker rooms, all with the hopes of growing the game. While the lesson is not to overestimate the importance of online poker, it’s also important not to underestimate it.
The most successful online gambling companies will be positioned to offer several online gaming verticals and cross-sell them to its customers.
Companies will pay more attention to player feedback when it is tied to the goal of growing online poker into a customer acquisition strategy for its online casino and sportsbook.
Lesson 2: Supersize it for the best results
Bigger is not always better — except in online poker. Bigger player pools, bigger guarantees, and bigger trophies often return bigger profits.
It is the getting there that is the tricky part.
It’s not good enough anymore to slap a fancy title on a tournament and post some mediocre guarantees. Players have higher expectations these days.
Playing for World Series of Poker gold bracelets and PokerStars Players Championship Platinum Passes raised the expectations of what a successful tournament series looks like.
Bill Rini, the former head of online poker for WSOP.com, spoke to USPoker over the summer about the impact of the WSOP on NJ poker.
“I think the numbers speak for themselves. We had a 124%increase in players in our online bracelet events and we had almost $2.6 million in prize pools in just a single day. That’s bigger than many sites can do for an entire series.
“We’ve turned the New Jersey market from one that seasonally slumps in the summer months to one that has been all over the online bracelet and other big prize pool events.”
The World Series of Poker and WSOP.com is one of the main reasons that Caesars is leading the New Jersey online poker market.
Money is how online poker keeps score
It’s true; money is how poker players and casinos keep score. But it seems as if a shiny new object for the wrist or the mantle also counts.
One has to look at the Poker Master’s Purple Jacket awarded to the player who collects the most points during Poker Central’s marquee event, the US Poker Open.
Three years ago, nobody knew what a purple jacket was. Now, it is a coveted prize.
Online poker needs to create its version of the gold bracelet, purple jacket or Platinum Pass.
The lesson here is to create an event and supersize it. Combine online and live satellites and events that feed into an online series that everyone will want to put on their calendar in ink.
With all that in mind, it is important to remember that nobody likes a challenge more than a poker player. We see it daily with the crazy prop bets that filter through our Twitter feeds.
Prestigious prizes, massive guarantees, a shiny new mantlepiece and bragging rights are a big part of what drives poker players to play. Give them what they want and watch what happens.
Lesson 3: If you build it, they still might not come
And finally, the biggest lesson we have learned over the last six years is that opening an online poker room may not necessarily guarantee success.
Pala Poker is a good example. It opened its online poker room in the summer of 2017. Pala continues to struggle to fill its virtual seats because it doesn’t have a partnership with a major poker platform or brand recognition of its own.
On an island, online poker will die a slow death. Online poker, which is part of a comprehensive plan to bring players into the online gambling arena, including the casino and sportsbook, is closer to a winning strategy.
Even so, without a more constant stream of new players, there are better spots for a poker player to bet on.
The hope in 2018 was that the Multi-State Internet Gambling Agreement (MSIGA) would provide that new stream of players.
Unfortunately, Nevada and Delaware, the other two states participating in the agreement, don’t have the population to provide the player pool the boost it needs.
Will MSIGA and Pennsylvania get them to come?
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. New Jersey online poker saw a glimmer of hope last week in those online poker headlines mentioned above.
After years of watching and waiting, PokerStars finally found its way to Pennsylvania with other online poker rooms expected to follow.
Will it find its way into the MSIGA? Eventually. It is certainly reasonable to expect Pennsylvania to join the MSIGA.
Unfortunately, it will likely be months, maybe even years, before Pennsylvanians will sit down at the same poker table as New Jerseyans.
The only other state to legalize online casino gaming is West Virginia. Reports out of that state are online poker, in addition to other online casino games, will launch in early 2021.
West Virginia’s strict interpretation of the Wire Act does not make it a great candidate for joining MSIGA. Of course, a lot can change between now and then.
Thankfully, for now, the potential of Pennsylvania joining the MSIGA is enough to keep the NJ online poker market chugging along.
What does all this mean for the future of online poker?
Online poker matters to the overall online gambling landscape. It just might not matter as much or in the way many poker players hope.
As more states legalize online sports betting and casino games, online poker definitely has a place. Poker is still very popular with gamblers and casinos want those gamblers on their sites.
It will never be a top earner, but it can provide value to a company beyond the rake it collects.