ENVY: Jeffrey Pollack: The Making of a Full House

The man sitting across from me is one of the most influential people in the poker world. Check that: He is the most influential person in the poker world. He’s the maven who oversees the crown jewel in the universe of cards—the World Series of Poker (WSOP).

This is nothing like a normal interview. There was no need to squeeze the interesting answers from him. He already had them accessible, polished and readily verbalized. The man’s vision of where the WSOP is and where it needs to go was so clear to him, that he had practically made the interviewer obsolete. He just talked. This was more of a show, a clinic put on by a marketing guru on how to get things done.

* * *

The year is 2004, and 2,576 poker players have congregated in a dingy downtown Las Vegas casino for the 35th annual WSOP $10,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em championship event. The setting is the Horseshoe, the classic venue that has held every World Series of Poker championship since its inception in 1970. Here was the mecca of poker, the shrine to WSOP history, where poker legends were born and champions were made. The WSOP, as it had always been, was more or less run as a mom-and-pop business. There were no sponsors, no plans to modernize or expand, simply no vision at all to where this event could go. The WSOP was like a huge ancient treasure chest with a rusted padlock barring its contents. It was hidden in the dark confines of the Horseshoe, and the current owners of that property didn’t know what to do with it. Harrah’s did, however, and went searching for the man who could unlock that treasure chest and bring forth its jewels.

Enter Jeffrey Pollack.

Harrah’s hired Pollack to manage their portfolio of sports ventures, including their live entertainment and media relationships. But his main task was to be the strategic global visionary of the WSOP brand. To make it happen. And they found the right guy.

Pollack brought unsurpassed credentials to his task. He had been in the professional sports industry since 1994, when, at age 29, he launched the Sports Business Daily, which was the first daily trade publication serving the sports industry. After selling the publication (which still exists), he consulted with NBA commissioner David Stern on collective bargaining negotiations and relaunch strategy in 1998 and 1999. He would collaborate with Stern to help repair basketball’s image after the damaging lockout in 1998. Pollack was subsequently hired full time as the head of marketing for the NBA—a powerful position in the industry. Later, in 2001, he caught the attention of NASCAR, and he soon became their Managing Director of Broadcasting and New Media. It was a job in which he was instrumental in shaping the sport into a global media property.

In August 2005 it was Harrah’s that scored a coup. They hired a man who knew how to polish their treasure. Harrah’s, presciently, didn’t go out and find a poker player to guide the ship. As Pollack explains, “The fact that I’ve come to this with very little poker knowledge was a benefit. It has allowed me to look at this situation with as clean a slate as possible.”

* * *

Pollack based his entire WSOP strategy on the sports business model—his background and strength. Pollack explains, “I view the WSOP through the same lens that’s used at the NBA, NASCAR and the NFL. We look at this as a global sport brand. Our job and our goal is to increase the following for this brand. And sponsorship and licensing are an important part of the business.” To that end, Pollack has overseen media partnerships with companies such as ESPN, Sirius radio, GLU Mobile, Bluff Media and AOL, and deals with national sponsors like the Miller Brewing Company, Planters and Hershey’s.

Look at the scorecard. In less than two years at the helm, Pollack has taken a largely moribund event and transformed it into a “happening” that attracted national sponsors, created strategic partnerships and is in the process of expanding around the globe. “Harrah’s bought London Club casinos in 2006. It made good sense for us to accelerate our European plans with that acquisition. The vision is that the WSOP will have a portfolio of one to four events staged outside the United States.”

Indeed. On September 5, the WSOP makes its international debut in London. Winners of the three scheduled events—H.O.R.S.E, Omaha and no-limit Texas hold’em—will receive WSOP bracelets for the first time outside of the United States. The London events, coming just a few months after the finish of the 2007 WSOP, will, in effect, mark the 56th, 57th and 58th bracelets for this year’s tournament.

He nonchalantly brushes off the WSOP’s main competition, the WPT (which happens to be largely responsible for the resurgence in poker), like he’s moving a fly off his picnic table—and without mentioning or even insinuating anything about them. Whatever the competition has, as Pollack points out, there is one thing they don’t have going for them—bracelets. “Players measure themselves by how many bracelets they have, not by how much money they’ve won. And we’re the only place you can get that bracelet. If poker players are interested in being part of the history and heritage, we’re their only choice.” Pollack has a point; for poker players, it is all about those championship bracelets.

Pollack stresses that his team’s challenge is simple: “Don’t screw it up. Don’t detract from the history and heritage we’ve inherited. And I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to protect that and enhance it, but at the same time, find ways to innovate that are meaningful. The business plan is really kind of simple. It all starts and ends with player relations.”

Before this job, Pollack had never spoken to a poker professional in his life. But when Pollack arrived, the first thing he did was seek out the top players and listen to them. Like other sports fans, he had already witnessed the cantankerous relations between players and leagues in the other major sports (and certainly saw matters up close during the NBA lockout), learning that open lines of communication were a lot healthier than hostile confrontations. The outgrowth of his many lunches and dinners with players was the formation of the Player Advisory Council, which meets on a regular basis with him. “I think we’re blessed to have the participation of these players. The 55-event program and the payout schedule for the tournaments is as much the work of the council as our own gaming department at Harrah’s and the Rio. You name the topic, and we’ve encouraged and invited their input.”

Last year’s introduction of the $50,000 buy-in H.O.R.S.E. event, a mix of five games that tests overall skills, was a direct result of player involvement in the planning process. It’s a tournament viewed by the professionals as the real championship event. And this year’s innovative 2007 schedule includes the introduction of smaller buy-in H.O.R.S.E events for the amateurs.

Another significant change is that the prize money is distributed more evenly so the lower tier of winning players earns more and the guys at the top earn less. For example, if the same number of players played this year as in 2006, the champion would not get $12.5 million as did the previous winner. A few million dollars of the top prize will get funneled to the lower tiers of winners.

Pollack stresses that the move is, again, about improving the customer experience. “Long term it enables us to let our customers know that they’re important to us; not just the top performers, not just the pros, but the amateurs here chasing the dream. If you’re in the money, you’re going to do better now.”

Additionally, players can wear as many logos as they want, just like the drivers at NASCAR—a model Pollack readily admits he’s heavily influenced by. Success for the players, as Pollack sees it, is success for the WSOP. ”Everyone is an independent contractor and has the ability to run their personal business as they see fit. I want players doing as well as they can.”

El Capitan of poker has spoken. The cards will be dealt, and a new global era of poker history will march on.