Jeffrey Pollack has a pithy way of describing his career: “I specialize in things that haven’t been done before.” Like starting the first trade paper devoted to the business of sports. Or creating the Emmy-winning pastiche of in-car cameras and onscreen telemetry that makes NASCAR watchable. Or transforming the World Series of Poker from a Vegas sideshow into an “anyone can enter, anyone can win” big business. And now, if things go his way, catapulting card sharks into the ranks of pampered sports celebrities.
Epic Poker, Pollack’s newly created professional poker league, will host its inaugural tournament at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas next month, promising to turn top players into a gaming elite. “In any other sport there are platforms, brands or associations that are focused on the best of the best. Poker doesn’t have that,” says the 47-year-old entrepreneur and half-brother of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. (Joy, their late mother, married Pollack’s father Howard, an accountant, when Gary was 11.) “We’re going to celebrate skill and strategy above moments of luck.”
Players will be ranked by performance and earnings as in tennis, and awarded “cards” as in pro golf, providing them with entry to Epic’s events for three to five years. All of the US$20,000 entry fees will go into the prize pots (traditionally organizers take a 10 per cent “rake” off the top), which will be sweetened by the league with US$400,000 for regular tourneys, and $1 million for the annual championship featuring the season’s top 27 performers. And players, long used to paying their own way, will receive free food, drinks and hotel suites. “It’s elevating the service level that the pros are used to,” says Pollack.
There have been other attempts to professionalize the game in the past, but this time, Pollack and his partners, including poker ace Annie Duke and former executives of Ticketmaster and Youbet.com, a gaming website, think there’s a void to be filled. In April, the FBI shut down the U.S. operations of the three largest online poker houses—Poker Stars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker—charging the companies facilitated illegal gambling and engaged in “massive” money laundering and bank fraud. With their advertising and sponsorship dollars—the fuel for the poker boom—at least temporarily off the table, the TV picture for the new league may not be so rosy. (Pollack says a broadcast deal is in place, but would not divulge details or plans beyond his desire to give the game “a new look and feel.”) But all of a sudden, big-name players have a compelling reason to band together and find new sources of income.
And given Pollack’s track record, it would be foolish to bet against him. At the age of 29, while troubleshooting for Major League Baseball—he began his career as a political consultant for a firm specializing in special-interest ballot campaigns and corporate crisis management—he got the brainstorm to create a hybrid of Variety and Sports Illustrated, launching Sports Business Daily in 1994. When he sold out four years later, he followed his brother’s footsteps and joined the NBA (Bettman was the league’s number three until he took over the NHL in 1993), helping to rebrand pro basketball after its 1998 lockout. Then it was on to NASCAR, as its managing director of broadcasting and new media. In 2005, he was named commissioner of the World Series of Poker, turning the annual tournament into a major ESPN event, and negotiating sponsorships with Miller Brewing, Planters Peanuts and Hershey’s. After resigning in late 2009, he spent several months as the interim executive chairman of Professional Bull Riders Inc. before launching his poker venture this past winter.
Pollack, who is married with an infant son and now splits his time between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, says there are some universal truths in pro sports, no matter what the product. “You’re selling hope,” he says. “It’s a form of vicarious participation that is predicated on the fans’ desire to see something great happen. Whether it’s their team winning a game, winning a world championship, winning a season, trading for a player that’s going to make a difference. Sports marketers fundamentally sell hope.”
With his proven success in tapping into those fan fantasies, it’s natural to wonder whether Pollack harbours his own dreams of following his brother up the ladder. “The idea of being the commissioner of one of the big four sports never crosses my mind,” he says flatly. “Those leagues all have long-term guys in place, lots of senior talent, and clear succession plans.”
For 18 years, he’s watched Bettman contend with the “inherently political” challenges of his job, and act as a lightning rod for fan dissatisfaction. The only siblings are close, talking—and commiserating—regularly. “I don’t think there’s a commissioner in office right now who hasn’t been booed when they appear in public. It just comes with the territory,” says Pollack.
Even when the sport is poker? “Yes, it happened once or twice,” he says. “But being the commissioner of the World Series of Poker doesn’t really compare.”