One small step

Editor's Note: First round matches of the National Heads-Up Poker Championship begin on Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET

It frustrates me to no end that the draw party of NBC's National Heads-Up Poker Championship isn't streamed online. It's just such a natural -- an event that doesn't get televised, that's bound to have a strong internet following and which features some of the most charismatic people alive in the most natural of environments: an open bar.

The draw party is more than just a good time. It's destiny to the winner, a curse to the 63 losers and a host of what-could-have-beens. But more it's anticipation, 32 bracket reveals and a lot of fun being had by the brightest stars in the game.

Talk about a recipe for a good time.

While Thursday night's 2009 draw party had its share of murmurs and thrills, the biggest news to come out of it had little to do with the tournament itself. GoDaddy.com, the online giant who came on as the chief sponsor of the NHUPC this year, announced that the company would be taking their involvement in poker a step further. A small step for GoDaddy, but a potential giant leap for poker kind.

GoDaddy announced it was entering into a sponsorship agreement with 26-year-old professional Vanessa Rousso. Rousso, a law student-turned-poker professional, burst onto the tournament scene in 2006 with a seventh place finish at the World Poker Tour Championship. Since then, she's accumulated more than $1 million in tournament winnings and has established herself as one of the poker's rising stars.

"Vanessa is a definite personality in this sport," said GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons. "A female who's successfully participating in a male dominated sport. She speaks three languages fluently, she's young, she's attractive what's not to like?"

Rousso joins Danica Patrick as the latest in a line of female representatives for the domain name registrar/web hosting giant. While the details of the deal were not released, it was revealed that Rousso's been shooting GoDaddy commercials this week and would be an official "GoDaddy Girl."

"GoDaddy as a company is particularly suited to match my brand," Rousso said shortly before the announcement. "Their image is youthful and edgy and they have an out-of-the-box reputation, all of which I try to embrace in my own life and experiences. I think the people there are risk takers, out of the box and I really like that personally.

"I see them as a company I'll partner with very well. They're planning on a poker themed ad campaign and I'll be a big part of that. Doing a commercial for corporate America is exciting. I hope everyone thinks the ads are funny. I think they are!"

This isn't the first time a professional poker player has found a commercial deal outside of the poker industry. Amongst others, Phil Hellmuth's face has been seen on more than a few cans of Milwaukee's Best Light beer and Daniel Negreanu and Scott Nguyen appeared in a 2006 Diet Pepsi commercial. What sets this deal apart, however, is the nature of the corporation that struck it.

The Internet has been kind to poker, which has dominated search engine use in recent years and as such should appeal to a similar demographic as the one GoDaddy caters to.

"We believe the poker demographic is far and away more Internet savvy than, say, NASCAR fans," said Parsons, reflecting on his company's decision to use a poker celebrity to endorse their products. "At the end of the day, we're interested in that Internet-savvy demographic. Poker is legal, it has a huge following and we see no reason why we'd shy away from it. We don't try to please everyone, just our core customers. We believe they'll be just fine with us foraying into poker."

While poker's dark past and resulting reputation have scared potential endorsers and sponsors in the past, GoDaddy's foray reminds us that there's a very large Internet out there and poker is an affordable and effective way to reach out to its users.

"Poker has found its home on the Internet," said Parsons. "I'd say an online business that's interested in reaching Internet-savvy people would be wise to look at televised tournaments."

It's a natural connection that could well lead to future opportunities for the cadre of televised poker players who have all the TV time in the world and nothing to do with it.

Other thoughts from the draw party:

" There's a rumor that GoDaddy has also signed an undisclosed agreement with Mike Matusow. Matusow appeared on Radio GoDaddy this past Wednesday.
" The match that got the biggest oohs and ahhhs was Phil Hellmuth facing Mike Sexton in the first round. Matusow, appearing on PokerRoad Radio's live feed from the event, profoundly stated "These are the two guys who made poker what it is."
" As tough as Don Cheadle's first match two years ago was (Phil Ivey), David Pham might be even tougher in no-limit heads-up.
" As easy as Phil Ivey's first match two years ago was (Don Cheadle), Jen Tilly might be even easier in no-limit heads-up
" Rousso begins her reign as GoDaddy girl against none other than Doyle Brunson.
" Ted Forrest has a chance to avenge his loss a year ago to Orel Hershiser.
" Erik Seidel, fighting to not go 0-5 for his NHUPC career, must beat John Phan in the first round to avoid that fate.
" Of the two guys seeking to make the third round for the fifth straight time, I'd put my money on Scott Fischman before Huck Seed. Seed drew my pick for toughest four-man bracket in the field, facing Jon Little in round one and the winner of David Benyamine versus Gus Hansen in round two. Fischman faces Jamie Gold in round one and the winner of J.C. Tran versus David Williams in round two.
" Vanessa Selbst versus Layne Flack offers as much potential for trash talk fun and ugliness as any matchup I can remember
" First round victories for Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey would pit the two greats against one another in the second round.
" The winner of Hellmuth/Sexton will face a satellite winner, as Leon Yanovski and Jeff Ishbia became the first qualifiers to be paired against one another in the tournament's history.

My picks:

Without going through my entire bracket, I'm predicting a final four of Phil Ivey, Chris Ferguson, Kenny Tran and Andy Bloch. My winner? The same guy that won the WSOP's $10,000 heads-up event, Kenny Tran (over Phil Ivey).

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. You can read more of his thoughts on poker in his blog at www.wisehandpoker.net.