Editor's note: This is the first in a series of two articles on how agents are raising the stakes in the poker world. Part Two: Agents push players to cash in on endorsements.
It was a little more than two years ago when Brian Balsbaugh walked into his house after a hard day of work and told his wife the news.
"Honey, I'm quitting my job," said Balsbaugh, who worked as a golf agent with a small company in Minnesota. "I'm going to represent poker players."
Balsbaugh's wife Nicole stood in stunned disbelief. "Have you even played poker?" she asked.
She wasn't wrong to ask. At 31, Balsbaugh had never played the game. He didn't know whether a flush beat a straight. But much like those who claim to be experts after staying at a Holiday Inn Express, Balsbaugh had watched ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker the night before. He was so confident that poker was the next big thing, he did some online research and the next day, gave his two week's notice.
Today, Balsbaugh is one of the most powerful figures in a business that is growing exponentially. His company, Poker Royalty, exclusively represents some of the biggest names in the game, including Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu. And while more than 1,000 agents fight to get a measly percentage of a player's NFL contract, Balsbaugh is believed to be the only agent who makes poker his exclusive business -- racking up 20 percent marketing commissions off his players' online endorsements and speaking engagements.
"I was in the right place at the right time," said Balsbaugh, who moved his family to Las Vegas. "If I came in six months before, I would have given up."
First, he had to sign the best players. Hellmuth told Balsbaugh he believed that a former golf agent was best for a poker player who, in a similar fashion, relied on income from marketing deals to get by until the big wins came along. Negreanu came a few months later after a sit down dinner at Palomino Restaurant in Minneapolis.
"It's not like a lot of other athletes who weigh input from their family and friends before making a decision," Balsbaugh said. "These guys analyze situations and read people for a living."
In his first six months of business, Balsbaugh lost money. Companies weren't interested in aligning themselves with poker players. Balsbaugh convinced his clients to attend events for free just to get their name out there.
But that all changed last year, when poker exploded onto the scene.
The phones were ringing.
Companies like Bank of America, Goldman Sachs and Honeywell, were willing to pay between $10,000 and $50,000 to sit down at the table with his clients.
"Executives are really tired of the golf outing," Balsbaugh said.
And although most of the money poker players make still comes from their deals with online poker establishments, Balsbaugh just signed two of his players to an endorsement deal with a mainstream beverage brand.
Balsbaugh doesn't have much competition these days.
Converge, an entertainment marketing company in Los Angeles, represents Johnny Chan and 2003 World Series of Poker champion Chris Moneymaker. Converge executive Matt Wind said that the company signed them because they believed in their potential to turn into brands, but has no plans to aggressively seek out other players.
Balsbaugh is constantly on the prowl. He spent 39 days at the Rio in Las Vegas this year scouting talent at the World Series of Poker. He's signed two players -- Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi and Michael Gracz -- who he determined were top talent after his clients played them, and he's currently in talks with 2005 WSOP champion Joe Hachem.
But even with the two new employees and the four interns he recently hired, he only has so much time. He currently represents 15 players exclusively and will do deals for another 10. He said he's turned away more than 50 players who approached him. If a flood of new agents were to attack the poker craze, Balsbaugh is confident that he's still the guy.
He encouraged the World Poker Tour to allow sponsorship logos on player's shirts at their events and said in the past two years, he has accumulated a wealth of knowledge.
Said Balsbaugh: "I can tell you right now the details of more than 200 marketing deals in poker down to the penny."
He can also tell you that a flush beats a straight.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.