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Sports leagues are obsessed with expansion. Whether it's the NFL, the NBA, NASCAR -- it doesn't matter. More teams, more games, more television opportunities all lead to one thing: more revenue. So when the World Series of Poker announced earlier this week that it was, in essence, retracting for 2014 it caught a few people by surprise.
It was over 18 months ago that the WSOP announced the creation of the WSOP Asia-Pacific stop at Crown Casino in Melbourne, Australia. The event was to be the third stop on the calendar with multiple WSOP bracelets on the line and the second international event, joining WSOP Europe which has been around since 2007. The WSOP was expanding the reach of its brand and creating more revenue opportunities for Caesars Entertainment, the company that owns that brand. The goal at the time was to have WSOP host the most prestigious set of events in poker.
"Our goal is to establish the worldwide grand slam of poker and use our platform to elevate the game through a series of major championships," WSOP Executive Director Ty Stewart said at the time. "With WSOP Las Vegas growing annually and WSOP Europe poised for long-term success after five years, the time is right to turn our attention to the dynamic poker scene in Asia and Australia."
The first WSOP APAC, last April, featured five bracelet events highlighted by Daniel Negreanu winning the main event. All told, it was a pretty good start for a stop that was expected to grow each year, allowing Caesars the chance to add to their bottom line while increasing their footprint on the poker tournament schedule.
Poker's "Grand Slam," it seemed, was coming. On Monday, that changed.
The WSOP announced significant changes to their international event format. Rather than being an annual event, WSOP APAC and WSOP Europe will now alternate years with APAC getting the nod for 2014 (October). While it appears to be a major step back for what many consider poker's most important brand, that's not really the case.
Stewart put forth the company spin in the press release announcing the changes. "Moving to a rotational approach, with one international event per year allows for better organization and more marketing in each region. We also want to do right by the players, and provide more value for their travel dollar," said Stewart. "There is a glut of poker tournaments around the world, and our vision is to each year put on a single global showcase that can't be missed."
Any executive of a publicly traded company being quoted in a press release is going to attempt to weave the most positive version of the story. Still, that's a pretty big swerve from when APAC was announced. In this case though, he's probably not being positive enough about what this change means for the WSOP. It's a case of addition by subtraction.
Ever since Harrah's (now Caesars) took ownership of the WSOP the number of bracelets offered each year has ballooned. When Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 Main Event there were 36 bracelets available. When you count the five bracelets awarded at 2013 WSOP APAC, the 62 awarded at the 2013 WSOP in Las Vegas and the eight from WSOP Europe (not to mention the one awarded to the WSOP Circuit National Championship winner) you're looking at greater than 100 percent growth in just 10 years.
Players were starting to complain about the declining prestige of the bracelet as more and more became available. The new international plan calls for 10 bracelet events at 2014 APAC. The 2014 WSOP schedule isn't out yet, but it's unlikely they'll move beyond 65 bracelet events, meaning that for the first time since 2003, there will be no increase in the number of bracelets available. Don't think for a second that WSOP execs won't continue to add events each year, but this new setup is a partial admission that they're at least slowing the pace. This past year, some players were vocal that the race for WSOP Player of the Year started in Australia and only a limited number of players could afford the travel necessary to get there. They complained that it gave players with larger bankrolls or sponsorship deals an unfair advantage and an early lead on the prestigious WSOP POY title. The travel requirement is still there, but it's been cut in half with only one international event per year. Most importantly, though, everybody in contention for WSOP POY from their performance in Las Vegas will have the opportunity to decide if they want to make the trip to Australia or Europe to chase more points. Stewart might have put it best on Twitter just hours after the official announcement.
Guess this settles the POY debate, huh? Everyone starts fresh in Vegas. Playoffs in oz.
— Ty Stewart (@wsopSUITd) November 25, 2013
Treating WSOP APAC or WSOP Europe as the WSOP POY playoffs gives Caesars yet another way to market the international events and in turn increases the prestige of the bracelets available as the best players -- the hottest players -- will be there chasing them.
Now it's not all good news.
The new set up presents some challenges for WSOP. With the international events slated or October of each year, there are seven months where the WSOP flagship brand will be out of the spotlight. With the previous setup the WSOP had an event in April, dominated the summer with the WSOP then had another event in October before the November Nine grabbed all the headlines as the year wound down. The challenge here will be for the WSOP, and their online poker site WSOP.com, to find ways to keep both the WSOP Las Vegas and WSOP International in the front of people's minds while the World Poker Tour, European Poker Tour and other tours dominate the calendar. It also pulls the WSOP out of Europe and while WSOPE has struggled to find solid footing, it seems like it could be a mistake to let the most regulated online poker market in the world go without WSOP events for 24 months at a time.
The WSOP could have heard the criticisms about the number of bracelets and fairness of the POY race, ignored them and pushed forward with international expansion plans. Instead they've pulled back enough to open more options in later years. If the WSOP brand and -- most importantly to players and media alike -- legacy becomes stronger by slowing their expansion plans over the next few years that can only be a positive.