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July 25, 2014

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WSOP:

ESPN’s feature table provides as much publicity as profitability

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Leila Navidi

ESPN monitors display the different camera angles at the feature table inside the Amazon room at the Rio during the World Series of Poker Main Event.

Fast facts

  • Entrants: 6,494
  • Total prize pool: $61 million
  • Winner's circle: The top 648 players will win at least $21,365, according to tournament director Jack Effel. Each of the nine players at the final table will make at least $1.26 million, with the winner claiming $8.55 million.

The ESPN feature table, a dimly lit oasis tucked away in a quiet corner of the raucous Amazon room inside the Rio, is not only one of the most recognized pieces of felt in the poker world, but it is also one of the most profitable.

Like the pitchers' mound at the old Yankee Stadium or the parquet floor at the Boston Gardens, this camera-lined table is hallowed ground in the game of poker. It is where dreams are ruined and millionaires are born in the World Series of Poker's No Limit Texas Hold 'em Main Event.

Unless a player survives to make the "November Nine," however, landing at this table is as much luck as flopping a royal flush.

Each day, ESPN meets with WSOP officials and selects a table to move to the feature spotlight. The whole table is moved, not just individuals. If a set of players is particularly uninteresting or a high-profile player is knocked out, ESPN can only swap tables during regularly scheduled breaks.

"Most people think ESPN picks individuals, but they have to take an entire table and deal with both the good and the bad," said WSOP communications director Seth Palansky. "ESPN obviously wants the big names and the most colorful players at the feature table, but they can't break up a previously assigned table grouping."

ESPN cannot force everyone at the feature table to wear a microphone. But aside from some high-maintenance professionals, most poker players relish a chance to sit at the feature table due to some unique sponsorship deals.

Because a poker players' uniform most often resembles the heap of clothing closest to their beds in the morning, a simple patch or sticker placed in the right spot can lead to thousands of dollars when in front of ESPN's cameras.

A player at the feature table earns an average of $10,000 for displaying a company's logo on their clothing, which is most often online gambling Web sites such as Pokerstars, Full Tilt or Ultimate Bet.

"It is all about brand exposure," said Pokerstars.net spokesman Matt Clark. "We are the largest online poker room in the world and the exposure on ESPN can only help us grow."

Pokerstars, which sponsors 1,100 of the 6,494 players at this year's WSOP, grew from 22 million users to 26 million since last year's Main Event due in part to its dominating presence during ESPN's seemingly endless year-round broadcasts of the event, according to Clark.

The WSOP does govern the use of logos, however, by enforcing a rule that states players cannot drastically alter their appearance once play begins each day.

Players can put on or take off jackets, but they cannot, for instance, change into a sponsor's gear while heading to the feature table.

Chicago native Ian Schechter knows this rule all too well.

With a record-setting 2,923 players entering into Day 2B Wednesday, Schechter was one of the lucky players to gain a seat at the feature table thanks to the presence of Phil Hellmuth at his table.

But Schechter, a Pokerstars player, did not start the day wearing any Pokerstars apparel or logos.

"I didn't realize I had to have all of that stuff on before I sat down," Schechter said. "When I found out I was going to the feature table, I wanted to put on a logo, but they wouldn't let me. That cost me about $10,000, so that definitely sucks a lot."

Aside from simple advertising deals, some companies offer bonuses to players wearing their logos for making the final table or winning the gold bracelet. Pokerstars, for example, pays a $1 million bonus if one of its players wins the tournament.

With such massive dollar amounts swirling around a single table, "poker agents" have started to try to cash in on these lucrative sponsorship deals mid-action.

These agents try to spot amateur or unsponsored players with large chip stacks during the final days of an event and sign them in hopes of that player garnering the attention of ESPN's cameras.

Most agents, though, try to negotiate deals prior to the start of a tournament.

"Poker agents are just like sports agents," said James Sullivan, the president of Las Vegas-based Poker Royalty, which represents more than 20 top poker professionals. "The more successful a poker player is, then the more in demand they become in terms of clothing deals, books, DVDs or speaking engagements."

While Poker Royalty is a one-stop shop for player representation, marketing and licensing, its primary concern is matching players with the right poker company based sometimes on factors such as age, gender and nationality.

And when thousands of dollars are on the line, each player wants the best logo on their clothing while sitting at the feature table.

"Our job is to negotiate the best deals for our clients while they focus on the cards," Sullivan said. "The general public might not realize poker players have agents, but these are professionals. This is their livelihood."

Steve Silver can be reached at 948-7822 or [email protected].

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