Poker Central, the recently-launched multi-platform poker network, announced this afternoon that it has signed a deal with the Global Poker League (GPL) to air live GPL events.
On the surface, this seems like a contender for least surprising story of the year, given that both entities are involved in the business of selling poker as a spectator sport, one as a content-producer and the other as a distributor. On the other hand, there are valid questions to be asked about what the GPL stands to gain from the deal, given how much anticipation surrounds its launch, and how tepid the response has been to Poker Central since it began broadcasting in October. As slow as Poker Central’s start has been, however, it still has potential, and the GPL may in fact be exactly what it needs to get going.
The initial disappointment in the poker community with Poker Central stems largely from two things: pre-launch misconceptions about what was meant by “television network,” and insufficient original content.
Chicken and egg
When it comes to content, there’s a big of a chicken-and-egg scenario going on. Specialized content often has a hard time finding a home on platforms that aim for more general appeal, yet it’s hard to launch a specialized channel if such content doesn’t already exist. Poker Central has attempted to address that problem by producing some shows of its own, such as Pokerography, but it still relies heavily on decade-old reruns from the days when poker featured more prominently on mainstream television.
In the tech industry, people like to talk about the need for a “killer app” in order for a given platform, device or tool to take off. A technology provides potential, but few users will adopt something on the basis of potential alone; to achieve commercial success, the public needs to be shown a practical use for the technology, which nothing else provides. An example would be the first word processors for early personal computers, which offered obvious and tangible benefits over typewriters. Before these, computers were seen as being primarily useful in business, research and military applications, so a “personal” computer would have seemed pointless to the lay public.
In a sense, the GPL, if it succeeds in being entertaining enough, could prove to be Poker Central’s killer app, inducing viewers to start watching Poker Central specifically to keep up with the GPL. That may seem to be more to Poker Central’s benefit than the GPL’s, but if we’re asking why the GPL would want to be carried by a network with such limited viewership, then the answer is that the GPL can, potentially, fix the problem and simultaneously reap the rewards of doing so.
The cable question
When Poker Central first launched, the biggest complaint heard was that it’s not “really” a television network at all. Because Poker Central was touting itself as the “world’s only 24/7 Poker TV network,” many assumed this meant that it would be available to cable subscribers on their regular television. Instead, it turns out that so far, it is only available through certain devices and specialized services, such as FilmOn.TV, XBox One, Amazon fireTV, and others.
Last month, Poker Central made one important step to remedying this situation, by signing a long-term agreement with the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC), which is the not-for-profit middleman which makes channels available to cable providers in the United States. Unfortunately, despite there being over 850 such providers, none has yet taken the bait, but what’s important here is that any of them could now do so quite easily, if they saw sufficient value in it.
Here too, there’s a strong chance for synergy between the GPL and Poker Central. If the GPL does well, and if viewers start adopting Poker Central as a convenient way to watch GPL events, then Poker Central may suddenly be a more appealing prospect for cable providers. If, then, Poker Central does make it onto cable television, both Poker Central and the GPL will benefit from a massively expanded potential audience.
No real downside
All of this is, realistically, a bit of a long-shot, because so many things need to go right in succession: the GPL needs to make itself entertaining enough; it needs to find a way to reach fans who aren’t already watching Poker Central; those fans need to decide that Poker Central is the best or easiest way to watch; and there need to be enough of those fans for cable providers to take the plunge. Even if all of these things do come to pass, it may take multiple seasons for it to happen, so another criterion is that both the GPL and Poker Central need to survive long enough to reach critical mass.
When deciding whether to take a longshot gamble, however, the key question is what the downside is, and here I think the answer is that there’s no real reason for the GPL not to roll the dice with Poker Central.
The most obvious possible downside to a deal with Poker Central would be the potential for it to interfere with exclusive deals with other, larger networks. But the thing to remember is that most GPL matches – at least in the first two seasons – will be played online, and others in a television studio with little or no live audience. This is not a format one could remotely imagine appealing to, say, ESPN.
If there’s any hope for the GPL to get attention from mainstream networks in the early going, it will be with its “Cube” matches, played live, in an arena or similar venue, and in front of a (hopefully) large and loud live audience. The Cube will mostly be used for the playoffs and championship final, so it’s there that the GPL can hope to be picked up by a larger network. For the regular season, it’s unlikely that anyone other than Poker Central and various online streaming services will be interested, so there’s little chance of a missed opportunity there. As for the playoffs, Alex Dreyfus (CEO of Mediarex, which owns GPL) and he said they are not, in any event, considering exclusive distribution deals for those matches at this time.
Hypothetically, it is possible that after several seasons, the GPL would become popular enough that even regular season events would be played live in the Cube, and that at that point a major network would push for an exclusive deal. That’s far enough in the future, however, that the GPL should have no problem extracting itself from existing contracts by that time and, in any case, such an eventuality would be classified as “a good problem to have.”
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
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