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WSOP Branding Machine - Part Two : Changing of the Guard

By Wendeen H. Eolis

Until moments after the 2009 WSOP final table proceedings in the fall, Jeffrey Pollack was the public face of the WSOP.  And then, suddenly, he announced his resignation and rushed off to take interviews that controlled the immediate spin on his departure.  He said he was ready to survey opportunities in new pastures and pleased  to have contributed  to the growth of the WSOP brand.  

Despite the happy state of affairs effectuated by the Pollack-Stewart collaboration, the collegiality between the two men had begun to wane at least a year earlier. A corporate reorganization of CIE was also afoot. Although Pollack had recommended a strong initiative in the online gaming market, and sought to add this responsibility to his portfolio, Caesars Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman was zooming in on Mitch Garber, the recently departed CEO of Party Gaming, to lead such an effort.

Mitch Garber Steps up to Bat

Pollack’s unveiled opposition to Garber as his potential boss made for an awkward situation once Garber was plainly in line to take the reins of CIE (initially Harrahs Interactive Entertainment), including Pollack's most treasured domain, the WSOP.  

In the spring of 2009, Garber became CEO of CIE. With Garber's blessings, Pollack assumed the title of President of CIE, briefly. But, Garber was running the show and relying on others as he built his team. In the fall of 2009, Pollack resigned. Garber tapped Stewart as his replacement.

Stewart Shines Brighter under Garber

Initially, Stewart had brought in sponsorships and had arranged licensing deals with Caesars properties. Under Garber, he expanded the licensing distribution beyond Caesars’ properties. His portfolio was also enlarged to include oversight for all WSOP television productions and management of the tournament as a whole. He could have picked up the title of “Commissioner of the WSOP.” He chose to retire it instead.

If you listen to Ty—just for a few minutes--you find out that he does not suffer pretenses. He happily mocks them and the people that live by them. Unlike others, who bask in the glory of Wikipedia listings that burnish their image, Ty says, “No thanks,” to these ruffles and flourishes. He opted for the title of WSOP Executive Director. In fact, he reigns as the Grand Pooh Bah of the WSOP!

Today, under his stewardship, CIE distributes licenses for branded WSOP gaming events far beyond the annual WSOP at the Rio. There are circuit events at Caesars properties across the country and others that include the likes of the Crown Casino in Australia, The Bicycle Club, and Casino in California and Foxwoods Resort and Casino on the tribal lands of the Pequot Indians in Connecticut.

Players Depend on the WSOP Collaborators to Play Nicely in the Sandbox

Stewart concedes, "There is inherent tension between short-term profitability for operators and long-term protection of the brand."  He turns impish in admitting he needs to pick his fights judiciously. He acknowledges, “Finding the balance is art and science and ongoing negotiation in what is now 20 + licensees."

While players are generally unaware of the internal turf wars, the outcomes of internal battles invariably affect them. For the most part, the interests of the players and the WSOP brand seem to be in alignment --even when Stewart makes some chancy judgment calls and presses hard to inject change and new ideas, others perceive as hair-brained.

In talking about the development of the schedule this year, Stewart says, "The modern era WSOP embraces having something for everyone. He has studied the WSOP's history backwards and forwards. He looks to it with respect and for inspiration. He fought hard to make the “no limit hold’em” 1.5k buy-in “millionaire maker” the centerpiece for the first weekend against operator fears of depleted entries and a corresponding drop in revenues.

His challengers worried about the impact of the million dollar guarantee; the possibility of first place eating up too much of the prize pool to maintain the flattened payout structure to which everyone has become accustomed in recent years. With almost 8000 runners, everyone is hailing this year's "Milly Maker" as the belle of the ball. It is but one record-breaking event in a slew of them, and we have barely reached the second week in the tournament.

Late in the planning stages, the WSOP added a “Monster” tournament to provide another no limit hold’em 1.5k buy-in with a slow, super deep stack structure--a recreational player’s dream. This type of tournament attracts players who come to “stay” (last longer) as well as those who come to compete seriously for the coveted WSOP bracelet. Licensees, focused on immediate profits, have found a gold mine in the smaller buy-ins that are yielding monster fields -- in no limit hold'em..

At the other end of the spectrum of buy-in options, is the return of multiple 10K world championship tournaments in diverse disciplines. For a few years after the recession of 2008, the WSOP accelerated the smaller buy-ins promoting more participation among non-pro enthusiasts.  

Effel who serves two masters, the Rio and the WSOP, has a unique understanding of the issues. He acknowledges, "Ty is pushing the envelope in search of enhanced long-term value for the brand." Stewart says, "10 K is a magic number for WSOP and has been since 1972, when the only prelim event was 5 card draw."

Some players have questioned the reinstituted 10ks. The complainers say these events responded to pros in pursuit of bracelets with fewer competitors in the field. Stewart takes sharp exception to anyone who suggests that WSOP caters to particular players or special interests. He says, "I consider the 10ks to be part of a package deal with the 1500s--making it simultaneously harder and easier to pursue a mixed game bracelet."

Stewart reacts strongly to further probing about the return of several 10K championship events. He justifies his decision thusly: "I am not apologizing for breaking with tradition and encouraging 8,000 entrant 1ks even though for most of our history the only thing you could play for 1k was a satellite, and I am certainly not apologizing for embracing tradition to spread buy-ins that only the most accomplished players can post."

Stewart is a Senior Member of the CIE Executive Team

Stewart is flying high in a job that suits his personality to a tee. He lives and breathes with creative juices, persistence, and perseverance “for the good of the players, the game, the broadcast, and the success of the company,” says Garber, his direct boss. Greenbaum says of the WSOP team, “There is a lot of yin and a lot of yang, and genuine collaboration when unique issues arise."

Effel says, “We call Ty the big idea man; he is a cool guy who always has the best interests of the players in mind.” Another Caesars colleague says of Stewart, affectionately, “His underlying vibe with the WSOP is one of a precocious kid with a baton—toiling seriously and enjoying, heartily, the fruits of loving labor.”

Greenbaum and Stewart Stand Side by Side

By all accounts of players queried for this article, Stewart has gained the respect of celebrity pros and tournament enthusiasts of all stripes. Stewart tells me I can quote him again, as I have before, on his guiding principle: “In my observation of tournament organizers, too often they present themselves as above the players, which is so far afield from my strategy of being in the foxhole with them.”

As Stewart prepared for the opening of the WSOP this summer, there were myriad details to finalize. He says the easiest one was selecting the person most deserving of a tip of the hat and a bow of thanks for all he has contributed to bringing the WSOP to life at the Rio. He tapped Howard Greenbaum, the old school gaming executive who played a pivotal role in preserving the WSOP and helping it to grow at the Rio.

Squabbles amid their collaborations aside, Greenbaum calls Stewart "an amazing partner" and Stewart returns the respect. They both tell me they have one overriding common goal--a positive experience for the player.

Update:  The monster stack (single entry) tournament drew the largest number of starting players in one day at the WSOP—ever, seating 7762 players in all.   

Author’s Note and Disclosure: The author is personally acquainted with all of the parties referenced, and Eolis International Group has had occasional business dealings with Caesars  and CIE.

Editor’s Note: See WSOP Media Director and Poker Night in America host Nolan Dalla’s current article: Meet Wendeen Eolis at nolandalla.com for further info on the author. This article is the exclusive property of the author. She can be reached at eolis.com, linkedin, and twitter.

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Wendeen H. Eolis

World Series of Poker


September 4, 2014 - 9:31am
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