PokerStars’ Shift to Celebrity Sponsorships Sparks PartyPoker Signings

Following a wave of departures from the site’s Team Pro roster, PokerStars parent company The Stars Group is preparing for a new era of online poker marketing.

The world’s leading online poker room has parted ways with several high-profile professional players to ring in the new year.

Vanessa Selbst, who leads the women’s all-time tournament earnings list with over $11.8 million, announced her retirement from poker via Facebook on December 31. Less than a week later, Brazilian pro Felipe Ramos revealed that his Team Pro contract had not been renewed. Within days, Jason Mercier did the same, and by January’s end he was joined by European stars Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier and Marcin Horecki.

In his announcement, Ramos alluded to a strategic shift on the part of PokerStars, telling his Twitter followers that “the company’s priorities have changed.”

Grospellier made similar comments, observing that “Team Pro used to be a core part of their strategy, but it became evident this was not the case anymore during the last few years.”

After acquiring PokerStars in 2014, Canadian iGaming firm Amaya (now known as The Stars Group) began pivoting the site’s focus from high-volume pros to recreational players. As part of this transformation, PokerStars’ live tournament events were scaled back, while the online platform integrated casino and sports verticals, along with poker-based lottery games like “Spin and Go” tournaments.

PokerStars also drew the ire of top pros by severely rolling back the site’s rakeback and rewards programs last year.

In an interview with Mo Nuwwarah of PokerNews, Eric Hollreiser – who serves as director of corporate communications for The Stars Group – offered insight into the site’s Team Pro purge:

“For many years there was an arms race between PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker – and PartyGaming to a lesser extent – to see who can sign the most and ‘best’ pros.

After Black Friday and the demise of Full Tilt and our subsequent takeover of the brand, there was very little competition for sponsored Pros – and much lower global competition for live poker events in general.”

In lieu of pro players, The Stars Group has increasingly turned to athletes and actors to promote PokerStars.

A wave of signings in 2015 brought international soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar Jr. aboard, along with tennis legend Rafael Nadal. Last year Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt became a PokerStars partner, while comedian and actor Kevin Hart has competed in several live high-roller tournaments as part of his campaign to “make poker fun again.”

Hollreiser linked the decision to let Team Pros walk to the success of celebrity sponsorship:

“As we increased the use of athletes, there was less demand for sponsored pros from our marketing teams.

So we continued to reduce the roster of Pros, while always adjusting the mix of players.

We also believed that our ambassadors should not solely be winners and credible/authentic poker players but should live and breathe the game, proactively creating excitement around it and generating multimedia content that reaches multiple audiences.”

PokerStars may not be in the sponsored pro game any longer, but its primary competitor is stepping up to fill the niche.

PartyPoker has been on a signing spree in recent months, adding top pros like Fedor Holz, Jason Koon, Martin Jacobsen, Kristen Bicknell, and Philipp Gruissem since September of last year.

Another star poached by PartyPoker is Ike Haxton, who lambasted his previous employer PokerStars in a 2016 statement announcing his departure from the Team Pro ranks:

“I believe PokerStars is behaving unethically.

Announcing in November that players who earned Supernova and Supernova Elite status in 2015 will not receive the benefits they had expected in 2016 strikes me as dishonest and unfair.

I cannot in good conscience continue to endorse a poker site that treats its players this way.”

Last week, Haxton sounded ready to represent PartyPoker to the best of his abilities:

“Being a public face, appearing in advertising, showing up at events, wearing their patch.

I’m optimistic that I’ll be in a good place to get player feedback to people who can make changes.

I think what PartyPoker is doing right now is pretty good. But having people who are engaged in the high-stakes tournament and cash game community can help them to adapt to serve those communities as well as they can.”