Although they have slowed the pace of signing top poker talent to sponsorship deals (World Series of Poker bracelet winner Igor Kurganov recent deal notwithstanding), PokerStars is demonstrating that they are willing to spend sponsorship dollars on those that are peripherally associated with the game. Their latest signing for a promotional deal demonstrates that factor very well.
It was announced over the weekend that PokerStars, by far the #1 online poker room in the industry and a major player in online casino gaming, had signed Olympic and world champion sprinter Usain Bolt to a sponsorship deal with the site. Bolt was the one announcing the deal during a social media chat session with another recent PokerStars signee, comedian/actor Kevin Hart. In the discussion, Bolt stated that “PokerStars is a winner and I’m happy to join Kevin in helping to bring poker and PokerStars to the masses. It’s a challenging game that’s fun, social and competitive, so I’m pleased to be able to introduce it to my fans and to people around the world.”
Just what Bolt will be doing isn’t exactly known, other than – like Hart – he will be involved with marketing campaigns and live appearances that are “geared towards introducing new audiences to poker,” according to Eric Hollreiser, the Vice President of Corporate Communications with PokerStars. “Usain is a fierce competitor who pushes his game to the limits,” Hollreiser said. “But he’s also one of the most-liked athletes in the world. His strong global following and winning personality will help us to introduce poker in a fun, social, and fast way.”
While he has never shown any proclivity towards poker, Bolt is one of the most decorated Olympians of all time and is well known internationally. Bolt is an eight-time Olympic gold medalist, the first man to ever win the 100m and 200m dash races in three consecutive Olympic Games (2008, 2012 and 2016). He has also won the World Championship in the 100m, 200m and the 4x100m relay in six consecutive World Championships (2009-2015). Bolt currently holds the world record in the 100m and the 200m (the first person to do that since automated timing originated) and is also a member of the world record 4x100m relay team.
Time waits for no man, however, and Bolt has been moving off into the retirement zone from international track and field. He has stated that he has no interest in competing in Tokyo in 2020 and has begun a “retirement tour.” Racing in what was an exhibition for all purposes over the weekend, Bolt – at the ripe age of 30 – still ran the 100m in 10.03 seconds. He will wrap up the “retirement tour” at this summer’s World Championships in London. Poker seems to be a nice way to approach retirement and, with PokerStars, Bolt seems to be ready.
What must be examined, however, is the current approach by PokerStars and its parent company, The Stars Group (formerly Amaya Gaming). Earlier this year the company signed Hart to a promotional deal where Hart indicated he wanted to “make poker fun again.” While picking up Hart and Bolt, PokerStars hasn’t signed a significant poker professional to the roster in quite some time other than Kurganov. Although they feature 18 players as “Team PokerStars Pros” and another seven as “Online Pros,” this is very different from what has been done in the past.
It is an example of the changing philosophies of online poker – and in particular the companies that own the sites – regarding their approach to customers. Many online gaming conglomerates are more interested in promoting the “casual” or “friendly” approach to online gaming and poker and, through signing entertainment and sports stars like Hart and Bolt, are looking to draw in those casual participants. The hard core online aficionados, at the same time, have seen the sponsorship opportunities dwindle (partypoker has been upping their game of late) as the attention of the ownership behind online poker rooms switch from the regulars to the “visitors.”
Whether Bolt will draw in more people than a Fedor Holz or Rainer Kempe remains to be seen, though. There are no announcements of when Bolt will make his first appearance in either advertising or on the tables, but it is sure to draw at least a bit of attention when it does occur. As to his poker playing? We’ll have to see about that also…