News Analysis: Upping the Stakes

Article excerpt

Online operators are working hard to raise their profile as UK gamblers embrace internet poker. Robert Gray reports.

Poker is no longer a game confined to smoky backrooms. The internet has enabled fans and novices of the card game to test their skill, hunches and luck against other players, whether they live down the road or on another continent.

Last week a pair of high-flying US online gambling operations, UltimateBet and Absolute Poker, hired ad agencies to promote UK launches - FCB London and Tonic for the former, and Cheetham Bell JWT for the latter. They enter a market that is growing rapidly, already features some well-established operators and is undergoing regulatory change (Marketing, 5 May).

According to Ladbrokes, UK players stake pounds 19m a day on online poker.

Globally, it says, dollars 180m (pounds 94m) is wagered in cash game pots every day, up from dollars 60m (pounds 31m) in January 2004.

These international figures are difficult to substantiate, given that many of the online gaming companies are privately owned and the figures they release not always transparent. But the consensus is that online gambling is booming.

'The online poker market grew 115% last year,' says Sportingbet director of strategic marketing Andy May. 'That phenomenal growth has principally been driven through TV. We have seen a couple of online players winning the World Series of Poker. That has captured the imagination of the online gamer.'

Broader audience

Extensive UK TV coverage on stations such as Challenge and Sky's Poker Channel has taken the game to a wider audience and encouraged them to hone their skills online. Sportingbet demonstrated its faith in the potential of internet poker when it paid a reported pounds 169m to acquire Paradise Poker last October.

'The market is booming,' agrees Deutsche Bank analyst Simon Champion.

'Internet gaming companies are generating huge revenues, and the UK is a long way from being a mature market.'

While growth potential is alluring to newcomers, the UK is already a highly competitive market. Ladbrokes, Paradise Poker, Party Poker and 888.com are among operators that have already invested in brand-building.

Outdoor and online ads are especially popular in a sector keen to reach a young, mobile audience, but other media figure too.

Paradise has used model Caprice in a campaign including six- and 48-sheet posters and press ads in lads' magazines such as Maxim and Zoo. Party Poker has focused on posters, even running election-themed executions showing the three main party leaders' 'poker faces' in the run-up to the general election.

The operator has also negotiated several sponsorships, including in-store at Selfridges during its Vegas Supernova event and a perimeter advertising and brand experience deal at the Ashes cricket series.

Both Paradise Poker and Party Poker do their own creative work. 'I was brought in to set up an in-house agency to cover all aspects of marketing,' says Party Poker creative director David Hart. 'Outside the world of poker players, we are still relatively unknown. …