Though the annual World Series of Poker has been broadcast on ESPN for several years, it never drew noteworthy attention or ratings. Filmmaker Steve Lipscomb, however, thought he could turn poker into the next American pastime. So with the help of investor Lakes Entertainment, he developed the World Poker Tour (WPT), and got the Travel Channel to agree to air the first season's hourlong shows on Wednesday nights.The question was, would anyone watch?
"It was immediately dismissed by the sports writers and sports magazines because it had been around for a long time - televised, but televised very poorly," says Lipscomb. So he added Hollywood production value: tiny cameras on players' hole cards, sports-type commentators, and dramatic lighting. It became a story told over the course of an hour. Jackie Lapin Media Relations was asked to help get the story out.
From the start, the goal was to build viewership. Everyone involved knew that once people saw the WPT, they would watch again. It also had to be positioned as an accessible game because all you really need is a deck of cards. "And, of course, there was a novelty factor," says Lapin. "The jury was still out, but people were interested."
The WPT promotions began a few months before the first episode aired in March 2003 and was broken into three phases.
The first simply involved letting people know it was going to air. "There was so much skepticism going in," recalls Lapin. "But we sent copies [of the show] to key media, and the response was amazing." She also contacted TV outlets, poker magazines, and sports writers.
Once the shows had aired and the ratings grew, Lapin took the WPT's success and fed it back to the media. Phase two was selling the "poker is hot" story.
"We sent a fax to every feature page in the country, saying, 'This is the time to jump on this story,'" says Lapin. And she was able to show that anyone can play. "We were talking about the fact that our players are soccer moms, dot-com millionaires, PhDs, and average Joes. You can't go to a Laker game and play on the court with Shaq. But you can be sitting next to Howard Lederer or Doyle Brunson."
The final phase developed as celebrities began entering in WPT events. In one instance, Lapin and the WPT didn't even know that Ben Affleck had entered a tournament, but because they were already filming, they took the footage to entertainment outlets like Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. As the popularity rose, that opened the door to create tournaments comprising celebrities, pros, and amateurs.
"People were tuning in early and staying through the whole show," says Lapin. And the reruns of the first season performed 30% higher in the ratings than the first-runs.
Articles ran in Sports Illustrated and TV Guide, and Business 2.0 ran a feature about why dot-com millionaires have the potential to be some of the best poker players in the world. Plus, CNBC covered a Wall Street junk-bond analyst's tournament victory, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show even had WPT regular Jennifer Harman on as a guest.
Lapin and Lipscomb are quick to credit the PR teams of all the casinos at which WPT tournaments are held, as well as the Travel Channel's team of James Ashurst and Mary Hicks. "To their credit, they spent as much as $4 million to promote this show before it ever hit the air," says Lipscomb.
The second season of WPT is now filming and began airing earlier this month on the Travel Channel. The next phase is to build the WPT brand, and make it a household name. "And with one person winning at least $1 million a month somewhere in the country [at each WPT event]," says Lipscomb, "there's no reason not to have a big story about the WPT going on."
PR team: World Poker Tour (West Hollywood, CA), Jackie Lapin Media Relations (Westlake Village, CA), and the Travel Channel (Silver Spring, MD)
Campaign: World Poker Tour on TV
Time frame: January 2003 to present (ongoing)
Budget: $100,000 a year