Poker may not jump to mind as a spectator sport. However, the 39th annual World Series of Poker (WSOP), which began May 30, will draw more eyes than ever if Seth Palansky, director of communications, sports and entertainment, at Harrah's, which owns the event, has his way.
Harrah's got national buzz with its May 1 announcement that play at the final table of its $10,000 buy-in Main Event, the WSOP's centerpiece, will be delayed from July until November. This move will enable ESPN, the WSOP's TV partner, to televise it a few hours after the winner has been crowned, rather than four months later, which has been the case in recent years.
The delay was a strategic decision to heighten buzz around the players and event, which last year drew more than 54,000 participants from 87 countries competing for nearly $160 million in prize money.
"The best correlation is a reality show," says Palansky, a sports PR veteran who left the NFL in March to manage WSOP promotion. "It's taped live and airs weekly starting July 22. People had known the winner in mid-July, so our TV property didn't work so well. [From July to November], we'll work to create stars out of the nine finalists."
When Harrah's bought the WSOP five years ago, media coverage was scant. Last year, 700-plus journalists covered it. Palansky explains that the hole-card camera, which lets viewers see each player's cards, debuted in 2002 and made the WSOP a spectator event. The Web added to its popularity.
"Poker has drama and characters," he adds. "It's that American dream story - it's life-changing money. The guy who won last year - a psychologist who escaped prison camps in Laos - took home $8.25 million. Great stories come out and ESPN weaves a lot of that into coverage. [The delay] promises more story lines than we've ever had."
Palansky wasn't planning to leave the NFL, but this entirely new challenge enticed him.
"I haven't found anything that's grown at this level [this fast]," he says. "[The WSOP] felt like a 38-year-old startup. I helped to launch the NFL Network. Football is great, but it's not big in Europe or Asia. I like testing my skills on a global stage."
Since the delay announcement, Palansky and his team of four have worked to boost registration and
strategize on how to promote the as-yet unknown final nine players. Gary Thompson, corporate communications director at Harrah's, values Palansky's experience.
"He's jumped right into a challenging job and has done a lot of positive things," Thompson notes.
Palansky says he doesn't personally "have the appetite" for poker's potential of limitless loss, but is excited to see the WSOP unfold. He's reading about poker and taking in as much as he can from colleagues.
"Seth is passionate about whatever he's pitching," says NFL VP of communications Brian McCarthy, who met Palansky in 1995. "He could publicize any product."
As the November finale nears, Palansky will promote the WSOP in Europe (September 19 to October 1), which launched last year in London and drew 1,800 players.
"In some ways, [promoting poker] is no different [from promoting any other sport]," Palansky says. "I'm here to serve media, tell stories, and position our brand. It's a great company and it's Vegas. It's fun."
Director of comms, sports, and entertainment, Harrah's
May 2003-March 2008
Comms director, NFL, New York/Los Angeles
Sept. 2000-May 2003
Media relations manager, Fox Sports Net, Los Angeles