Alexandre Dreyfus launched the Global Poker League, a 12-team organization designed to attract younger players to Texas Hold ’Em.
Hordes of screaming fans are turning up at arenas or tuning in through apps to watch video game players duel each other. Now a veteran gambling entrepreneur is betting he can bring a huge, frenzied fandom to poker, too.
Earlier this year, Alexandre Dreyfus launched the Global Poker League, an ambitious 12-team organization designed to attract younger players to Texas Hold ’Em. The 38-year-old hopes to reinvigorate a poker industry that he calls too static and too old, moving it beyond the serious, slow-paced World Series of Poker already popular on ESPN2.
His version is fast and aggressive, pitting teams of three players against each other. Timed matches at small studios in the Los Angeles area and Berlin began airing on the Web in March. Championships will stream from a huge venue this summer with — if all goes according to plan — a big paying audience cheering in person.
His inspiration is the booming competition scene for video games at events like BlizzCon, a massive two-day video game convention that draws tens of thousands of attendees from around the world.
“We need a product that converts the new generation to poker,” Dreyfus says. “The status quo must change.”
According to a study Dreyfus commissioned, just 13 percent of poker aficionados became “fans” over the last three years.
Poker also isn’t growing on TV. ESPN has struggled to broaden the audience for the World Series of Poker, its weeks-long broadcast of the world’s most well-known
poker tournament. Ratings for the event’s finale have remained at about 1.2 million viewers each of the last three years, according to Nielsen, despite changes to airtimes, broadcast lengths and editing strategies.
Key to Dreyfus’ plan for success is avoiding the quiet, contemplative poker that TV viewers are used to.
Global Poker League matches don’t feature tables of individual players, but rather two three-player teams, plus two alternates on each bench. The game involves one deck and three simultaneous duels.
A chess-like clock limits the time that teams have to make moves, so games should be four times faster, Dreyfus claims.
Players stand at a table to encourage them to release rage and excitement, with cameras capturing chest bumps and high fives.
With online gambling still illegal across most of the U.S., Dreyfus scrapped a poker tenet: gambling. Players don’t stake their own money. Instead, they earn side cash (at least to start): $100 an hour, an even-split of 30 percent of league revenue and a $20,000 championship bonus.
Sports, financial and media executives, and former poker players are managing the league-owned teams, including the Los Angeles Sunset, Las Vegas Moneymakers and Hong Kong Dragons. The plan is to attract thousands of spectators to playoffs at a New York City venue.
Based out of Malta, Dreyfus is a longtime entrepreneur, founding technology and sports startups. He barely plays poker but saw an opportunity three years ago to mint poker fans. He bought Global Poker Index, a website that tracks tournaments and ranks players. The index helped Dreyfus forge industry relationships, serving as a launchpad for his league.
His research found that a quarter of the U.S. population likes poker, and of those tens of millions of people, 81 percent like watching it. About 59 percent of poker fans say they would watch his league on TV.
Other poker competitions haven’t had luck. The Epic Poker League, televised on CBS in 2011, accumulated more than $5 million in debt and went bankrupt the next year. Team-based Dream Team poker lasted a couple of years. And Fox Sports Net gave Poker Dome Challenge a year before shutting it down in 2006.
Despite those failures, players have signed on for the Global Poker League because they recognize that “for poker to grow they need to be a part of it,” Dreyfus says. Fans will follow if the show is exciting and has players worth rooting for, he says.