Last month, the Heartland Poker Tour (HPT) broke the $1 million prize pool barrier for the sixth consecutive event held in Black Hawk, Colo. The Golden Gates Casino & Poker Parlour once again hosted this highly anticipated biannual event, and 73-year old Doug Milner outlasted 713 entrants to win the title and $230,582. Milner beat out the masses and a field that also included big buy-in tournament pros Greg Raymer, Dan O'Brien, Dan Heimiller and Bryan Devonshire.
The HPT, which coined the phrase "Real People, Unreal Money," is now entering its 10th season, becoming one of the true grass-roots success stories in poker. Over the past decade, the HPT has allowed tens of thousands of amateur players such as Milner the opportunity to play poker on television for reasonable buy-ins creating huge payouts. Last season, the tour hosted a record 20 events, including a season-kickoff poker cruise and year-end championship event. In 2014, the HPT is anticipating televising 24 stops that will be broadcast in over 115 million homes throughout the United States and a widespread distribution throughout Europe, the Caribbean, the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.
However, the road to success has had its share of bumps along the way.
Conceived in North Dakota in 2005, the HPT wanted to focus on televised poker for the regular everyday player. The journey began with four Midwest casinos. Although poker was booming at the time, no television stations wanted their programming. Ultimately, the HPT decided to buy television time, putting an additional financial strain on the company.
Over the next several years, the HPT grew gradually, using the combination of poker, television and family-fun atmosphere. This formula for success allowed the tour to not only grow steadily, but also create loyalty amongst its regular players.
"[It's] a very personable tour, " said Fred Bevill, lead commentator of the HPT. "We combine big money with a home-game feel. I believe that is why the players come back to our events week after week."
Back in September 2011, the HPT made national headlines when the Black Hawk event broke the $1 million prize pool mark for the first time in its history. However, unbeknownst to the company at the time, it would soon experience one of the lowest points of its tour's existence due to the bankruptcy of Federated Sports + Gaming, who founded and failed as owners of the Epic Poker League.
Just months earlier in 2011, FS+G recognized HPT's huge potential and decided to purchase the company, adding it to their ambitious Epic Poker League roster. However, from beginning, HPT realized that this venture was not a good match.
"The year FS+G owned HPT was stressful for all of us," said Jen Mastrud, HPT's director of operations. "It was clear early on that the HPT was in the wrong hands. We made the best of it through months of uncertainty."
Mismanagement led to FS+G's bankruptcy, and the HPT was left as one of the assets brought up for auction. In June 2012, five companies bid for the FS+G assets, and Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc., won. After experiencing FS+G's mishandling, Bevill and the rest of the HPT staff were cautiously optimistic.
"When we found out that Pinnacle won the auction, we were excited but weary after our experience with FS+G," he said. "Although Pinnacle was a company with a solid track record, we were concerned with becoming too corporate. However, after our initial meeting with management, we were relieved, as they wanted us to keep our entrepreneurial spirit and continue to build the tour. It felt comfortable right away."
After the 2012 transition under Pinnacle, HPT decided to take a deeper look at its business to see where it could improve on their winning formula. The first major change was the tournament structure, which was recognized by players as the tour's weakness. Bevill took action and contacted one of the best players in the world to help, Daniel Negreanu.
"We wanted to provide more value to our players and the first thing that we knew needed to be address was our structure," Bevill said. "We needed to have a better offering to our customers even if it would make the tournament longer. We consulted with Daniel Negreanu, and after weeks of deliberation back and forth, he designed an updated, modern structure that players and casino both love. It was a huge change and it has transformed the way HPT is perceived by poker community."
Due to the addition of more levels, the HPT added an extra day to the schedule so that final tables are played on Monday. The tour, potentially expecting some backlash due to the extension, received none, and 2013 became a record-setting year for the tour.
"Since the acquisition, we've buttoned up our approach to our business," Mastrud said. "We've learned our structure does matter. The quality of our show matters. The integrity and talent of our team matter. We are delivering a better product, we're doing better work, and we're a better company. In retrospect, being acquired by Pinnacle Entertainment was the best possible outcome."
Although it continues to set records, the company still has its eyes on growth and what lies ahead.
"We are growing our company and adding key positions," said Mastrud. "First, we are anticipating expanding our tour stops from 20 in 2013 to 24 in 2014. Also, a tournament director will help ensure our events are consistent from venue to venue. More support in marketing will allow us to better promote the accomplishments of HPT players."
When HPT first began in 2005, the focus was on the Midwest. Now, the "Heartland" has spread all over the country and the tour looks to establish itself as a truly domestic tour.
"We are taking on new markets," she said. "After expanding to the West Coast last year, we have our sights set on the East Coast over the next few years. We also have a new emphasis in the mid-states with buy-ins that are right-sized for smaller venues. Poker enthusiasts will be able to win their way to a TV table whether they play in a 10-table room or a 100-table room."
While it previously focused on only a reasonably priced main event (usually $1,650) with numerous satellites to gain entry, the HPT recently expanded its tournament schedules to include lower buy-in preliminary events as well. With the tournaments ranging from $150 to $500, Mastrud stated that the HPT is looking to expand preliminary events action further with additional tournaments including deep stacks, turbo and Omaha events.
"We always want to add more value to our players and to our casino partners," Mastrud said. "Adding preliminary events at most tour stops does this. It's a win-win for everyone."
In addition to the players, the HPT has a renewed focus on serving their digital and television consumers, looking to invest in technology that will enhance their broadcasts.
After its modest beginning in 2005 as a small grass-roots Midwest poker tour, the HPT is now a significant force in the poker world. With its new structure, additional venues and wide TV footprint, the tour is catching the eye of not only players and the media, but also marketing sponsors. While it has endured a 10-year roller coaster, the HPT is riding high and excited about the next decade and beyond.
"HPT has been through everything," Bevill said. "We've run the business during the online boom, we suffered through Black Friday; we even experienced bankruptcy. The HPT has weathered a lot of storms, but we have stuck together as a family. Now we are bigger and better than ever before, and feel we have a very bright future ahead of us."