If you watched ESPN's coverage of the World Series of Poker Asia-Pacific on Tuesday night, you were treated to two hours of Daniel Negreanu ruling the roost -- not just by winning his fifth bracelet in a dominating fashion but by being the single most entertaining player in the game.
In related news, he's also the most marketable player in poker. By far.
As the online poker market in the United States continues its glacial crawl toward returning, more than a few players are anxiously expecting to sign lucrative sponsorship deals with these new online poker companies. Having a résumé full of results is important, but that's just not going to be the most important factor as companies look to dole out big money.
Players need to have some real personality and a story to tell. They need to give the viewers and fans at home a reason to like them other than how well they calculate ICM or their cold four-bet percentage. Negreanu was the star of every hand at the WSOP APAC final table -- even ones he wasn't in.
If you look at whom Ultimate Poker (the first legal real-money online poker site) signed, you see a guy oozing with personality and results in Antonio Esfandiari. It also added Jason Somerville, a Negreanu protégé who made a real effort over the past 18 months to market himself as a great poker player who is more than just VPIP and suited connectors.
The second poker boom that many people are predicting once federal legislation comes (or enough states work together on a compact to create real liquidity) is going to bring smarter money from smarter companies into the market. The days of online poker companies throwing money at players to wear a hat and a patch are most likely gone. These companies are going to need to show their superiors, in some cases a board of governors, that they've been fiscally responsible.
Beyond the online poker money lies the real gold: Corporate America. Beer companies, soft drinks, banks, energy drinks and auto companies could be looking to work with poker players in the same way they work with athletes in other sports (save the "poker isn't a sport" argument; it is in the eyes of marketers). They're absolutely going to be looking for people who transcend the sport and can help their product sell.
That's bad news for the guy at the table who doesn't talk, isn't willing to share a little of himself and doesn't engage with the audience. Without doubt, Negreanu is the blueprint. Some viewers love Daniel -- ask him about body parts he's autographed; it's a longer list than you'd expect -- and some viewers hate Daniel. The real key is that his fans and haters both tune in to watch him play, just like another guy who fits the mold in Phil Hellmuth. Negreanu moving the needle is what makes him the highest paid endorser in poker.
Poker pros who endorse poker sites are, by and large, paid bonuses for TV appearances. Unless they're at final tables of World Poker Tour events on the regular or making a deep run in the WSOP main event, they're out of luck. Once the market opens up again and shows similar to "High Stakes Poker," "Poker After Dark" and "The Big Game" come back, there will be other opportunities to make it on TV.
Here's the rub: They have to be invited first. How do they get invited? They have to offer the producers, and therefore the viewers at home, more.
Phil Galfond is a perfect example. When he made his HSP debut, it was only a quick appearance on one of the most popular poker shows around. Why? Producers found him too quiet and not active enough. It took some time for Galfond, who is the definition of a successful poker player, to get invited back, but when he did, he made the most of it. Prior to Black Friday, Galfond made a number of appearances on various shows.
As somebody who has probably watched hundreds of thousands of hands of poker, both live and on TV, I promise you that the game can be excruciatingly boring when nothing is happening. When the cards fall in the craziest of ways, the game is magical with plenty of drama and excitement. However, for the game to work on TV, and for the game to again be cool for the masses, players' personalities are going to have to shine.