Brands Ante Up for Time on Startup Net Poker Central

Inaugural Sponsors Include DraftKings, Amazon, Dollar Shave Club

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Poker Central's 'Super High Roller Celebrity Shootout'
Poker Central's 'Super High Roller Celebrity Shootout'

Two months before its official launch date, a clutch of newly minted national TV advertisers are beginning to ante up for time on the standalone cable network Poker Central.

The channel, which aims to reach some 50 million worldwide subscribers when it deals out its first hand on Oct. 1, has lined up business from the suddenly ubiquitous fantasy sports website, the e-commerce player Dollar Shave Club and the four-year-old Amazon Appstore.

While Poker Central won't go live until the fall, the three clients have already made their first appearance in programming produced by the network. NBCSN on Wednesday aired three one-hour episodes of Poker Central's "Super High Roller Celebrity Shootout," a $1 million No Limit Hold 'Em tournament in which comic card sharks Norm Macdonald, Kevin Pollak, Brad Garrett, Hank Azaria and Don Cheadle compete for the chance to take on the winner of a five-man professional showdown.

The three brands were integrated into the "Celebrity Shootout" telecasts, sponsoring a number of on-air elements. For example, the Amazon Appstore logo appeared under each player profile and during hole-card shots, while one of two holographic DraftKings placards could be seen whenever the camera cut to Mr. Cheadle or Mr. Macdonald. Dollar Shave Club backed the chip count.

In addition to the placement, Dollar Shave Club and Amazon bought multiple spots within the premiere telecasts and subsequent repeats. Per estimates, the two brands accounted for nearly half (42%) of the "Celebrity Shootout" ad spend.

The three clients also will appear in and around a second original series licensed to NBCSN before jumping to Poker Central in October. DraftKings has pledged its support to the startup on the heels of separate commitments to spend $250 million over three years on Fox Sports properties and another $250 million at ESPN.

Poker Central CEO Clint Stinchcomb acknowledged that launching a startup network in a time of eroding cable and satellite subscriptions presents a formidable challenge, but he said it can be done. "I started on that side of the business with Discovery, and I know how hard it is," Mr. Stinchcomb said. "What it comes down to is do the operators trust the person on the other side of the table to deliver on the promise of the idea and can we convey a scope of rights that includes over-the-top and VOD distribution? We think we can, and therein lies a path to an agreement that can include a linear channel."

Poker Central looks to launch in more than 30 countries, and while Mr. Stinchcomb said that he could not identify specific distribution partners, U.S. carriers will account for the bulk of the network's initial subscriber base. Veteran affiliate sales exec Sid Eshleman (late of Turner, AMC and Discovery) oversees carriage as Poker Central's Chief Distribution Officer.

Still, Poker Central has its work cut out for it. "The initial challenge is that 70% of the traditional cable universe is wrapped up in M&A, which prevents them from acting quickly," Mr. Stinchcomb said.

Mr. Stinchcomb was with Discovery during the dawn of the first poker boom in 2003, when Travel Channel aired the first season of "World Poker Tour." And while a 2011 federal crackdown on the country's three biggest gambling sites curtailed the growth of the poker-entertainment industry, Mr. Stinchcomb said he believes the game is making a comeback.

"The initial poker boom, as big as it was, was built on sand," he said. "There were very limited sponsorship opportunities, limited endemic advertisers, which in turn limited the growth potential. But now, with this new wave of poker, we're seeing much more mainstream brands coming on board. And the beauty of this category is that it tilts male, but has a strong millennial appeal."

The early turnout for the Poker Central product has been mixed. On the one hand, a three-day (June 29-July 1) streaming trial on Twitch scared up 1.5 million adults 18-34, which is a bigger turnout than what most broadcast TV shows have delivered this summer. On the other hand, the ratings for the first three NBCSN shows were underwhelming; per Nielsen live-same-day data, each telecast drew less than one-tenths of a ratings point in the aforementioned demo.

At launch, Poker Central will carry some 2,000 hours of programming, a slate that includes live games, instructional programming and documentaries on personalities that range from degenerate gamblers and bust-outs to some of the most successful players who ever lived.

The parent company of the privately held network is CRTV, publisher of the online publication Conservative Review. Investors include renowned poker pros Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu.

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