Poker-Playing ‘Apprentice’ Duke Tests Market for New League

Annie Duke, the poker player who reached the finale of 2009’s “Celebrity Apprentice,” says Texas hold ‘em pros are embracing her new league for the game’s elite. She’ll soon find out if TV viewers feel the same.

Telecasts of “Epic Poker League,” which restricts its main tournaments to qualifiers, premiere with a sneak preview Sept. 30 on Discovery Communications Inc. (DISCA)’s HD Theater network, which is being re-branded Velocity, and Oct. 8 on CBS, according to Duke, Epic’s commissioner and co-founder of parent Federated Sports & Gaming Inc. in Los Angeles. A focus on top professionals will distinguish it from rivals, she said.

“Every other sport, even snowboarding and skateboarding, had a format where the best players in the world could play against the each other,” Duke, 46, said last week in an interview. “There’s a lot of value to limiting your field, both for the player experience and for the fan experience.”

Poker companies are trying to spur growth in an industry whose popularity, according to the American Gaming Association, soared from 2003 through 2007. The U.S. Justice Department’s April 15 crackdown on poker betting online thinned out the televised competition as sponsors vanished.

Networks canceled shows, including one on ESPN following the North American Poker Tour, after 11 people connected with gambling websites that had backed TV events were indicted on charges including bank fraud. World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour, which welcome amateurs, remain on ESPN and Fox Sports Net.

Equity Financing

Duke ranks 83rd in career tournament winnings at $4.3 million, according to the Hendon Mob poker database. She co-founded Federated Sports with Executive Chairman Jeffrey Pollack, a former president of the World Series of Poker, and Michael Brodsky, David Goldberg and Jeffrey Grosman, former executives at Youbet.com, the horse-race betting site acquired in June 2010 by Churchill Downs Inc. (CHDN)

Federated Sports, formed in December, raised $1 million of a planned $2.5 million equity financing from investors led by billionaire J.B. Pritzker, according to a July regulatory filing. The company has since amassed “significantly more than what we contemplated,” according to Goldberg, co-chief executive officer with Brodsky.

$20,000 Buy-In

Broadcasts culled from Epic’s tournaments at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas will air Friday nights starting Oct. 7 on Velocity, a channel targeting upscale men that replaces HD Theater, and weekend afternoons on CBS, with the league promising novel statistics and Olympics-style personality pieces. One is on Eugene Katchalov, who ranks third in the world under Epic’s Global Player Index and who fled Ukraine with his mother as the Soviet Union collapsed, coming to the U.S. almost penniless in pursuit of the American Dream.

The league, which started in August, requires players to come to the table with $20,000. Entry is open to 252 season-one qualifiers, plus nine finalists each from Epic’s Pro/Am events, in which amateurs can participate.

Epic is purchasing slots from CBS (CBS) in an infomercial-style “time buy” and giving the show to Velocity for promotional purposes, the Wall Street Journal reported July 27, citing people familiar with the plans.

Pollack declined to comment on the specifics.

“The deal we’ve signed works well for everyone involved,” he said in an interview. “We’re on TV, which is important, and post-April 15, pretty significant.”

Entries Decline

Federated will generate revenue from corporate sponsorships, event licensing and social gaming as well as media rights, Pollack said. The company bought Heartland Poker Tour, which brings regional tournaments to casinos, in June and started a Facebook game in late July. It hopes to expand the Epic league to the East Coast, Europe and Asia.

Daniel Negreanu, the world’s ninth-ranked pro under Epic’s index, is skipping the tournaments in favor of what he described as easier competition at open events. He noted entries dropped to 97 players at the second main event, held Sept. 6-9, from 137 at the debut contest.

“They aren’t generating any momentum,” Negreanu said in a telephone interview from Montenegro.

Without Cinderella stories emerging from the amateur ranks, Epic may pull in poker die-hards while failing to attract casual viewers and premium sponsors, he said.

“What they’re offering isn’t new or sexy enough,” Negreanu said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Josh Friedman in Los Angeles at jfriedman25@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Christian Baumgaertel at cbaumgaertel@bloomberg.net; Anthony Palazzo at apalazzo@bloomberg.net

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