Predicting the California Market’s Largest Tournament Guarantee

Written By Robert DellaFave on November 25, 2014

In the 18 months that regulated online poker has been available to those fortunate enough to reside within New Jersey, Nevada and to a lesser extent Delaware, there have been a whopping 15 – 20 six-figure tournament guarantees.

Of those, only a small percentage did not feature a substantial overlay. Hindered by its small size, a lack of brand awareness, market fragmentation and saturation (NJ only), today’s US regulated industry  cannot reasonably sustain the six and seven figure guarantees that before Black Friday were the norm, rather than the exception.

But that will likely change when California decides to throw its hat into the regulated arena.

By now we know that the California market will be big, but big is just an arbitrary term that could mean a lot of different things. Instead, we seek the answer to the probable size of California’s largest regularly scheduled and one off Sunday Majors.

To PokerStars Or Not To PokerStars

Whether or not PokerStars is permitted entry into California will have a sizable impact on the makeup of the market.

The PokerStars brand has become synonymous with dominance in virtually every market it has entered; a trend that’s likely to continue in California. If it does, PokerStars will have increased flexibility in the area of tournament guarantees, so much so, that we may see special tournament events eclipsing the $500,000 guaranteed barrier.

That’s good and bad news. Good in the sense that players are assured at least several opportunities per week to parlay their pennies into mid-to-high five digit scores. Bad, because it’s unlikely that any other network will be able to offer guarantees that even remotely resemble those found on Stars.

Should Stars application be rejected, the race for online poker supremacy is wide open, and I suspect that CA’s market will more closely resemble New Jersey’s, where three operators remain viable.

In that case, tournament guarantees will be more normalized across networks – fewer $200,000+ guarantees, but substantially more high five and low six figure MTTs.

Go East, Young Man

Luckily, there are two countries that serve as a suitable baseline comparison point for the prospective California market: Spain and France.

Both Spain and France’s regulated markets are segregated (“ring-fenced”) from the rest of the world, and  boast comparable Gross Domestic Products to that of California.

There are a few differences worth noting, however. Namely, Spain’s population is approximately 20% larger than California’s and France’s nearly 70%.

But in my estimation, this is offset by the fact that poker is a more firmly ingrained facet of California culture than it is in either country, and that some players in France still manage to play on PokerStars’ .com site – something that simply won’t happen in California.

Spain’s market more closely resembles that of our first scenario, where Stars dominates. Stars Sunday schedule in Spain includes two 25,000 Euro (~$31,000) guarantees and a 40,000 Euro (~$50,000) gtd.

Second place network 888poker Spain hosts a 20,000 and 5,000 Euro guarantee each Sunday.

Seems pretty small.

The makeup of the French market, where PokerStars is a player but not the market share leader (that distinction belongs to Winamax), is more in line with what one would expect if PokerStars is denied entry into California.

Winamax’s “Main Event” is a 100,000 Euro (~$150,000) gtd. does one better, offering up a 125,000 Euro guaranteed each Sunday.

So Why The Huge Discrepancy Between France and Spain?

Is online poker simply that much more popular in France than in Spain?

The short answer is yes. According to data gathered at PokerFuse Pro provided by PokerScout, 7-day cash game averages in the Spanish market are hovering around 1,500, or roughly .003% of the population.

Compare that to France, where more than .005% of the population can be found playing cash online at any given time.

So which country do we use as a baseline comparison for California? The answer is France. And here’s why:

Consider that in New Jersey, an average of  .004% of the population can be found playing cash online. Back before players grew tired of the market’s shortcomings, that average was as high as .007%.

In other words, regulated online poker in New Jersey’s much maligned, niche marketplace is nearly as popular as it is in France. US residents clearly love their online poker.

Factoring in the sheer size of the California market, combined with presumably stronger advertising and cross promotional efforts, and fewer operator growing pains, it stands to reason that CA will boast a far more prosperous iPoker scene than the Garden State, and by extension France.

All of which leads me to believe that we’ll be seeing average cash game tallies somewhere in the vicinity of .008% – .010% of California’s total population, or just high enough penetration to place the size of California’s market roughly on par with France’s.

Putting It All Together

Based on the information presented to me, I’ve arrived at the following conclusions:

  • If PokerStars is part of California’s online poker industry, expect Stars to host a weekly $200,000- $250,000 guarantee and several other $50,000 – $75,000 guarantees, with the next largest network spreading at best a $75,000 – $100,000 weekly major.
  • If PokerStars is not part of the scene, I predict at least two or three operators will offer $100,000 – $150,000 Sunday Majors, and the remainder smaller $25,000 – $50,000 guarantees – very similar to the current situation in France.
  • When California’s operators hold special tournament events, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Main Event guarantees 2-4 times higher ($750,000 guarantee anyone?) than the norm.

Which scenario is preferable is a matter of personal preference. But make no mistake, California’s online tournament scene will be big.

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Robert DellaFave

Robert DellaFave writes for a variety of online gaming sites and is also working on programming a poker simulation creative enough to beat the best. Follow Robert on Twitter @DivergentGames and on Google+

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