Dealing with media at poker event

TBC: A Baltimore firm is handed the task of managing media relations at the World Series of Poker.

July 15, 2005|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,SUN STAFF

As the World Series of Poker has grown from an obscure tournament to a cultural phenomenon, a Baltimore advertising and public relations company has found itself at the center - or at least behind the scenes - of the burgeoning event.

With more than 500 reporters at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas to watch celebrities, poker professionals and average Joes vie for millions in gambling winnings, Trahan, Burden and Charles has been charged with managing public relations for the red-hot event.

The company was thrust into the role when Harrah's Entertainment Inc., a client for 18 years, bought the rights to the World Series of Poker. It ends this weekend with the Texas Hold'em tournament, where more than 5,600 players will compete for a $7.5 million grand prize and an overall pool of more than $56 million.

"This is without a doubt the richest sporting event on the planet right now," said Dave Curley, an account supervisor for TBC and director of media relations for the World Series of Poker. "It's an enormous opportunity because the growth in poker has been tremendous."

The sheer size of the event poses obstacles, he said. It can take a half-hour just to seat the players in the early rounds throughout the 60,000- square-foot playing room. Perhaps even more daunting is accommodating the hodgepodge of media, from newspaper and television journalists to documentary film crews to poker Web site producers providing live updates.

The overriding consideration is running the tournament fairly and in accordance with gaming regulations. Also significant are the considerable requirements of ESPN, the sports cable network that owns the broadcast rights to the event. With its roaming camera crews and hovering crane cameras, ESPN has media pre-eminence.

"Making sure people get the access they need during the tournament, while allowing ESPN to field the event, takes a lot of coordination," said Ginny Shanks, senior vice president of brand management for Harrah's.

Rules for media access change almost daily. After having unfettered access to the tables early in the main event, most media were first confined to bullpens and later to cordoned aisles near the card tables. As the field of poker players shrank, logistical problems grew. As the number of media began to outnumber the players, TBC had to be take care that reporters didn't overwhelm the players.

"We get to the point where the players are making million-dollar decisions at any moment, and we can't have anyone coming in and distracting them," Curley said. "It would be akin to allowing press on the field during a football game and making sure they didn't trip over the quarterback."

Public relations specialists said organization and planning are key to making sure major events run smoothly.

When Cal Ripken Jr. began closing in on Lou Gehrig's consecutive games record in Major League Baseball 10 years ago, the Orioles' public relations director at the time, John Maroon, had to accommodate nearly 700 reporters from around the country and beyond, after typically dealing with 50 mostly hometown media members covering the Baltimore team. Two sections in left field had to be cordoned off just to accommodate the additional press.

Maroon said he began coordinating efforts the year before Ripken was expected to break the record. He decided early on to put himself in charge of Ripken coverage and a colleague in charge of everything else. When the team was on the road that season, he set aside the first day in each new city for Ripken to take questions from media to help limit distractions.

"Organization was key," said Maroon, now vice president of communications for Ripken Baseball Inc. "There are several different people you have to make happy. One is the media, nationally and locally. You also have to make sure the talent is accessible but also make sure they have time to unwind and concentrate on what they're really there for, which is the game."

Along with media requests, TBC also organized a trade show, an advertising campaign and a brochure for the poker series. The staff has worked with little sleep for the six-week event, which also includes 45 smaller tournaments.

While it's not too hard to get media to cover the story these days, the publicity is helping to continue to feed poker's renewed popularity. Last year about 1.5 million households watched the series, up 42 percent from 2003 when a little more than 1 million households watched, according to ESPN. The sports cable network said it expects more viewers this year.

"It builds on the franchise," said Mark Hughes, a marketing consultant and author of the book Buzzmarketing. "Essentially, what they're doing is building the NFL of poker."

Sun staff writer Bill Ordine in Las Vegas contributed to this article.

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