How PokerStars Almost Offered to Buy the NFL’s New Orleans Saints
Introduction: Here’s another fun story from my days working for PokerStars.com, where I served as Director of Communications between 2004-2006.
One of the wackiest poker stories never yet told took place in early 2006, about six months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans and flooded most of the city.
The New Orleans Saints were quite possibly the most dismal franchise in all of professional sports. Despite their losing ways, they remained beloved fan favorites and were a unifying attraction for all of Southern Louisiana. Even though the team won just a single playoff game during its first 30 years of existence, the 80,000-seat Superdome sold out every time the Saints played at home. When the Saints went on the road, they almost always lost. However, the joke was that if they covered the pointspread, thousands fans would always welcome and cheer the arriving team plane at the airport.
With the lowly Saints coming off yet another losing season in 2005, when they were forced to play all their games outside the city of New Orleans (due to severe damage to the Superdome), unanimous pessimism persisted about the city’s ability to continue supporting an NFL franchise. It seemed, people who had suffered such severe financial and emotional devastation had priorities other than football.
Early in 2006, Saints majority owner Tom Benson, who owned a sting of local car dealerships, contemplated selling his team. The estimated value and presumed market price was $600 million. Immediately, speculation began almost that some investor would buy the team at what amounted to a fire sale price, and then pack up and move the franchise to potentially far-more profitable Los Angeles, which hadn’t seen a pro football team in two decades. If Bob Irsay and Al Davis could move their respective teams, then the new Saints ownership could certainly do the same.
Question was — who would be the new buyer? Who had that much cash on hand and could strike a quick deal? Who could step in and make an offer? Well, lots of people, back then. The economy was booming. Which is why we had to move fast.
Now, you have to remember these events unfolded just as the poker boom was reaching a crescendo. This was before PokerStars (actually owned by a parent company called Rational Enterprises) produced any television shows. The European Poker Tour had been going barely more than a year. It was before superstar Daniel Negreanu was signed on as a sponsored pro. It was was before industry rival PartyPoker.com had yet departed the thriving U.S. market, which meant PokerStars meandered in a highly-competitive market as the second-largest online poker site in the world, still distant from the prospect of being number one. I was among several marketing and public relations people who were brought in to try and close the gap.
Accordingly, we at PokerStars were always encouraged to be creative. While the company culture was extremely conservative (why take risks when you’re making a million bucks a day in rake?), among the inner circle and within closed-door marketing meetings, there was no such thing as a “bad idea.” We weren’t exactly Golden Palace, the gambling site that resorted to all kinds of shameless self-promotion. We had our standards. Given company founder and majority owner Isai Scheinberg’s highly-competitive nature and drive to somehow surpass rival PartyPoker, we all knew such a leap would take something really huge to eclipse their massive numbers. Even though the PokerStars site offered the best software and customer service in the business, the softer games over at PartyPoker made them nearly impossible to catch. Hell, even many of the PokerStars staff, myself included, played almost exclusively on PartyPoker.
When I first heard the Saints were for sale, I discussed the prospect of PokerStars tendering an offer to buy the team with some of my closest colleagues within the company. This wasn’t about business, something I knew nothing whatsoever about. It was about generating publicity (at no cost). We all knew there was no way the gambling-skittish National Football League would ever approve such a deal to an offshore poker site. That didn’t matter. What we were after was fanfare, and the bonanza of legitimacy this kind of financial offering would bring to the company.
Here was the scenario: A press release was to be issued concurrent to an offer delivered personally to Mr. Benson, essentially stating: “Rational Enterprises hereby offers you the sum of $600 million for full ownership and control of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints.”
Never mind what our main rival was doing on television on something called The Travel Channel. Our offer would be the lead story on ESPN’s SportsCenter — watched nightly by the coveted sweet spot consisting of 18-35 year old makes. We’d make the talking heads shows. It suspect it would even make mainstream news and expose us to an audience that didn’t know online poker even existed. It certainly would have been a front page story in the Wall Street Journal.
Even though the deal would almost immediately be shot down by the NFL’s corporate office, what would PokerStars get out of it? Plenty. Try this on for size — perhaps $15 to 20 million in free publicity. Forget Mike Sexton raising a champagne glass and inviting everyone over to the “poker party.” PokerStars was about to be playing in the real major leagues of sports and business, and would be destined to get a whole lot of attention once the announcement went public.
And so, I typed up a detailed proposal, and forwarded it directly to Isai who was over in the Isle of Man. Then, that was followed up by a secondary campaign strategy designed to promote the notion of PokerStars’ general sense of goodwill. Not only were we offering to buy the Saints in a cash deal, there was more. We’d also guarantee the league and the loyal fans that we’d stay in New Orleans. That’s right. You couldn’t orchestrate a better public relations move, if a knight on a white horse was galloping down Tchoupitoulas Street. PokerStars was going to come out of this looking like heroes.
If all this sounds manipulative, it wasn’t. It was very real. I mean, a cash offer would actually be on the table for the taking. Who knows — with some creative organization and structuring, anything might happen. Forget Jerry Jones — imagine Isai Scheinberg running a football team. At the very least, this would be a strong positive PR move by PokerStars. Move over PartyPoker, you’ve now got some serious company. Oh, and — where’s your professional football team?
Isai liked it, or at least he said so. Maybe he was just being nice, while holding down the “mute” button and trying to contain his laughter. Thing was, a move of this magnitude went so far up the ladder from me, that I couldn’t see the bottom rung. Again, I had no business sense. This was something for others way beyond my rank to consider. I suppose they had to weigh the possibility of what would happen in the 1/1,000th chance that Bentson and the NFL said “yes.”
I must admit the prospect of being part of a meddling ownership and firing the head coach did make me hyperventilate.
Of course, in the end, Isai decided to pass on the bold initiative. I have no idea if it was ever really taken seriously. But everyone who read the proposal thought it was brilliant. I still do.
Perhaps Isai decided that while he indeed wanted publicity and exposure for the site, he didn’t really want that much of it. Remaining in the shadows while minting a fortune does seem like the far safer play. There was always the risk that with more scrutiny aimed our direction, we might become targets. We could even be shut down, which is precisely what happened — although that course of events didn’t fully go into effect until five years later when PokerStars was eventually forced out of the U.S. market entirely.
Three years after my proposal was made, the New Orleans Saints won the Super Bowl for the first time.
As of right now, according to the current issue of Forbes Magazine in their annual valuation of sports franchises, the NFL’s Saints are worth $1.15 billion. That’s nearly double the 2006 asking price.