Heartland Poker Tour continues to flourish
5 Dec 2011
By Dan Igo
By Dan Igo
What started out as a series of events in the Midwest has exploded into a full-fledged national poker tour, complete with televised coverage and prize pools that can top $1 million.
The Heartland Poker Tour (HPT) was first conceptualized by casual poker player Todd Anderson and his friend Greg Lang back in 2005. Poker on TV was booming at this time, with the World Series of Poker and World Poker Tour both mainstays on cable television.
“We were just lamenting the fact the opportunity for players like us (to play on TV) were remote,” said Anderson. “So we just collectively thought, 'Why isn't there something for us?' Like the player we are, who play on the weekends and play for fun. We have normal job and things like that.”
The original goal for the HPT was for it to be a Minnesota poker tour, with the hope that six casinos in a 250 mile radius would jump on board. From there, Anderson was optimistic that he could get the tour to air on Fargo, Minneapolis and Duluth TV stations. The show would focus on the average player, not the poker superstar. Hence the HPT’s tagline: “Real People, Unreal Money.”
“We were just kind of carving out a little business for ourselves in the upper Midwest,” he said. “We didn't have any designs on going to Las Vegas or to California or to New York.”
“We really didn't know what we were getting into, quite honestly,” he added. “We were under-prepared and under-financed to get something like this off the ground.”
Slowly but surely, however, the tour did get off the ground. In the summer of 2005 three casinos in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin agreed to host HPT tournaments. The tour’s production company, All-In Productions, would air the episodes in the fall.
But getting the show on TV wasn’t easy. The HPT had to actually buy television time in order for its early episodes to air.
Anderson said that looking back on the tour’s early struggles, he wouldn’t have attempted the launch if given the chance again.
“If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have started it, because our chances for success were pretty long. But fortunately it worked out,” he said.
Flash forward seven seasons later and it is crystal clear that the HPT has grown tremendously since those early days. Episodes currently reach over 100 million homes in the U.S. and can also be seen in Europe, the Caribbean and the Middle East. And the HPT is now holding events across the country, with 2011 tour stops that included Nevada, New York, Michigan and Florida.
The success of the HPT attracted the attention of former WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack, who is now the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Federated Sports + Gaming, which runs the Epic Poker League. Pollack said he has known Anderson for a number of years and knew the HPT could be a part of the Epic Poker League’s future.
“From the very beginning I was very impressed with his vision and his approach,” Pollack said. “And right out of the gate I was a very big fan of what they were doing. We've known each other for awhile and I'd say it was some time in 2010, as we were laying the groundwork for Federated Sports + Gaming, that we started having conversations.”
“Their growth over the years over a relatively short period of time has been phenomenal,” he added. “They create enormous value for their casino partners. They've achieved the Herculean task of poker on television in a very efficient way. Everything about the business works. We saw it as an opportunity to round out our company's poker entertainment offering.”
Federated Sports + Gaming purchased the Heartland Poker Tour in June. Anderson and the rest of the HPT’s staff have continued to handle the tour’s day-by-day operations.
“We're still working on how we'll fully integrate all of these different pieces together,” Pollack said. “But in 2012 we'll reveal some of those answers and some of that initial integration work. But the broad construct is that success in a Heartland Poker Tour event will yield connectivity to what happens in our Pro-Am events in Las Vegas and maybe in our Main Events.”
The HPT hit a major milestone this year when it attained its first $1 million prize pool in an event in Colorado. Anderson said having a tournament with a $1 million prize pool was a goal at the beginning of the year and he was extremely satisfied to have achieved it.
“That was a monumental experience for me,” he said. “We had gotten close in our early days when we were in Detroit and Chicago, but we weren't able to get to that level. We set out six months ago to get that and we worked really hard and developed a strategy to have enough re-entries and flights to make it happen.”
That milestone event occurred in September, five months after the Black Friday indictments against PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker. Anderson said the HPT was actually lucky it launched when it did. He thinks if they had launched right after the Chris Moneymaker boom the HPT would have gotten a lot of funding from online poker rooms. That money doesn’t exist right now.
“We were flexible enough to create revenue streams that did not [rely on] online gaming and online poker,” he said. “So we've been pretty stable the last four years without any of those kinds of dollars.”
Anderson doesn’t expect the Heartland Poker Tour to remain stagnant, especially with its new high-profile partnership.
“I don't think we're slowing down,” he said. “In fact our television footprint has been growing. With the acquisition by Federated Sports + Gaming, I think we've reached an even bigger profile.”
Pollack also said the sky is the limit for both the HPT and the Epic Poker League.
“There is still growth potential in Heartland,” he said. “We think that threading the two experiences together in some way is going to create an even more exciting and complete poker offering.”