First, stickers on rickshaws and hoardings in top metros and now, television broadcasts; Poker, along with its growing popularity, is becoming more and more mainstream in India.
Online today, there are poker tournaments that lure players on the dot-com with up to one crore in prize money. This is a level up; Amit Burman, vice-chairman of Ayurvedic product specialists Dabur India, has invested in starting a poker league in India. The Poker Sports League (PSL) started last year and in season two, the organisers have upped the prize money to Rs 3.6 crores. It's not just the prize money that's been upped, however, this year the league will have 12 teams, last year it started with nine. All teams were sold in an auction and the highest bidder took home the franchise. But what caught our attention is that the league owners have inked a deal with national sportscaster, DSport, to air the poker championship on TV. This is the first time an Indian poker league/ tournament will be televised on national television. Quite some time ago, AXN would telecast episodes with some of the best poker action from around the world.
But what got Amit Burman into it? "I play a little bit of poker and whenever we research about the game, we found that in a lot of countries, poker is considered a mind sport, but in India, the whole perception is that it's gambling because it's played with cards. I believe the perception is primarily because of the Diwali and Teen-Patti connection. I want to bring poker out of the gambling area into a sport and the first step in that direction was the league," Burman informs. Apart from Burman, Anuj Gupta and Pranav Bagai are the two other co-founders of the league.
Telecasting the game on TV is a move in that direction feels Burman, "The launch of the Poker Sports League (PSL) was our first step in changing people's perceptions. So, here there are 12 teams battling it out for a final prize, exactly how it happens in the IPL (Indian Premier League, domestic franchise cricket league), PKL (Pro Kabaddi League) or PBL (Premier Badminton League)," he asserts.
But how does a TV presence help the cause? "The moment something is on TV you start seeing it differently. Remember, we roped in champion chess player Viswanathan Anand as a brand ambassador and he agreed to join us because he too believes that poker is a mind sport and is not gambling. In India, if you want to communicate something to the general public, TV is the best and most respectable medium," opines Burman.
The league owners have paid the broadcaster "a sum" and in return, the newly launched sports channel will handle production and packaging. "It's a win-win deal for us. In May we will have our finals which will be played over two days and that is about 30 hours of poker. We plan to make around 10 one-hour episodes from the 30 hours and telecast it in the month of June," informs Burman.
The league's owners will also tie up with an over-the-top service provider which will stream the tournament live. But who will watch it on TV or on the streaming platforms? "People who are just starting to play poker; they won't sit for 30 hours to watch each and every hand that's dealt. For them, it will be easy to learn and follow the game on TV. While the hardcore fans will watch it live on the OTT platform," expects Burman.
Media rights are a great source of revenue for league owners across the globe; Burman feels that in the long run, the Poker Sports League will also rake in dollars from media partnerships. "Not as much as IPL or PKL, but there is a niche audience base which will watch it and I think the time has come for us to look beyond physical sports," he says.
Burman himself is an advertiser and from that perspective, he feels the sport has a lot to offer brands. "It is a mind game played by the young and the old, male and female, sitting all together which is a unique proposition that no other sport can offer at this stage," says he.
But which are the brands that can possibly buy a poker spot? "Worldwide, a lot of car brands associate with poker; we have seen a lot of eyewear brands sponsoring poker and we have also seen watch brands sponsoring poker; so, we are talking to all such brands and individual franchises are also speaking to the brands because they want sponsors for their jerseys etc," says Burman.
Each franchise owner has an agreement for eight years and the owners will payout the winning bid over the eight-year period and that for now is the biggest source of revenue for the league owners. Apart from the league owners will get a share of sponsorship revenue raked in y individual franchises. "We will have a central sponsor too sponsoring the league and in the long run I do see money coming in from TV," he adds.
Each team will have a mentor, two professional poker players, four amateurs and two wildcards. "The amateurs will be selected from a series of online and on-ground tournaments. The tournaments have already started and mentors are monitoring them. The wildcard is a very interesting concept; through this, the owner can get any two players to play for his team. It could be the owner himself, a celebrity or the best player on the continent," informs Burman.
T S Panesar, business head DSport, is also upbeat about the TV telecast. He says, "Poker has been broadcast on sports channels across the globe since 1978. In India, this will be a first. The PSL team is committed to creating an excellent broadcast-friendly show, to reach out to sports lovers across the subcontinent and make this an exceptional experience for them. We are elated to associate ourselves in this first-of-its-kind journey."
DSport is the Indian version of European sports broadcasting giant Eurosport. In February 2017 Discovery Communications which owns Eurosport launched the channel in India and branded it DSport.
DSport's portfolio of live sports content includes wrestling, football, cycling, horse-racing, golf, Tennis, motorsports, and extreme sports from around the world. Tour de France, the Six Nations Rugby, British Open (golf) Chinese Super League (football) are few of its marquee properties.
List of the franchises and their owners:
Bengaluru Warriors - Ajoy Khandheria, Anurag Malhotra, Rajiv Ahuja, Amitabh Nagpal and Shalini Arora Kochhar (Mentor - Aditya Sushant),
Delhi Panthers - Rishi Kajaria of Kajaria Ceramics; Ruchirans, Jaipuria of Jaipuria Group; Abhishek Jain of Leela Jewels and Gaurav Goel of Dhampur Sugar (Mentor - Akash Malik),
Goan Nuts - Gaurav Mohan of Eventwala, Ravi Goel, Sagar Gogia and Gaurav Verma of New Era Solution Pvt Ltd (Mentor - Dhaval Mudgal),
Gujarat Acers - Veenit Raval of Fuji Silvertech, Akash Singhania of Refcom India and Jaydeep Dawer (Mentor - Romit Advani),
Haryana Hunters - Divij Talwar and Adnan Kidwai (Mentor - Samay Parikh),
Kolkata Royals - Yet to be announced
Punjab Bluffers - Vedant Thadani & Co. (Mentor - Abhishek Goindi),
Mumbai Anchors - Mehul Shah (Original Promoter of Anchor Electrical) (Mentor - Amit Jain),
Pune Sharks - Rishabh Jhunjhunwala of Bhilwara Group, Shamit Khemka of Synapse India, Chetan Kajaria of Kajaria Ceramics and Sachin Goel (Mentor - Raghav Bansal),
Rajasthan Tilters - Purrshottam Bhaggeria of Filatex Group (Mentor - Shravan Chhabria) New Team Addition,
Andhra Bullets - Sam Reddy of Mirchi Wild Wings (Mentor - Kunal Patni)
Chennai Bulls - Ujjwal Minocha of GPA Resorts International and Vivek Agarwal of GPA Group (Mentor - Kanishka Samant)