Two of a Kind Wins in FargoA couple of buddies succeed with a poker show that features regular Joes 12/02/2005 07:00:00 PM Eastern
The news that the televised poker craze is slowing down apparently hasn’t reached Fargo, N.D. That is where two friends, Todd Anderson and Greg Lang, decided that, while other televised poker shows try to trump each other with escalating payouts and more celebrities, they should go in another direction.
So the duo, one a former TV-station exec and the other an entrepreneur, recently launched the Heartland Poker Tour. While the poker on Fox and ESPN is full of pros who look like they spend as much time inventing a persona as they do contemplating whether their three tens will be strong enough, Heartland contestants, playing in small Midwestern casinos for small stakes, are decidedly less image-conscious.
“Our players are more plumbers than professionals,” Anderson jokes. But the formula is working. The little regional poker series has built a network reaching 12 million homes and has the major poker tours taking notice.
|Heartland's TV Empire|
|Bismarck, N.D.||KNDX (Fox)|
|Duluth, Minn.||WDIO (ABC)|
|Fargo, N.D.||KVLY (NBC)|
|Sioux Falls, S.D.||UTV (UPN)|
Production values are on par with bigger nationally televised shows, but everything Bravo’s Celebrity Poker is, Heartland isn’t. In one of the hourlong shows that was beamed out of Onamia, Minn., a host welcomed viewers with this greeting: “As they say on the lake, let’s rig up a line, throw it in the water and play some poker!” The players, including a carpenter and a construction worker, wore jeans and baseball caps.
TWO CASES OF BEER AND A PIZZA
Heartland Poker Tour was a gamble for Anderson and Lang. In February, Anderson left his job as general sales manager of the Fox affiliate in Fargo, and Lang set aside his projects in real estate and restaurants to commit to the project full time.
They learned after meeting with a general manager in Minneapolis that they were missing a major sales piece. “They liked the idea but needed to see a pilot,” Anderson says. “That makes sense.”
The duo scraped together a show —a one-day, one-camera shoot. A local production house, Impact Video, did it for free with the promise that it would be involved if the show took off. “Our budget for the pilot,” Anderson recalls, “was basically two cases of beer and a pizza.”
Fox Sports Net in Minneapolis nearly bit, but the deal fell through. So the duo was forced to hit the road to sell station to station.
“It was really a struggle at first,” Anderson says. Finally, they cut a deal in Fargo. Four other outlets followed prior to the Oct. 1 launch, including the Comcast sports channel in Chicago. By its premiere, Heartland was slated in Fargo; Chicago; Minneapolis; Duluth, Minn.; and Bismarck, N.D. Now it has 10 outlets.
Some station or cable-network deals are for a full 52 weeks; others are scheduling shorter trials. “One of them told us, 'As long as it doesn’t suck, I’ll keep it on the air,’” Anderson says. “That was fine with us.”
The footprint already surpasses the original business plan, which called for a geographic triangle between Minneapolis, Fargo and Duluth. “It got a lot bigger a lot quicker than we had planned,” Anderson says.
Word of mouth helped. A deal with WBQC, the UPN affiliate in Cincinnati, came when another poker show fell through.
“It feels different, and it looks great,” says WBQC Station Manager Matthew Gray. “What they’ve really done well with their business model is marketing to the everyday guy who might just play over the weekend with his buddies. They have created a niche in the genre, and that’s what separates them.”
Not to mention the money. Instead of entrance fees (or buy-ins, as they are called in poker-speak) in the thousands of dollars, just a couple hundred bucks gets a player in on the action. “Three hundred dollars for the chance to play on television is pretty attractive,” Anderson says.
While the common-guy angle is a nice sell, it actually developed from meeting with the stations. “We didn’t set out to be just 'Everyman’ poker,” Lang says. “But people we talked to, like at the stations, that’s what they really liked, so it stuck.”
“Even the title of 'Heart-land’ helps the sell,” says WBQC’s Gray. “They don’t need flashy casinos. It’s all about the regular, nine-to-five guys, and they’ve been smart about sticking to their business model.” Sticking to the Everyman theme, the announcers aren’t poker pros. They’re two Fargo radio personalities.
Lang and Anderson financed the startup operation, but a one-year sponsorship deal with Canada-based online gaming site ActionPoker and revenue from casinos that host events help keep the lights on. The business plan calls for revenue coming from advertising and sponsorship, other casinos and merchandising. Lang admits those revenue streams are “underdeveloped.”
Some of the early TV deals were straight time buys; the show is now offered on a barter basis, with 6½ of the 13 minutes of commercial time made available. Each show costs about $30,000 to produce, with much of the expenditure devoted to post-production.
While the “minor league” moniker is OK, (Anderson calls Heartland Poker Tour a “Chevy” compared with the “Cadillacs” of the bigger series), the production values can’t be low-rent. “There is a threshold of production that needs to be met because there is so much well done poker on television,” Anderson says. Stations that buy the show are looking for a well-produced program, which also can attract ad dollars.
“There are dollars out there in poker, and this allows a smaller broadcast station to get access to the market,” says WBQC’s Gray, who has brought in such advertisers as online gaming site Partypoker.com since his station began airing the show.
THE NEXT HAND
Like any startup, Heartland faces the question of expansion and the pitfalls of doing so too quickly. Anderson and Lang’s goal is to expand television distribution by two or three times in the next six to nine months; maybe next year, they’ll go to NATPE. They are talking to the Sinclair station group, but usually they have to squeeze in sales calls.
Another option would be a buy-out, an idea the duo has considered. One of their TV partners is the tiny, upstart cable network MavTV, whose investor, Lyle Berman, also happens to be chairman of the board for the World Poker Tour (WPT). Berman promisingly calls Heartland an “interesting niche” that might serve as a developmental league. He doesn’t rule out acquiring it to “bring it into the WPT family.”
Anderson’s not surprised. “I suppose anything is possible. It’s gotten kind of out of hand already.”