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Whither Phil?

April 24, 2011

With just over a month until the start of the 2011 WSOP, one of the great potential story lines of the series has suddenly taken an unexpected turn.

Since his departure from UB at the end of 2010, many people expected that Phil Hellmuth would start the 2011 series sporting a new sponsor’s patch. The question was, whose? Sure, there were rumors that Phil was meeting with the folks over at Tilt, but no one with any true sense of the industry ever expected that Hellmuth would end up sporting a red triangle at the Rio. It just didn’t make sense for either party.

If you’re Phil, you want to go somewhere where you’re going to be the lead dog and the undisputed face of the brand. He’s not going to get that at Tilt. In fact, he’d be lucky if he even got signed as a Team Full Tilt member rather than just another red pro. But he’s got 11 WSOP bracelets, I can hear you yell through the screen. And he’s Phil Frickin’ Hellmuth. Why wouldn’t Tilt want him?

Well, let’s see. First, Phil would surely want a lot of money, which sites like Tilt and Stars have absolutely no incentive to pay. Sure, he’s a big name with a lot of bracelets, but he’s no bigger than guys like Ivey, Ferguson, Hansen, Antonius, Dwan, Negreanu or Greenstein. Second, Phil’s out-size personality just really isn’t a fit for more sober sites like Tilt or Stars. They made their names by marketing the quality of their pros, not the personalities.

Finally, Phil is just too old for these sites to use effectively. While his name certainly has value (especially to him), his online game is incredibly weak compared to young guns like Dwan, Galfond, Caby and the like who all play (or used to play) multiple tables at nose-bleed stakes. Hellmuth just doesn’t play to the younger generation.

So, if Hellmuth isn’t a fit for either Stars or Tilt, where could he possibly go? The smart money narrowed his options down to just one place — he’s become the new face of Caesars/WSOP online efforts.

It’s no secret that Caesars is actively looking to expand the WSOP brand online, and they’re already offering real money gaming online in Europe using 888’s software on the back-end. By signing Hellmuth, they would bring some much-needed credibility to their burgeoning site and have one of the most recognizable faces in the games shilling for them when online poker eventually becomes legal in the states. For Caesars, Hellmuth is a perfect fit.

And for Hellmuth, signing with Caesars also seems like a no-brainer. By joining the WSOP team, he gets to capitalize on his status as the all-time bracelet winner and ensure that he is the top dog and face of all of the brand’s marketing efforts. And, when your ego is as big as Phil’s, that’s possibly more important than whatever money may come with the sponsorship deal.

The thing is, while everyone expected that Phil and Caesars would join forces, neither party has officially announced that a deal has been struck. And, knowing Hellmuth’s penchant for showmanship (read, making asinine WSOP entrances) the delay is really no surprise. If Phil is, in fact, supposed to be the new face of the WSOP brand, there’s no question that he would want to unveil his new status in the most dramatic and self-serving way possible. That’s just his way.

The question I have is, did Phil just get screwed out of a deal? With no more online poker in the States for the foreseeable future (say, the next two years), is Hellmuth as valuable to Caesars as he was 10 days ago? It’s hard to say. Again, there is no doubt that Hellmuth is a great fit for Caesars and a solid brand ambassador. But, if Caesars has no reason to market to US players any time soon, don’t you think they’d try to renegotiate if he’s only pimping the site to European and Asian players? I don’t know for sure, but my gut says yes, they would. And, if Phil hasn’t actually signed a deal yet, is there any reason for Caesars to move forward with one now? Maybe, but again, I think Phil would find that his value is nowhere near what he expects.

One thing that is for sure is that no matter what happens, Hellmuth will make sure we know all about it.

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