“I’m the true wandering Jew of the sports industry,” said Jeffrey Pollack, a former executive of the NBA, NASCAR, the World Series of Poker, and the Professional Bull Riders Association. “Or, if you will, the Zelig of the sports industry. And every time I do something new, there are doubters. I don’t pay any attention.”
Pollack’s latest gig is as CEO of Epic Poker, which he founded along with well-known professional poker player Annie Duke. What makes Epic Poker different from other poker leagues is that players can participate only if they meet a set of statistical criteria reflecting consistent excellence in the game over the past few years. Virtually every other poker tournament in existence is open either to anyone who wishes to buy in or to select invitees whose fame alone is the most important criterion.
“You have to see this to understand what I’ve done here,” Pollack said as he approached a ballroom at the Palms in Las Vegas. Pollack is a thin, diminutive man, 46 years old, with a half-inch beard, and he stood gazing in expectant admiration at the room, the way a child giddily shows his dad a sand castle. “I got chills when I walked in to see it for the first time.”
The object of Pollack’s affection is a tricked-out television studio set on which, a few days later, the first of what he expects to be many very important poker games would take place. Bathed in red, white, and blue decorations and endowed with some nifty movable parts, the crux of the scenery is a round tan circle in the center of the set where would-be champions can duke it out for millions of dollars. “I wanted to make the entire venue in hardwood, but that didn’t make sense,” he said with evident glee. “So, I said, ‘At least put the feature table on the hardwood.’ And that’s how we’re going to talk about this, as ‘The Hardwood,’ ” a reference to the flooring of basketball courts.
There’s already the World Series of Poker, a handful of other major tournaments around the world, and, of course, the incessant drill of televised poker shows that flood the cable TV schedule. But Pollack insisted the Epic Poker League—a new tournament series he launched in early August that will start its second event September 2—will transform the game and make it as prominent and respected as tennis or golf.
As ambitious and vainglorious as all that sounds, it’s impossible to dismiss Pollack’s plans out of hand—the man has already repeatedly had a role in transforming unusual corners of the American sports scene. Betting against him—as many inevitably do each time he takes on a venture and as some prominent poker pros are doing this go-around—has always been a loser. Epic’s first season comprises No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em tournaments in August, September, January, and February, followed by a world championship in February for those with the best results throughout the earlier events. The jackpots vary depending on the number of players willing to ante up for $20,000, but the first event in August drew 137 of the roughly 220 qualifiers and ended in a $1 million payday for pro David “Chino” Rheem.
It was Pollack’s half-brother, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, who was the sports visionary in the family back when Pollack left the family home in Fort Lee, N.J., to major in journalism at Northwestern. Pollack appeared to be headed for a career in politics after a summer internship with the American Jewish Congress in Washington, D.C. That led to a one-year post-graduate gig at the AJC as a lobbyist working primarily on legislation allowing active-duty military personnel to wear religious head garb in noncombat situations. Then he moved to Los Angeles to work for the political public-relations firm Winner & Associates, where Charles Winner assigned him to do PR consulting for Major League Baseball as it faced early-1990s labor strife. The experience made Pollack realize that no journal was doing for the sports industry what Variety does for Hollywood or The Hotline did for politics, so in 1994 he left Winner to create the SportsBusiness Daily. (In fact, Hotline founder Doug Bailey helped bankroll the project with a $500,000 start-up investment.)
The professional hockey, baseball, and basketball leagues are all helmed by Jews, who have all brought to the promotion of sports a legacy of entertainment management. Growing up watching sports from the stands may have given executives like Pollack a broader view of the product—and what the viewer wants—than the athlete-focused marketing of the past.
“As with all the things he’s done, he likes to have a relatively clean slate to apply his creativity to,” said Bettman, the NHL commissioner and Pollack’s half-brother. “In his case, he has enjoyed a series of opportunities where he has been able to fully immerse himself at a time when wherever he was going, they needed something special he could bring.”
Sports, Pollack decided, “was really just a subset of the entertainment industry.” In 1998, he sold the trade publication to go to work for the National Basketball Association as a public-relations consultant during that year’s player lockout and work stoppage. He stayed with the NBA until 2000, when he bolted for a short-lived sports website that he calls his “reverse MBA”—“I learned what not to do when you’re starting a new venture,” he explained. Then NASCAR came knocking, hiring Pollack to build up the burgeoning race-car league’s new-media efforts. “It was a totally new experience to me,” Pollack said. “I grew up in New York and knew very little about NASCAR. When I joined the sport and started paying attention in a meaningful way, I realized what a unique industry and community it is. But it is also a national phenomenon.”
In the 2000s, thanks in part to Pollack’s efforts, NASCAR exploded across the media landscape. Beyond creating an immersive, you-are-in-the-car, on-demand cable-TV program called NASCAR iN Car, which won two Emmys, Pollack helped turn NASCAR.com into a model for sports websites. During Pollack’s tenure, NASCAR became the second-most-watched sports franchise on cable TV, behind football.
At NASCAR, Pollack worked for Dick Glover, the future founder of the comedy website Funny or Die. Glover came to NASCAR from ESPN, where he’d tried unsuccessfully to buy Pollack’s SportsBusiness Daily, so he already had an admiration for Pollack’s ingenuity.
“He’s very, very well-suited for emerging kinds of things that need the strategic vision,” Glover said. “What makes Jeffrey successful is he thinks strategically but he can act tactically. He assesses the situation, finds the growth opportunity, comes up with a plan, and then goes on the street tactically to implement it.” Those talents would come in handy when casino company Harrah’s Entertainment asked Pollack to helm the World Series of Poker, a recently acquired, then-35-year-old tournament. A dubious Pollack came to Vegas to observe that year’s WSOP and signed on because he sensed it could be a much bigger thing. He didn’t—then or now—know much about playing poker.
“He didn’t need to,” said Epic Poker exec Duke, one of the many players who regarded Pollack’s poker ignorance with great suspicion at first. “When it came to the WSOP, he had the players to listen to. We told him what we wanted. Whether he understands the nuances of an Omaha game is irrelevant. He understands how to listen to people.”
Within three years of Pollack’s arrival, the WSOP entered the annual top-10 list of “most admired sports league brands” assembled by Turnkey Sports. He left the WSOP in 2009 and in 2010 became interim commissioner of the Professional Bull Riding Association, another sport he knew little if anything about.
Yet he and Duke had long discussed a central quandary of poker: the fact that the top pros in the world never make it to the final table of the game’s most prestigious competition, the WSOP Main Event. The sheer numbers of entrants—there have been more than 5,600 each year since 2005—diminishes the odds that anyone the public actively follows can survive to the end. At the time, Pollack had routinely insisted this was what made poker so attractive, that anyone can enter, play against the world’s most famous and best players, and win—an open and democratic idea that also prevented the WSOP from generating an equivalent to Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan, players who transcend their game into the broader popular culture.
Now Pollack and Duke believe Epic will change that. “While obviously it’s spectacular to watch people compete for a $10 million first prize, and I personally hope that that kind of spectacle never goes away, the idea of professionalizing the sport and giving it an objective measure to see who the best players are in the world is something that’s very much needed for poker to evolve to the next level,” Duke said.
Pollack is tight-lipped about how Epic is paying for its start-up and what the path to profitability will be. One well-known pro, Daniel Negreanu, isn’t participating because he doubts the business model can survive. In a scathing piece titled “Why I Didn’t Play the EPL,” posted on the poker website Card Player, Negreanu noted that Epic Poker games will only appear on CBS television because Pollack’s company is buying the time and that the league has no significant corporate sponsors. “I’m always careful about what I attach my name and likeness to, and after doing my due diligence on the ‘business plan,’ I don’t think this league can succeed,” Negreanu wrote. “Of course I could be wrong … but I’m not.”
Bettman, however, has faith in his kid brother and some knowledge of the facts and figures behind Epic. “He has a business model and capital to see it through,” he said. “People will be surprised.” Duke, who clearly has a personal interest in supporting Pollack, is especially effusive: “I think Jeffrey will be seen as an integral figure in the mainstreaming of poker, taking it from a fringe sport into the mainstream the same way that golf is.”
Either way, Pollack insisted he’s in the poker world to stay. “In everything I’ve done, there’s always been a wave of skepticism and curiosity, but I’ve proven I know how to make the difference” he said. “And I’ll prove it again.”
Steve Friess is a former senior writer for Politico who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Steve Friess is a former senior writer for Politico who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.