I got some interesting feedback from friends from the Oceans 11 Casino in Oceanside, California. These same friends all commented that although they enjoy reading about online poker in their brick and mortar poker rooms, they asked me how I can be a part of a dying industry. Some joked about when I’d take my regular seat back at the mid-stakes games. Au Contraire my friends, for online poker is doing nothing but growing.
The general consensus of poker experts going into 2009 was that with the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) looming overhead like a dark storm cloud amid the worldwide financial chaos, the industry would shrink. It was believed that there was no way recreational players would flock to the online poker tables like they did in past years. The combination of uncertain laws in the United States, a weak economy, and diminishing interest, they cited, which would reduce online poker to a circus sideshow.
Fortunately for people who love the game, 2009 ended up shaking out much differently that many expected. To gauge industry growth and trends, I consulted with Dan Stewart, who manages a website called PokerScout.com, which tracks industry traffic. The numbers it reported were nothing short of shocking to the pundits.
“The big winner for the year was Full Tilt Poker, doubling in size and increasing its market share from 15% to 23%,” commented Stewart. “The market has grown 35% in 2009. A large part of that growth came in the second half of the year.”
The same industry that many expected to shrink in 2009 didn’t just stay even, but actually grew 35% compared to last year. Full Tilt Poker, currently the second largest poker site on the internet, has gone from 40% the size of PokerStars (the industry leader) to 65%, with the gap narrowing each month.
Rumors abound about a potential bwin and Party Gaming merger that would make the new network the clear number three behind the aforementioned poker sites. The iPoker Network, which includes sites such as Titan Poker, would then slip to the fourth largest in the industry.
“There is definitely a critical mass effect at work. The sites that have the most players attract the most players because they offer more action around the clock. Already, the top two sites have about 60% of the market share. However, the effect is slow to work and there are still at least 15 sites and networks with enough players to remain healthy. Unless there is a wave of mergers, players outside the U.S. will likely have a large number of viable options for years to come.”
Although it’s a long shot to happen in 2010, this critical mass effect could eventually see the industry as four or five large conglomerate poker networks all competing against each other for traffic. Many of the non-U.S. sites have had a difficult time keeping up with the growth of the overall market. One example of a site losing traffic is Svenska Spel, which is a poker site run by the Swedish government, whose traffic is actually down 9% for the year. This might be an example of a site disabled by internal arguments about how the government should operate an online poker room.
The industry growth boils down to a lot of factors, most of which would require significant research to validate. We can only speculate that the complete lack of prosecutions against poker players in the United States has given confidence back to players that they won’t be hunted down for playing the game they love online. Poker sites have been very clever in developing ways to get around UIGEA restrictions for funds depositing, while offering enticing bonuses and promotions to attract new players.
At the end of the day, or year in our case, we can look back at 2009 as the year that online poker didn’t just survive, but thrived under dire circumstances. With the UIGEA being put on hold until mid-2010 to allow pro-online poker legislation to have its light of day, it’s reasonable to think that online poker will continue to grow as an industry in 2010. For now, we’ll be laughing at the insults that brick-and-mortar players throw our way, shaking our heads at their ignorant notions of our craft.
MacPoker.com would like to thank Dan Stewart and PokerScout.com for contributing to this article.