OPINION | The Way Forward for the Aussie Millions

There is absolutely no doubt in anyone’s mind that the poker industry was off to a flying start in the year 2020.

After a record-setting Aussie Millions, along with the inaugural Super High Roller Bowl and Australian Poker Open on the Gold Coast, plus a string of highly successful mid-tier series (APL Million in Sydney, APT Brisbane and the WPT League QPC in Tweed Heads), the future of poker in this country was looking as strong as ever.

All this and more to look forward to, made even more impressive that it was achieved without a regulated online poker presence.  It is simply from the relentless dedication, passion, and hard yakka from so many people in the industry – at all levels – finding innovative ways to keep the game alive and well.

Joel Williams (Director of Poker Operations, Crown Melbourne) with 2020 Aussie Millions Main Event Champion, Vincent “Wonky” Wan.
IMAGE: NT Creative Corp

Suffice it to say, poker may never reach the peak first experienced after the Great Australian Poker Boom of 2005.  It is hard enough to catch lightning in a bottle the first time around.

But all of that no longer matters, because our focus now is on rebuilding the industry after the impact of COVID-19; while several states and territories have already begun to pick up the pieces, the same cannot be said for Victoria, which is understandable, given that it is only today that marks the first time in four months that zero cases have been recorded.

As of now, we are yet to see any major resurgence of the game in the Garden State due to ongoing restrictions, although to my knowledge, there are reports of at least one pub league franchisee in regional Victoria who has found a way to run games in an outdoor setting (although as to whom they sought approval from in regards to this remains to be seen and I invite them to contact me to clarify this matter).

Assuming the numbers continue to move in the right direction, we can expect to see plenty of movement from Victorian operators from early next year, however, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the 2021 Aussie Millions – originally scheduled from January 12 to February 1 – will not be going ahead.

Since the Southern Hemisphere’s largest casino shut its main gaming floor and private gaming areas on March 23, there has been almost complete radio silence in regards to poker operations on social media; the last post on the Crown Poker Facebook page and Twitter account was on the 8th of September, when staff paid tribute to the late, great Mike Sexton.

Most recently, the Australian Poker Tour revealed the dates for its Season 4 launch in Brisbane, which will run across six days from January 19-24 – a clear indicator that the major operators have been watching developments closely and have now seized their chance in filling what will be a huge gap on our country’s poker calendar.

Despite a most recent announcement on Crown Melbourne’s website advising that “select restaurants will recommence operations in a limited capacity, as well as Crown Towers and Crown Spa” from November 2, a return to all gaming operations, let alone poker, would likely not begin until at least the criteria of the Victorian Government’s “Last Step” on their coronavirus roadmap is met – zero new cases in the community for more than 14 days.

Victoria may very well reach that goal before Christmas (which would certainly liven up festivities, to say the least), but for Joel Williams and his dedicated team in the Crown Poker Room, it will still be a sombre return.

The Aussie Millions has been long regarded as one of the biggest poker brands globally, along with the WSOP and WPT. IMAGE: NT Creative Corp

It’s no secret that the success of the Aussie Millions – especially the Main Event – relies heavily on two things.

The first is international presence.  With the exception of New Zealand (and possibly other travellers from parts of Asia, where the pandemic is under control), there is little to no hope of marquee players from Europe and North America being able to enter the country for any reason, let alone play in the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest poker series.

There’s also the matter of local Main Event qualifiers, which over the last few years, have made up at least 40% of the total number of entries, courtesy of Crown Poker’s robust and highly successful year-long satellite programme.

Theoretically, there could be a chance of generating a field of 800+ if Crown Melbourne were to consider moving the 2021 Aussie Millions to a late November/December timeslot, however that would all depend on whether or not The Star Sydney host the WSOP International Circuit series again at the same time.

That’s a tough ask.

It would be safe to assume then – at least, for the short term after Crown Melbourne’s gaming facilities reopen – that executives would already have planned ahead to recuperate some of their losses by reconfiguring the Crown Poker Room and implementing more electronic gaming machines and other table games such as roulette, blackjack and baccarat.

Best-case scenario: all poker tables currently occupying the space closest to the Vegas Bar and up to the big screens would be ripped out, leaving only the tables on the other side of the walkway around the feature table (PK 31) and up in the High Limit Area (about 20 in total).

So, given the most likely set of circumstances, in that the 2021 Aussie Millions is a write-off and that we’ll see limited availability in the next 6-12 months – what must Crown Poker do in order to not only rebuild the brand, but also reclaim its position as the number one poker destination in the country?

To start, the satellite campaign for the 2022 Aussie Millions would need to commence almost immediately upon the casino reopening, building towards a schedule which should run for at least four to five weeks, with at least 30 events.

As well as a primary focus on Main Event qualifiers, there should also be a further push into other marquee tournaments on the schedule, such as the $1150 Opening Event and other High Roller tournaments.

Crown Poker would also have to consider other options in terms of major scheduled series; based on the fact that tournaments of equivalent value are readily available through other mid-tier organisations interstate, they will have to consider either working with them to co-host a series in Melbourne, or set up its own like-for-like schedule, as they have done so successfully in the past with events such as the Joe Hachem Deep Stack Series, in lieu of either or both the Victorian and Melbourne Championships.

Further mainstream sponsorship opportunities – such as those with ANTON Jewellers and V Energy Drink in Aussie Millions past – will be vital to the process.  Marketing and promotion, media coverage, televised broadcasts and affiliation deals exclusively with Australian companies, including the offering of Aussie Millions event packages through the major pub leagues, will be more important than ever for the economy (subject to regulatory approval).

Improving player comfort, ease of access and offering substantially better rewards will also lead to increased player acquisition and retention.  The new poker room at The Star Gold Coast, unveiled during the inaugural WPT Australia series in September last year, now sets the gold standard for casino poker rooms in this country (e.g. more comfortable chairs, improved lighting, USB ports embedded in the tables for charging devices, etc.).

Substantial investment into advanced registration and payment technology must also be considered – case in point, the QR code system paired with a customised app that was trialled at the most recent APT Brisbane series, which not only vastly reduced waiting times for games, but also contributed to a COVID Safe environment through contactless interaction at key touch points and data retention for contact tracing purposes, which will be all the more important for all businesses and industries in the wake of the pandemic.

The 2020 Aussie Millions Main Event players see red as RFID feature table is lit up for an all-in showdown. IMAGE: NT Creative Corp

Finally, Crown Poker must, and without further delay, invest in its own permanently fixed RFID feature table system and set up a broadcast schedule of both major tournaments and high stakes cash games, bringing it up to par with other renowned international card rooms such as the Bicycle Casino in Los Angeles.

With the technology being relatively inexpensive and easy to install within the existing scaffolding around table 31, there shouldn’t be any reason why they can’t justify the cost, especially given that they have become a staple at pub league events throughout Australia in recent years.

Ultimately, the decisions that are to be made by Crown Melbourne must be in the best interests of not only themselves, but for the good of the game.

Crown Poker and the Aussie Millions have, until now, been strong standalone brands in their own right, but with COVID-19 shaking things up, they will need to work more cohesively with the entire poker community and be prepared to invest long term so that we can all rebuild, together.

And come January 2022, the Aussie Millions will be recognised as a true celebration of poker in this part of the world, with all of us ready and waiting for the cards to be launched into the air.

It’s now up to them to decide whether or not they go all in. 

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