By Thursday night, players on nj.partypoker.com could try to turn their bets into Jay-Z concert tickets, a road trip with the New Jersey Devils or courtside seats to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Those were among the prizes in the website's "Dream Seat Series" — one piece of a landmark partnership deal unveiled just hours earlier between the owners of the two teams and the online gaming company.
The agreement is a first in the U.S. professional sports and gaming markets, and it comes less than two months after New Jersey became the third state to launch Internet gaming. Partypoker, owned by Gibraltar-based Bwin.party Digital Entertainment, recently became the online gaming partner of the Borgata casino in Atlantic City.
All told, the deal calls for partypoker to be co-branded with the teams and their home arenas. That includes everything from social media to broadcast advertising, plus contests for tickets and suites for the teams and events at the Prudential Center.
Devils CEO Scott O'Neil on Thursday said the partnership was "truly one of those opportunities where you can actually make a difference — we can help their business, and they can help ours." He pointed to the 60 million people in the U.S. who have identified themselves as poker players, plus partypoker's deals with top European sports franchises such as Manchester United and Real Madrid.
"There's a reason that they've identified sports as an access point to drive gaming," said O'Neil, who came on in August when a new ownership acquired the Devils and the Prudential Center. The group, led by Wall Street magnate Josh Harris, also acquired the Sixers in 2011 and has pledged to lift the sagging business operations behind the Newark-based hockey team.
The partnership also comes some seven years after the federal government tightened regulations for Internet gambling, causing partypoker and other operators to flee the market. Bwin.party CEO Norbert Teufelberger acknowledged his company is "not selling diapers or toothpaste" and that online gaming remains controversial here, but said teaming with the two Northeast franchises is the right way to return.
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"We know that a lot of eyes are on us," he said. "So we have to do a good job, we have to develop that product very respectfully according to the local regulatory regime here in New Jersey. But tying up with an organization like this will help us to do a good job."
As a deal that was the first of its kind, O'Neil said "there was some apprehension" by the NHL and NBA. But the leagues ultimately amended their guidelines to allow it to happen, he said.
O'Neill noted land-based casinos and pro sports franchises have been partnering for years. And the Toronto Maple Leafs have had a similar deal with PokerStars.net since 2007.
"It doesn't seem like we're breaking any big taboos," he said. "I think that, for us, the most important thing is being with a partner that can really engage our fans in a smart way."
For Bwin.party, "putting our brand on the ice or on the billboard is not good enough," Teufelberger said. Instead, the reach of the partnership allows it to build its brand in the infancy of New Jersey's online gaming industry.
"We believe more states will embrace some form of online gaming, predominantly poker, and they will only do it if New Jersey is a success," Teufelberger said. "So if you're doing a good job, others will follow."
Bloomberg reported the partnership will be worth at least $10 million.
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