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Poker's Hot Streak May Be Nearing End

The industry's luck could be running out as retail sales slow and some TV shows fade.

December 23, 2005|From Reuters

NEW YORK — The worldwide poker industry appears to have hit every possible inside straight, flush and full house that it could, accumulating a large pot of cash in the process.

But as this holiday season nears an end, the industry's luck seems to be running out as boxed sets of cards and chips are discounted, ratings fade for some poker-themed television shows and shares of a poker-linked stock slump.

Televised celebrity poker tournaments, Internet gambling sites, thronged tables at Las Vegas casinos and countless dinning room table games show that poker remains an obsession.

Industry group American Gaming Assn. found the level of interest in poker rose significantly in 2004, with consumer spending on the game in Nevada and New Jersey increasing to $151.7 million, or 45% over the previous year.

Yet there are signs that interest is waning among some of the demographic groups who fueled the craze.

"It is a pop fad," said Bill Thompson, author and professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "Fads pass."

Poker sets, once displayed prominently at his local Walgreen Co. store, have been moved farther back into the store, he said.

"It may be reducing down to the niche market, which would be people in their 20s, macho-man type of people," he said. "Parents aren't looking to buy little sets."

In the last few Christmas seasons, stores such as Toys R Us did a booming business in poker chips, said Sean McGowan, an analyst at Harris Nesbit. But now chains such as Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. are deeply discounting the sets to move them off the shelves.

Ratings for poker shows and tournaments, which mainstream sports networks such as ESPN rushed to televise in recent years, are no longer growing as fast.

"As far as we can tell, the big poker rooms have continued to grow, but global ratings for poker telecasts around the world have been seeing retrenchment," said Eugene Christiansen, chief executive of Christiansen Capital Advisors. He said that was a sign that global viewership was maturing.

But Steven Lipscomb, chief executive of Los Angeles-based gaming entertainment group WPT Enterprises Inc., which owns the still-popular World Poker Tour television show, said the poker market was "still bubbling."

"We are in what I believe to be the early stages of a very long growth curve," he said. "If we were to be on the same growth scale that we were in ... we would be doing NFL-type numbers. And I don't think our expectations are that we will have 20 million people tuning in."

Some investors who rushed to capitalize on the poker craze have gotten burned.

Shares in WPT have lost more than 50% this year after briefly surging in July when U.S. poker champion Doyle Brunson made an unsolicited $700-million offer to buy the company. The bid, which later expired, is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

WPT shares fell 4 cents to $5.99 on Thursday.

"These cult fad stocks always end up in disaster," said Ivan Feinseth of New York-based advisory firm Matrix USA, noting that WPT loses money and calling the stock overvalued despite rapid revenue growth.

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