WPT Could Lose Top Pro Players

Whenever I participate in an event which will be televised, I have to sign an agreement, called a "release" which grants the producers some rights to use my name and likeness in advertising or publicity for the show.

The releases usually limit the rights granted to the producer for a brief term, or to certain markets and media types, while others give away all rights "in whole or in part, by any and all means, media, devices, processes and technology now or hereafter known or devised in perpetuity throughout the universe." I'm not kidding; As ridiculous as that sounds, I've signed releases that grant rights "thoughout the universe," just in case a new television market crops up on the fourth moon of the Dernovotran System deep in the as-yet-undiscovered Craftulon Nebula.

These days, when you sign up for a poker tournament, in addition to plunking down your buy-in and flashing your ID, you often have to sign a release. In fact, for any televised tournament, including World Poker Tour events, if you refuse to sign the release, you won't be allowed to play. This has created some tension between the World Poker Tour and some of the top tournament players in the world, who who can't -- or won't -- agree to the WPT's terms.
Andy Bloch was the first pro player to take is grievance with the WPT public, when he wrote in his blog last week, "I won't be playing the World Poker Tour at the Bellagio, or any more WPT tournaments, until the WPT changes the player release that they force every player to sign before playing. The current release sets practically no limit to what the WPT can do with a player's name and likeness, and the WPT has shown that it will exploit players' names and likenesses beyond what any of us accept as reasonable. I've tried negotiating with the WPT, but they will not make any significant changes."

Andy's primary complaint is with language that grants a perpetual release (throughout the entire universe, of course) for . . . exploitation thereof and of other audio-visual works (including, without limitation, "behind the scenes" productions and public service announcements) and any and all derivative, allied, subsidiary and/or ancillary uses related thereto (including, without limitation, merchandising, commercial tie-ins, publications, home entertainment, video games, commodities, etc.)

A release usually represents a compromise between the producers, who need permission to promote their production, and the participants, who agree to grant that permission in exchange for the exposure the promotion will deliver. But as "secondary markets," like Internet, DVD, and on-demand services have grown, producers have frequently used these ever-expanding releases to populate those mediums with original programming, from which they often draw nice profits. People who never intended to have their name and likeness used for anything other than promotion find themselves featured in programming for which they are never compensated. In the case of the WPT's release, this could easily include video games, limitless series of DVDs, books, trading cards, bottle openers, or any other WPT-branded merchandise.
Tiltboy Rafe Furst, who won this year's Ultimate Poker Challenge, supports Andy's position. Paul Phillips, who ranks 16th on the WPT all-time money list, and has issues of his own with the WPT, also agrees. According to Paul's Livejournal, "I didn't play in the bellagio WPT event that began monday, the same WPT event I won two years ago. I see that andy bloch is not playing any more WPT events and I feel roughly the same way although our complaints might diverge a bit. I do not expect to have any impact but the players have been reasonable for long enough and eventually something has to give."

These are all extremely talented players, and Paul especially has the type of irreverent charisma that television producers love, but the player the WPT may miss the most is 2000 World Series of Poker Champion Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. I caught Chris a few minutes before a tournament last Thursday, and he told me, "The release has gotten worse over time, and I simply can't sign it." He explained that the WPT release is so broad, it asks for rights Chris is not legally able to relenquish. "I have business deals that prevent me signing this release," He said.

There has been a lot of talk about poker players forming a union, so I asked if players were joining together to take a stand against the WPT. "I don't feel that players are coming together," Chris said, and was quick to point out that he wasn't telling anyone to boycott the WPT. "I'm only speaking for myself," he said.

Like Andy Bloch, Chris suggested that the WPT replace the controversial release with one similar to that currently used by Harrah's for their World Series of Poker Circuit events, which reads, In consideration of my being permitted to participate in said promotion, I do hereby accept and irrevocably authorize [the host casino] and its successors and assigns (including but not limited to ESPN) to print, publish, televise or otherwise utilize my photograph or any likeness of me for promotional purposes without compensation.

"I don't understand the WPT's position. The best players in the world, and even celebrities can't play because of this release. The win-win solution is to have us sign the Harrahs release," he said, because it is limited to promotional use only.

Some Internet commentors have been critical of the pros, suggesting that they wouldn't be in this position if television hadn't made them famous, but Chris said, "I'm not asking for money, just the right to control my image outside the program." He reminded me that in tournament poker, the players put up all the money for the prize pool, in addition to paying for the rake. "In no other sport do participants put up [as much money as poker players do] for the events," he said, and that's a major point of contention for some players, who feel that they are taking all of the financial risk while the WPT profits from their tournament participation.

There is no doubt that the World Poker Tour has played a major (perhaps even majority) part in the current poker boom. Some say that this is due to the hole card cameras, but I believe that it's mostly thanks to the human drama created by the players and their personalities. In fact, at last year's WPT Championship at Bellagio, I overheard a WPT representative lamenting that Chris had gone out on the TV bubble, because he is so popular with viewers.

Just like Binion's World Series of Poker faced a challenge from Bellagio's Five Diamond Classic, Travel Channel's World Poker Tour now faces competition from the World Series of Poker Circuit events, and WPT could lose access to the charismatic and talented professional players who made their show a hit. I've spent quite a bit of time with the executives in charge of World Poker Tour, and they are all reasonable, intelligent, and savvy people. I wasn't able to reach any of them at press time, but I'd be very surprised if they didn't reach some sort of compromise with the pros sooner than later. It may take more than three days, but I have a feeling Jesus will be back.
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