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Poker Central Bets on $10 Monthly Subscription Video Service

Here comes another specialized over-the-top video service aimed at scooping up cash from fans of a niche subject.

Poker Central, a Las Vegas-based startup backed by major poker pros founded in 2015, had originally launched a 24-hour cable TV network with coverage of poker tournaments and other programming. But after hitting a wall last year trying to win distribution deals, the company shifted gears — and now it wants to sell access to the content directly to consumers with the PokerGo internet video-subscription service.

PokerGo, available for $10 per month or $99 annually, will feature some of poker’s biggest live events, such as the Super High Roller Bowl and the World Series of Poker (WSOP), plus original programming about the card game.

The OTT service launch comes after Poker Central recently extended its deal with ESPN to carry WSOP events through 2020, and clinched a deal with NBC Sports Group for broadcast rights to the Super High Roller bowl and other events.

Poker Central chief digital officer J.R. McCabe, who previously was Time Inc.’s senior VP of video, said the broadcast and cable TV deals serve not only as a key revenue stream but also as a promotional driver for the OTT service.

“If you’re watching [the World Series of Poker on] ESPN, that may be enough for you if you’re a casual fan,” he said. “But there’s also a percentage of our audience who has a thirst for more. The idea is to create a specific funnel – and hyper-serve enthusiasts in this space.”

PokerGo will not live-stream events during its TV partners’ broadcast window, but when their coverage ends the online service will pick up the baton to provide exclusive access to subscribers. “We are very confident that we’re being additive to our [TV network] partners,” said McCabe.

How many people are rabid enough about the pro-poker circuit to pay for PokerGo — especially considering it’s blacking out some live coverage of the biggest events on the calendar? McCabe cited estimates that there are nearly 100 million hard-core and casual poker fans worldwide, including more than 45 million in the U.S. He acknowledged that not all of those consumers will subscribe to PokerGo, which will be available in more than 150 countries, but said that if even a fraction opt in the model will work.

PokerGo will carry no advertising, but Poker Central generates ad revenue for the network TV deals.

Champion Rainer Kempe at the 2016 Super High Roller Bowl final table at Las Vegas’ Aria Resort and Casino. Joe Giron/POKER CENTRAL

All of Poker Central’s live events will be produced under an exclusive partnership with Poker Productions, founded by Mori Eskandani (who is himself a veteran poker player). The streaming infrastructure for PokerGo is provided by NeuLion, whose customers include the NBA, UFC, Univision and Tribeca Shortlist.

To promote the debut of PokerGo, the company is making the service available for free on May 28, the first day of the Super High Roller Bowl, where actor-comedian Kevin Hart will be among the featured players. The tourney, which runs May 28-June 1 at the Aria Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, carries a total prize pool of $16.8 million with the first-place winner receiving $6 million. It will stream live on YouTube, Twitch and Facebook Live on May 28.

In addition to live events, PokerGo original programming includes “Dead Money: A Super High Roller Bowl Story,” a documentary series about underdog Matt Berkey’s run at the 2016 Super High Roller Bowl; “Pokerography,” a series profiling poker professionals; and classic programming like “Poker After Dark,” “Face the Ace,” and “Doubles Poker Championship.”

PokerGo — whose name mimics HBO Go and the augmented-reality game Pokemon Go — is available on the web (at pokergo.com) and for iOS and Android devices. It will be available on Apple TV, Roku and Amazon Fire TV for the first live day of the Super High Roller Bowl on May 28.

Under Poker Central’s extension with ESPN, the TV programmer will carry an estimated 40 hours of live WSOP main event coverage each July, with a commitment of original packaged shows totaling 130 hours televised annually.

Poker Central’s owners include Cary Katz, a top pro poker player and founder of College Loan Corp., who launched Poker Central in 2015, along with other poker pros including Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth and Antonio Esfandiari.

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