In an increasingly corporate online poker sector, there are still some executives you can rely on to speak their mind. And Patrik Selin is one of them. 'Poker is becoming SERIOUSLY boring,' the Bodog Europe CEO says with no trace of a smile on his face. He's not amused at the listlessness he sees in the poker industry, and is certain some firms have been getting it badly wrong for some time now.
'There is not one poker company with something unique to sell. We are trying to build that uniqueness and I think everybody is going to follow us, even Full Tilt and PokerStars. It's just a question of time before they realise we are right and they are wrong.' Finding fault Selin is a veteran of the online poker industry, in as much as anyone in this nascent industry can be.
He joined Ongame as its CEO in 2003 and helped transform the business into both a leading consumer site (PokerRoom) and a leading B2B network (Ongame). He then went on to negotiate the sale of the business to bwin for almost €500 million in late 2005. After leaving Ongame he founded poker site Gnuf, before ending up in his current home as the head of Bodog Europe in 2009.
Meeting Selin at a central London restaurant shortly before Christmas he's in an effusive and voluble mood full of laughs, asides and off the record remarks. But beyond the genial mood there is an air of a man who is deeply at odds with the industry he helped build. Behind the smile, Selin is unhappy with what he finds around him. 'In the valley of the blind the one eyed man is king,' Selin says with a quiet laugh.
And he believes there are a lot of blind companies out there. 'There are a couple of companies that are doing a great job and a couple of companies that are driving headfirst into a brick wall and it's only a matter of time. I can tell you now that most of the poker networks are going to disappear, because they are promoting the wrong message.
'We already know poker is not growing, it is in decline. A couple of the big companies are growing, but that is just taking market share off everyone else. If they had done their homework and thought what the customer wanted things might have been different. What's shocking to me is poker companies are always taking the view of what is right for them and not what is right for the customer. If the customer is not excited it doesn't matter what you do.'
The case at hand
It's easy to dismiss Selin as arrogant; shouting loud while his poker network languishes at 26th in the PokerScout rankings. But that's to wildly, and possibly dangerously, miss the point. Here is an executive not bound by a need to appease institutional investors or meet quarterly profit targets at all costs. Here is a man with informed opinions and the freedom to speak his mind. He thinks he's right, naturally, but it's not from a position of arrogance.
In a poker sector where genuine understanding of the market and insight sometimes appears thin on the ground it's perhaps unsurprising his views are listened to despite Bodog's irrelevance in terms of market share. After all, if everyone else were right, then the industry wouldn't be faced with quarterly tales of falling revenues and diminishing profits or the sight of a general market that is stagnant at best. If everyone is doing so well, then where is the growth? It can't just be PokerStars and Full Tilt's fault. And even they are showing little signs of growth.
Perhaps the man from the tiny Bodog network is on to something. And to underestimate Bodog would be a mistake. Its sports betting base makes it a huge, if oddly structured, company. The general Bodog brand is sub-licensed in the US, European and Asian markets, but in every territory it is still a sports betting business first and foremost.
'We are going to be a true market leader,' Selin says simply about Bodog Europe. 'When I started at Ongame we had a 2.3% market share and 35 employees. When I left there were 300 employees and a 10% market share and we sold the company for €500m. This is going to be an even bigger success. Poker is such a small part of our business. We don't want to sound arrogant, we have a plan and we will execute on that.'
Solutions or problems?
So what is the Bodog grand plan? In poker, at least, it seems simple. The firm will focus squarely on the much talked about 'casual' market. This major shift in perspective was perhaps more talked about than acted on in 2010, but several companies such as Ladbrokes and 888 have clearly set their sights on the 'net depositing' players aiming to make poker fun and simple to a casual audience. 'If the poker sites continue to focus on their pros there is not going to be any growth,' Selin says.
'The only thing worth selling is entertainment and when you lose sight of that you will get no more growth. They are selling the dream of being a pro and that is the wrong dream. Most players are not interested in that. If they want that they can buy a lottery ticket. 'If you look at the poker industry 8% [of players] are winners and only 1%-2% earn enough for it to contribute to their lifestyle.'
'The rest are earning enough to buy a few beers. So 98% of poker players are playing for entertainment value. There is nothing wrong with that. But what the industry does is to focus on this 2-8% of players and they help them to get better. For me that is absolutely sick and not sustainable. You need to focus on the 92% to 98% of players.'