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Apr 08, 2017

PokerStars Ends Team SportStars & 5 Other Big Changes

By RTR Dennis

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Ever since 2010, PokerStars has been signing high-profile athletes to represent their brand. This trend really took off in 2015, when they signed Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo and Brazil's Neymar Jr. to sponsorship deals.

These moves marked PokerStars' commitment to spending big on celebrity athletes who can attract recreational players. But it appears that this era is officially over because the Team SportStars page is completely empty.

In addition to the page being empty, PokerStars also emailed affiliates to let them know that banners and other promotional materials involving Neymar and Ronaldo won't be available any longer.

After using current and retired pro athletes like tennis' Rafael Nadal and Boris Becker, baseball's Orel Hershiser, and skiing's Marcus Hellner to promote PokerStars, it looks like Team SportStars is finished. The only holdover will be Dutch field hockey player Fatima Moreira de Melo, who also has an impressive poker resume.

What other big changes are going on at PokerStars? Find out as we discuss 5 big things they're doing right now.

1. PokerStars will Focus on Casino, Sports Betting Even More

2016 was a big year for parent company Amaya Gaming since they made $1.15 billion – 8% more than the previous year ($1.07b). Amaya CEO Rafi Ashkenazi was quick to praise the company's new direction, which includes focusing more on their casino and sports betting products.

"Our proactive changes to the poker ecosystem and customer acquisition initiatives continue to reverse certain negative trends and we are starting to see organic growth in that business," said Ashkenazi, "our casino offering exceeded expectations as we introduced limited marketing campaigns and focused on our cross-sell efforts, and we continued to build and develop our sportsbook."

He finished by adding that the current strategy of decreasing their reliance on poker will continue in 2017 and beyond. This by no means an indication that online poker will vanish at Stars because it makes up 80% of the company's revenue. But don't expect Amaya to stop putting emphasis on PokerStars Casino and BetStars.

2. Recreational Players are Flocking to Stars

In 2015 and '16, PokerStars made big changes by restructuring VIP rewards so that recreational players received more, and high-volume players received less. The moves were criticized by the poker community because they came swiftly and with little warning.

Overall poker revenue for 2016 was $846.1 million, which is down 4.6% from the previous year. While this makes it seem like their VIP changes backfired, the company managed to draw millions of new players thanks to their recreational-friendly marketing and poker environment. Furthermore, poker revenue would've only been down 1% if not for the foreign exchange rates. That said, it appears that high-volume play is down, but new customers are rolling in.

3. PokerStars will Continue Signing Famous Celebrities

While Team SportStars is on its way out, this doesn’t mean that PokerStars will suddenly quit signing celebrities. Proof can be seen in the fact that comedian Kevin Hart was on hand at the 2017 PokerStars Championship Bahamas in January. Not only did he pose for photos and play in tournaments, but he also reached his millions of social media followers.

What's interesting about Hart is that, like Ronaldo and Neymar, he's still in the prime of his career and very popular. This marks a change from old PokerStars' celebrity sponsorships, which caught Ray Romano, Brad Garrett, and Jason Alexander on the downside of their careers.

4. No More Australia

To no one's surprise, Australia followed through on their much-discussed Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill. This legislation essentially bans black-market gaming by imposing heavy fines on online companies that offer gambling to Australians.

The move is a crushing blow to gaming in general because Australia leads the world in per-capita gambling. And while the government still has a few weeks before the bill officially takes place, it means that PokerStars and other major online poker operators will have to vacate the market.

5. More Changes to PokerStars VIP Program

At the beginning of April, PokerStars announced that it will once again alter the rewards program. While specific changes haven't been announced, the announcement did state that StarsCoin will be used as a common reward currency across online casino, poker, and sports betting. Furthermore, the changes will see players receive rewards on more of a weekly basis, rather than at the end of the month.

The program alterations will begin with Denmark players as a test, then be implemented on a larger basis by the end of May. Stars also warns that some players will be affected more by the VIP changes than others.

One more point from the announcement is that PokerStars has seen a positive impact from their changes in 2015 and '16. Specifically, the way that VIP Steps is set up makes players focus more on winning at the tables, rather than trying to break even while earning as much rakeback as possible.

2017 is already bringing more big changes at PokerStars. That said, it'll be interesting to see how the site continues evolving in the future.