As published in Midwest Gaming & Travel January 2011
We’d just played in a small poker tournament about an hour from where we live. At the time I was working as a sales manager for a Fox TV station and my friend, Greg, owned a retail store.
“We should start a TV show,” he said during the drive. He went on to describe a show like “This Old House” or “Trading Spaces” where college kids compete in remodeling projects for their fraternity or dorm.
I spent the rest of the drive telling him why it wouldn’t work: production costs, distribution, etc. My point was basically how could two guys from Fargo, North Dakota possibly create a TV show and not go broke doing it?
The next day my office line rang. “How about a poker show!?”
It was Greg, of course, and he wanted to meet for lunch and describe his new idea.
We hashed it out over the next three hours at our local Chili’s. We discussed a TV show focused on the average, ordinary player, something we produced regionally, and something completely opposite of the glamorous poker shows on-air at the time.
We knew there would be a built-in appetite among players because, after all, who wouldn’t want to play on TV? We were also banking on the fact that there would be an appetite among casinos for such a show. After all, there were certainly a lot more casinos then just the ones in Vegas or Atlantic City.
A few weeks later I was home for the holidays and was in the living room with my brother, a professed “non-gambler.” As an experiment, I found a poker show on TV and started watching it. Twenty minutes later my brother was hooked and got mad when I changed the channel during the middle of the action.
At that moment I decided, “This could actually work.”
It is not just for poker players. I came to the conclusion that televised poker is part game show, part reality television, and part sporting event.
I returned from the holidays and went to work on a business plan. One month later, I quit my job at Fox TV and, along with Greg, formed Heartland Poker Tour.
Looking back on it now it was easily the most foolhardy and naïve decision I’ve ever made in my life. It turns out that producing a poker show good enough to air on TV was not easy. It also turns out that TV stations aren’t falling all over themselves to take programming from two unknown “TV producers” from Fargo, ND. Let’s just say that had we known how difficult it would be, we never would have attempted it. Good thing for us, we didn’t know what we didn’t know!
Year one of the HPT was extremely challenging and almost broke us. We somehow convinced three casinos in Minnesota and one in Wisconsin to hold our poker tournaments during the summer of 2005.
Our plan was to have our episodes on the air by that fall. Of course, the actual filming of the show was a whole other story. It was difficult and it was expensive. And lastly, we never were able to convince any TV programming directors during that first year to pick up our show.
To fulfill our promise to casinos and to get the ball rolling, we ended up buying time on three TV stations in our home state. Our dream to produce a poker show was a reality, but we were basically an “infomercial,” and our business was hemorrhaging cash.
After nearly going bankrupt financing the production and the TV time, we finally caught a couple breaks. We managed to convince a regional sports’ net in Chicago to carry our show for barter and, shortly thereafter, we sold a sponsorship keeping us afloat for another season.
Even though it’s taken years off my life with the stress, creating Heartland Poker Tour has been an incredible experience. Now with a loyal following, HPT is airing in 100 million homes in the U.S. and about 20 countries in Europe. Plus, we’re not an infomercial anymore! We’ve produced over 150 episodes and the show is translated into both Hebrew and Italian.
Most importantly, we’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to do: enable hundreds of everyday poker enthusiasts to play on a televised stage. We’ve also been fortunate enough to build strong casino partnerships and host successful poker events. HPT and our casino partners have awarded over 25 million dollars. It truly has been “life- changing” money for many of these players.
Two years ago, I was fortunate enough to meet a man from Fargo that is a Vietnam vet with three Purple Hearts. That chance meeting led to a relationship with Disabled American Veterans, a non-profit organization that devotes itself to aiding our wounded veterans. Since, we’ve been very proud to donate 1% of every prize pool to DAV. Thanks to the generosity of poker players, we’ve been able to contribute to this tremendous organization.
It’s been a wild ride. The crew and staff at HPT is my second family. There have been many crazy nights and funny stories. Working and traveling with our staff is indescribably fun. We’ve also met hundreds of great and interesting people along the way. It turns out that there is indeed an appetite among players to play this game and maybe be on TV at the same time.
We’ve got lots in store for HPT in the coming years. My theory is that as long as we put on events that people enjoy and as long as the TV show is halfway decent, there is a place for us in the worlds of television and poker. If you’ve never been to one of our events, I highly recommend it. More than anything, our goal for these events is to provide a fun experience for the player. If that appeals to you, come join us at one of our events. I’m the tall bald guy. Come and say “hi.”