Pennsylvania Online Poker Is Off To A Good, Not Great Start

By most accounts, Pennsylvania online poker has gotten off to a roaring start. Less than a month into its existence, and with just a single operator in the market, PokerStars Pennsylvania is already beating the other more mature US online poker industries combined.

But the truth is, the early online poker returns in Pennsylvania aren’t overly remarkable; they are expected. And they’re unlikely to last.

Parade Meet Rain

A lot of pundits are highlighting the favorable comparisons between PokerStars’ Pennsylvania traffic numbers and other legal US online poker markets, particularly neighboring New Jersey.

It’s a faulty comparison.

What little historical data we can draw from indicates that after a fast start, legal online poker in Pennsylvania will go through a slow burn.

Unlike the still-growing-after-six-years online casino market, New Jersey’s online poker industry peaked early and has been slowly degrading ever since.

So the correct comparison is the early days of New Jersey online poker, not the current iteration. And New Jersey’s early online poker numbers were far better than Pennsylvania’s.

Based on some old data I dug up, PokerScout.com recorded average cash game traffic across the state’s online poker sites at over 600 players in January 2014. By June, that number shrunk to 300.

So, while the industry is praising PokerStars PA for beating the traffic numbers in all other legal US markets combined, it’s well below the early returns in New Jersey, and that’s somewhat troubling.

Is Pennsylvania Underperforming?

With only a single operator (consolidating players and creating higher liquidity), a significantly larger population, and devoid of the payment processing and geolocation issues that plagued New Jersey, Pennsylvania has several key advantages over New Jersey. As such, it should be well ahead of New Jersey’s early numbers.

There are several likely reasons Pennsylvania isn’t a stronger online poker market than it is. One of the biggest being time. More specifically, the time between the US crackdown on online poker in 2011 and the availability of the current legal options.

Why is that important?

New Jersey launched two-and-a-half years after Black Friday. Pennsylvania’s online poker launch occurred eight years after the online poker rug was pulled out from under US players.

Online poker was still relatively fresh on the US public’s mind when New Jersey went live in November 2013. Remission payments from Full Tilt Poker were in full swing (the first batch would hit bank accounts in February 2014), bringing about an overall feeling of optimism in the online poker community. A feeling that the online poker launches in Delaware, Nevada, and New Jersey would bring about a return of the old days.

Five years later, when Pennsylvania launched, that optimism has turned into cynicism. Legal online poker hasn’t made major inroads in the US. And perhaps more importantly, after eight years, Pennsylvania online poker players affected by Black Friday have moved on to other endeavors. Sure, they may give online poker a try for nostalgia’s sake, but the game is likely to have passed them by at this point.

The bottom line is there’s a big difference between a two-year layoff and an eight-year layoff.

It’s an Online Poker Problem

As we head into 2020, poker players need to face some hard truths: Online poker is a different animal than it used to be. For reasons that I won’t get into here, in the modern online poker world, new players are chewed up and spit out at a rapid clip.

So, as PokerIndustryPro’s Nick Jones rightly pointed out in his Twitter thread about Pennsylvania online poker, there was a pent-up demand for online poker in Pennsylvania, just as there was in New Jersey. And we see that in the early traffic numbers.

But like we saw in New Jersey, a lot of these players that are running to the online poker tables for the first time in years will be one-and-done. And in a closed market like Pennsylvania, it becomes increasingly difficult (and expensive) to overcome the attrition rate.

The slow burn is coming, and it will be hastened when other operators like 888 launch in the market. The one glimmer of hope is the potential for an interstate agreement between Pennsylvania and the other legal online poker states. That would provide the US with enough liquidity to reignite interest in online poker.

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