Brian Balsbaugh: The King of Poker Royalty

Slick, fast-talking, and cut-throat.

Brian_balsbaugh1_3Brian Balsbaugh doesn’t fit the profile of your typical agent.

Not that he isn‚Äôt slick, fast-talking, or cut-throat (and we mean this is the nicest sense, seriously).  To be a successful agent, these characteristics are almost prerequisites. 

What distinguishes Balsbaugh from your stereotypical agent is that, if he wasn‚Äôt an agent, he could be one of us, another one of those Wicked Chops Poker guys (again, we mean this is the nicest sense, seriously).  And it‚Äôs not just because he looks like he could still be carded when ordering drinks at bars although he‚Äôs well into his 30‚Äôs. 

While snapping some pics of him for this interview, “Bbals,” as he’s known in some circles, shined a classic shyster smile and pointed both fingers at the snapping camera lens, saying, “Hey, don’t you want the classic agent pose?”

That self-effacing self-awareness and regular-guy appeal has helped propel Balsbaugh to become the preeminent poker agent, while launching his company, Poker Royalty, to be the absolute dominant force in the player representation field.  No one else comes close to matching his stable of clients.   

Wicked Chops Poker sat down with Balsbaugh recently to find out how this Midwestern mid-tier golf agent became a totally unique Sin City success story.

Timing is Everything

‚ÄúI realize I was at the right place at the right time.‚Äù Balsbaugh told us while kicking back in his chair at the Caesar‚Äôs Palace marketplace.  ‚ÄúHad I started six months earlier, I would‚Äôve gone broke.  Had I started six months later, someone else probably would‚Äôve grabbed the clients I ended up with.‚Äù 

Realizing ‚Äúthere was a huge opportunity‚Äù to capitalize on the soon-to-boom poker industry, Balsbaugh gave up his life as a golf agent, where his clients included Casey Martin and Ben Crane.  He moved to Vegas and launched Poker Royalty LLC, financing the venture himself.  ‚ÄúIt was a huge risk, but I really believed in what I was doing‚Ķand in this industry.‚Äù

Daniel_negreanu_bogdogAs poker’s exposure on TV exploded, Balsbaugh’s impeccable sense of timing was immediately evident with the targeting of his first client, one of poker’s most likable TV personalities, Daniel Negreanu.

‚ÄúPoker‚Äôs got a lot of six foot white guys that aren‚Äôt really distinguishable from one another.  They‚Äôre not very marketable.‚Äù Balsbaugh told us. ‚ÄúBut I‚Äôd walk through a tournament and it was like there was a big spotlight [on Negreanu].  His personality really stood out.‚Äù 

‚ÄúYou‚Äôre My Guy.‚Äù 

Eventually, almost every major poker star would tell Balsbaugh this, but Negreanu was the first.  Over dinner one night in a restaurant in Minneapolis, Negreanu signed on as Balsbaugh‚Äôs first Poker Royalty client. 

Negreanu‚Äôs profile and personality (‚Äúhe‚Äôs a great recruiter‚Äù Balsbaugh said) not only gave Balsbaugh a big foot in the door, it also gave him instant credibility.  Stars like Erick Lindgren soon followed. 

Now, Balsbaugh ‚Äúis the guy‚Äù for the majority of poker‚Äôs top stars.  Indeed, he has almost cornered the market on marketable pros, with a roster of 19 top pros and celebrities including T.J. Cloutier, Phil Hellmuth, Jennifer Harman, David Williams, Gus Hansen and Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi.

“At first, nobody was interested in my guys.”

Just because Balsbaugh had the clients and the personalities, it didn’t mean anyone really cared at first.

When Balsbaugh first started pitching his clients to companies, he said, Balsbaugh_small‚ÄúI couldn‚Äôt get anyone to return my calls.  At first, nobody was interested in my guys.‚Äù 

Mainstream marketing hadn‚Äôt yet realized the mainstream appeal of poker.  In fact, they didn‚Äôt even know who the hell his players were.  ‚ÄúI‚Äôd try to pitch Daniel or Erick to [companies], and they‚Äôd have no idea who I was talking about.‚Äù  For the first six months, Balsbaugh made no money. 

But soon thereafter, things started to turn.

‚ÄúFirst, the World Series of Poker [in 2004] was getting a lot of media attention.  And when people started realizing the ratings for the TV shows, I mean, these were big ratings and with an ideal target demo for advertising,‚Äù Balsbaugh said.  ‚ÄúSoon enough, companies were calling me about my players.‚Äù

Balsbaugh has since been able to secure major endorsement deals with his clients.  Beverage companies have been particularly forward-thinking in signing poker players as endorsers, from energy drinks to alcohol (Howard Lederer and Erick Lindgren endorse Knob Creek). 

However, Balsbaugh broke new ground when two of his clients, Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu, were signed to star in a commercial (along with Scotty Ngyuen) for brand behemoth Diet Pepsi.

“That really shows how far poker has come the past few years.”

[No comment]

Balsbaugh plays up his ‚Äútime of entry‚Äù into the market as a major key to his success.  But it‚Äôs certainly not the only reason.

David_williams_2_2Talking to Balsbaugh, what impressed us most was not what he said, but what he didn‚Äôt say.  In an off-the-record moment (sorry, Brian), we asked him if he had anything to say about the David Williams ‚Äúscandal.‚Äù  Most people (i.e., us) would feel contractually obligated to make the requisite jokes, or at least acknowledge some humor or sense of fascination with it. 

But Balsbaugh didn‚Äôt say a word. 

He just gave us a look like, ‚ÄúNo way.  Not even going there.‚Äù

Now, it would be entirely too easy and an obvious editorial cop-out to compare Balsbaugh to Jerry Maguire here.  You remember, Maguire wanted to pay ‚Äúmore attention‚Äù to his clients and be more of a trusted adviser. 

But this reminded us of Jerry Maguire.  And why (the fictional character) Maguire (played by Tom Cruise) eventually became successful (again).

In a game of constant deception, players need a trusted adviser away from the tables to help manage their careers.  That‚Äôs where Brian Balsbaugh really sets himself apart.  His effective ‚Äúno comment‚Äù spoke with greater authority on why Balsbaugh has been successful than anything else we discussed.

“That’s an interesting question…”

Balsbaugh started many of his answers with this declaration.  But he seemed to really mean it when we asked him about the potential impact of legislation to ban online poker on the industry.

Brian_balsbaugh1_4‚ÄúThe gaming sites like Party [Poker] are really driving the ad revenue on TV [poker programs].‚Äù Balsbaugh said.  A ‚Äúban of online poker would have a huge impact‚Äù on poker‚Äôs rapid (and continued) growth.  It also could hamper players receiving lucrative endorsement deals with poker sites.

“Obviously, no one wants to see this happen.”

However, players are just realizing how a ban could impact their pocketbooks. 

‚ÄúThey‚Äôre getting it now,‚Äù Balsbaugh said.  ‚ÄúI mean, this is a huge issue.  Whether or not [the legislation] goes through, we‚Äôll see.  But it‚Äôs a major issue for the industry.  Everyone realizes this now.‚Äù

“We’re always looking for new opportunities.”

Regardless of any potential ban on Internet poker, Balsbaugh and his continually growing team (he’s now up to five agents) are finding new ways to make money for their clients.

Currently, Poker Royalty specializes not only in poker player representation (he’s also looking into representing blackjack, uh, rounders as well) but also consulting, event management, licensing and brand development, and television and film representation.  And his corporate client list is just as impressive as his poker clientele, including mega-brands such as eBay, HBO, Morgan Stanley, and Playboy

Having guided Poker Royalty into one of the biggest success stories of the poker boom, Balsbaugh has more than proven his wicked agenting chops.  Simply put, he’ll find new ways to make his clients rich, despite any barriers he may have to bust through to do it. 

For Balsbaugh, timing may have been one thing contributing to his success, but it certainly isn‚Äôt the only thing. 


3 Responses

  1. Billz

    May 27, 2006 2:50 pm, Reply

    bbals is a much better nickname than “the ricky.” then again, maybe i shouldn’t be talking.

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