Agent Profile: Brian Balsbaugh (poker agent)
by Jason Wulterkens
One agentâ€™s career change is a lesson for all would-be sports agents: donâ€™t be afraid of risk.
Some would call it an epiphany. For Brian Balsbaugh, it was the greatest risk he had ever taken.
Balsbaugh, a graduate of the Indiana University School of Law in Bloomington and now 34, found himself toiling for Chris Murrayâ€™s Champlin, MN-based Imani Sports, arguing on the phone with potential sponsors over how much air time, to the second, their brand name or image would be featured on his clients’ golf shirts. Disturbed by what he considered to be a dismal futureâ€”â€œI was destined to be a middle-of-the-road golf agent,â€ he later confessedâ€”Balsbaughâ€™s moment of truth came one weekend afternoon at home in front of his television. You know, the place where most great ideas hit men.
â€œSo I’m watching the 2003 World Series of Poker (WSOP) on TV – and I didn’t even play poker – but that’s when the exact idea hit me that these guys need agents. Here are six or nine guys sitting around a table wearing hats and shirts with logos on them, and the camera can’t go anywhere but on their hats and shirts. It just… something clicked in my mind.â€ Balsbaugh decided then and there to quit his job at Imani and to risk his life savings, along with his personal and professional livelihood, on this abrupt career gamble. â€œI want to represent poker players,â€ he boldly announced the next morning in the kitchen. â€œDo you even play poker?â€ his nine-month pregnant wife Nicole responded.
He didnâ€™t, but Balsbaugh knew a calculated risk when he saw it. And as the song says, youâ€™ve got to know when to hold â€˜em and know when to fold â€˜em. Balsbaugh decided to go all in. He immediately began working the phones, calling poker players and the World Poker Tour (WPT). Though not experienced in poker per se, Balsbaugh was somewhat old hat when it came to sports representation. Marketing, networking, negotiatingâ€”Balsbaugh found all of these skills to be easily transferable, no matter whether it was in the poker or the golf industry. His big break came quickly. Despite the fact that poker players didnâ€™t traditionally have agents, Balbsaugh sold Daniel Negreanu, one of the most familiar faces in poker and the then-youngest WSOP bracelet winner in history, on the concept over dinner at swanky Palomino restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. Negreanu later introduced Balsbaugh to some of his friends, including Erik Lindgren, who later went on to win the 2004 World Poker Tour Player of the Year award. After signing Negreanu, Balsbaugh moved his business operations from Minnesota to Las Vegas, minutes from the Strip, where he formally formed Poker Royalty, LLC in late 2003, the countryâ€™s first poker player management agency. Soon after, even more players came aboard.
Balsbaughâ€™s company now boasts an entire team of agents, advisors and consultants, and represents close to two dozen clients, most of whom are considered to be some of the best players in the world. According to Poker Royaltyâ€™s website, appearance fees for said clients can range anywhere from $7,500 to $50,000, depending on the nature of the event. Balsbaugh has also negotiated deals with video game companies to use his poker playersâ€™ â€œlikenessâ€. Almost 70 percent of the revenues he generates for his players still come from poker-related concerns, and these revenues became even more stable as of 2005, when the WPT finally established clear guidelines regarding the wearing of sponsorship and corporate logos. However, the other 30 percent of revenues are evidence of just how popular the game has become. For example, some of Balsbaughâ€™s clients now even have deals with Knob Creek and Diet Pepsi. Additionally, the scope of Balbaughâ€™s enterprise, and moreover his entire business model, has expanded as well. Poker Royalty now specializes not only in poker player representation but also in 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.
Whatâ€™s the lesson in all of this? Follow your dreams? Listen to that voice that interrupts your Saturday afternoon nap? Yes and yes. But moreover, Balsbaugh is testament to the theory that a calculated risk, if done at the precise right moment in time, is in fact not much of a risk at all. Rather, itâ€™s as close to a sure thing as you will ever see. Letâ€™s consider. Balsbaugh founded his agency when no other poker agents or poker management companies existed. He also did so concurrent with pokerâ€™s previously unforeseen boon in popularity. According to the New York Times, roughly one-in-five people in the United States play poker, and there are 150 million players worldwide. And over the past few years, the popularity of poker â€“ specifically Texas Hold’em â€“ has ballooned nation-wide thanks to increasing television coverage and ratings. Thus, by the time Balsbaughâ€™s epiphany turned reality in 2004, â€œthe World Series of Poker 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,â€ Balsbaugh said. â€œSoon enough, companies were calling me about my players.â€
Back in 2003, sitting on his couch, you may have told Balsbaugh that his plan to represent poker players was foolish, and that heâ€™d be crazy to risk so much on one idea, on one hand, when nothing but uncertainty loomed ahead. But sometimes one hand is all you need. And sometimes, the greatest risk is not taking one.
Note: Quotations and other information referenced from Gamblin’ Man – An article written by John Gonzalez for SPIRIT, Southwest Airlines Magazine (April 2006).