Brayden Haynes, the CEO of Australian Poker League (APL) parent company Full House Group, speaks with PokerMedia Australia’s Ben Blaschke about the impact of COVID-19 and what the future holds for the local poker scene.
PokerMedia Australia: Thanks for chatting with us Brayden. First of all, can you explain the impact the current COVID-19 shutdown of pubs, clubs and casinos around the country has had on Full House Group?
Brayden Haynes: The Australian Poker League runs about 800 poker tournaments a week across the country. I guess as the government restrictions around the virus were getting stronger on the way down, we knew it was an inevitability that pubs and clubs would be closing and we would need to prepare everyone to be out of work for a little while.
For us, certainly on the way down, we were focused on making sure the venues that still wanted to run and had the right to run poker, that we were supporting them through that process. We were also taking the social distancing measures seriously and had implemented a few things to make sure there was an increased level of safety for the players.
Then as the venues closed our thoughts turned to all of our people who are involved in the network. We have about 30 full-time staff at Full House Group and another 30 licensees that distribute the products all around the country, plus our network of tournament directors and hosts who are also impacted. It has obviously been a pretty stressful time for us and for the whole industry in general.
PMA: How big is that network when you include your tournament directors?
BH: It is probably close to 400 people
PMA: What has the company been doing to support those staff members throughout this pandemic?
BH: We’ve stayed in pretty close contact with the Full House Group staff and the licensees. We’ve had weekly catch-ups with our staff, sometimes more frequently than that.
All staff were stood down but most of our staff are doing a day or two’s work here or there at the moment just to stay in touch and get ready for a relaunch when that happens.
PMA: Before the shutdown it seemed like the APL was chugging along nicely. What were the short-term plans moving forward at that time?
BH: We came off the back of the largest APL Million that had been run in the four years we have run the event, which was quite exciting (the main event attracted a record field of 1,404 players). As we were at the APL Million there was some talk of coronavirus and the fact that it was bubbling away a little bit in the background, but it wasn’t impacting at that point in time.
Certainly the APL Million was a massive success and it had been a really exciting time for live poker in general the past couple of years. Since online poker went down in September 2017 it had really brought the live poker community together, and there had been a resurgence that we had seen in our business and right across the country with many of the other live events that had been running. So the APL Million was a big focus for us.
This year we were also getting ready to launch the APL PT – our poker tour events. We had a new system where players were winning credits into events and they were able to view and access those credits via their online website account. They were also able to transfer them to other players in certain circumstances so we were creating a community and economy that had these poker tour credits and we were really looking forward to running those new events.
PMA: Is it simply a case now of putting all of that on hold or will you have to reconsider the strategy?
BH: It is a little bit too early to tell but certainly those events are on hold for now. There is no doubt they will be returning though. We will be running them at some point but until we are aware of what environment we can operate in it’s a bit difficult to plan for those events at this stage.
We really need to understand what the restrictions are going to be. Pubs and clubs opening is one thing – and I’m sure that will be happening at some stage in the not too distant future – but how they open and what the restrictions are, particularly around social distancing, will be critical to whether or not poker tournaments can operate in venues.
I think it’s going to be pretty difficult if social distancing measures remain similar to what they have been. On the way down there was a restriction of 25 people per 100-square metre room, or one person per four square metres. To run poker in that type of environment is going to be pretty tricky, particularly when you have to maintain that 1.5 metre distance between players as well.
I think it’s important that we wait and see how it plays itself out but the poker tour events will certainly be returning at some point in the future. It’s just a matter of when it is safe for them to operate again.
PMA: Are you still confident of what the long-term future holds?
BH: Definitely, definitely. At the moment we are in the middle of a lockdown period but there is no doubt the live poker scene was thriving and no reason to think we won’t be able to resume that.
I think we do have to be realistic in that when the doors to the venues open, it is not going to be like a tap that we turn on again. A lot of venues will have suffered financially through this and their ability to re-open and resume normal entertainment services might be limited in the early stages. Some venues will probably want to get going straight away and will probably want to start entertainment to attract patrons through their doors. Others are probably going to be more focused on opening the more efficient areas of their business and just trying to rebuild and scale up more slowly.
I’m sure everyone wants to open their doors and have a big party but I just don’t think that is likely. I think we’ll be re-opening venues with social distancing measures in place and that’s going to mean there will be restrictions on operating, which will mean we’ll need to find new ways of running events with those sorts of things in mind.
PMA: Do you see this whole COVID-19 experience changing the Australian poker industry in any way?
BH: Online poker is still an unregulated market and although there are ways and means by which people are enjoying a game of poker at the moment, those methods are ultimately still unregulated, so unless there is regulation in this market I don’t see there being huge changes.
I think the longer the current methods that people are using to play online continue, the more likely it is that restrictions will be put on those and the more likely it is that the governing bodies will take action around the unlawful means with which people are finding a way to play at the moment.
We’re certainly supportive of a regulated online poker market. I think that would be a wonderful thing for the industry. And if there is a regulated online market in Australia it would really help the overall growth of the market – the rising tide floats all boats theory. I think there would be a lot of international and local investment into the community and that would support the industry in general.
Long-term, anticipating a relatively slow rebuild is probably something we need to get used to but I also think there is going to be a great deal of excitement when people can get out and play again. The poker market in Australia is very, very healthy so people will be eager to get out and play when the opportunity arises.
PMA: If online poker was to be regulated in Australia, would the APL want to be involved?
BH: Definitely. If there is a regulated online poker market then APL would certainly be involved in some capacity. That’s something that would appeal to all poker players in Australia.
It’s also something which brings a lot of investment into the market which creates opportunity for a range of different businesses but also for the players, because when there is investment there is more awareness, bigger prize pools and just a healthier industry overall.
A regulated online poker market is something we should be working towards because I do believe it will assist both live and online poker in this country.