The online poker industry and the NFL could look a lot different today if only a series of events that nearly transpired almost a decade ago hadn’t been squashed. Until now, no one knew that the popular NFL sports team, the New Orleans Saints, could have been owned by PokerStars. Thanks to the trickling of information divulged by one former employee of the world’s largest online poker site, we now know what could have been.
Anyone with a vested interest in the online poker industry has probably heard the name Nolan Dalla. He is a longtime poker player and author, the current Director of Media Relations for the World Series of Poker, and before the UIGEA went into effect, he was the Director of Communications for PokerStars under the watchful eye of Isai Scheinberg. According to Dalla, there was once a plan on the table for PokerStars to put in a bid for the New Orleans Saints football team. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
Take a step back in time to 2005, before the UIGEA was enacted; back when hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana, all-but obliterating the entire city of New Orleans. The Saints were a washed up team that finished with a 3-13 record that year, forced to play all of their games out of state due to the destruction of their home turf, the Super Dome. Despite a hefty fan base, it was thought that there simply wouldn’t be enough money to rebuild the stadium when the local populous was suffering so badly. There were talks of owner Tom Benson selling the franchise in 2006 in a move that could have led the team out of state. That’s where PokerStars almost came into play.
Nolan Dalla admitted that he was personally responsible for drafting the proposal to make a bid for the NFL team. PokerStars was to offer $600 million for the New Orleans Saints along with a promise to keep the team at home in New Orleans. He knew full well that the bid could cause major controversy within the National Football League, but even a refusal to sell to an offshore online poker company could have been great press for the PokerStars brand.
“Our offer would be the lead story on ESPN’s SportsCenter — watched nightly by the coveted sweet spot consisting of 18-35 year old males,” said Dalla. “We’d make the talking heads shows. I suspect it would even make mainstream news and expose us to an audience that didn’t know online poker even existed. It certainly would have been a front page story in the Wall Street Journal.”
PokerStars was just the #2 online poker site in the world at that time and could have greatly benefited from the publicity. However, when Dalla’s proposal to bid for the New Orleans Saints hit Isai Scheinberg’s desk, the former CEO chose to pass on the opportunity. Dalla said that only Scheinberg knows why he decided to forgo such an offer, but speculated that, “There was always the risk that with more scrutiny aimed our direction, we might become targets.”