Woo Interviews Harrah’s Interactive Entertainment CEO Mitch Garber

Written by:
C Costigan
Published on:

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with the CEO of Harrah's new division, Harrah's Interactive Entertainment.  His name is Mitch Garber and if the name rings a bell, it probably should.  For some time he served as CEO of the once largest online poker room, PartyGaming.

JENNY:  You have an impressive resume - tv and radio sportscaster, the Stock Exchange, PartyGaming and now you're the CEO of Harrah's Interactive Entertainment.  How has the transition been over the past 20 years?

MITCH:  It's been interesting to say the least.  I watched land-based gaming go from being strictly Las Vegas and Atlantic City to proliferating and spreading across the U.S. and Canada in the early and mid nineties to the development of Ecommerce in the mid to late nineties and then the spread to licensed internet gaming particularly in the European Union gaining a lot of momentum in recent years.  It's been very evolutionary.  I think you can see it starting in the early nineties with land-based casinos starting to be built in most of the states in the United States, most of the provinces in Canada and all around the European Union; the advent of the internet and how internet gaming has become licensed and operated in the EU in particular.  I think it's an evolutionary growth and expansion process.

JENNY:  What should the industry expect from you and Harrah's Interactive Entertainment in the near future?

MITCH:  I think they should expect a lot of responsible thought leadership and a well-defined strategy with a very long term view.  We view the World Series of Poker as being the strongest brand in poker and being a league at par with other sports leagues.  It was voted the seventh most popular sports league in a leading U.S. survey and we want to maintain and improve on that and at the same time define an interactive strategy that moves with the times and with the regulatory environment as it gets more clearly defined around the world.

JENNY:  What should people expect from Harrah's on the international front?

MITCH:  First of all, I think you have the WSOP that is a land-based tournament that needs to take place in other places outside of the U.S. and the UK.  In order to become a real global tournament, it would be nice to see tournaments in other major cities and countries around the world.  So that's something that I'm going to work on.  And then from an interactive point of view, I think it makes sense that we'll start to develop a strategy in regard to the European Union and once we have that strategy in place we'll certainly be in a position to talk more about it.

JENNY: The WSOPE experienced flat growth in its second year (same number of participants).  Where do you see the European poker market heading over the coming years?  Are there any specific nations that stand to help boost this growth (i.e. Russia maybe)?

MITCH:  First of all, the WSOPE has grown by about sixty eight percent in the second year over the first year.  The main event was flat but the other tournaments that we had overall in the WSOPE increased pretty significantly from year two over year one.  And on your question about where the growth is going from  - I think first of all we need to sort Article 49 in the European Union as well as the individual countries internet gaming frameworks.  That's very important.  After that there's a world of opportunity in relatively untapped markets like Russia, South America and Asia; but we also require legal and regulatory frameworks to be established to be able to operate in those countries and hence the long term view we have.

JENNY: MGM tried and failed to enter the online gambling market in Europe some years back.  What does Harrah's intend to do that is different to avoid a similar fate?  And does having a foothold in Europe already via the World Series of Poker Europe help give Harrah's a much needed edge?

MITCH:  To answer the first part of your question - What Harrahs' is doing is they've brought on an experienced online team and that is a difference from MGM's experience.  I also think it's a different time than it was when MGM made their effort.  At the same time, having the World Series of Poker is going to be of great value provided that we're able to extract that value around the world.  We have very strong ratings with ESPN in the United States; we have very strong ratings around the world whenever it's a World Series of Poker event.  A WSOP bracelet is a WSOP bracelet.  That's what all poker players play for.  We need to capitalize on that; we need to expand the popularity of the World Series of Poker and it's broadcast around the world.  

JENNY: If Harrah's were to partner up with an already existing online poker room, would those currently be doing business in the US be considered or would the focus only be on European brands?

MITCH:  It's fair to say that Harrah's cannot do business with internet gaming companies that face the U.S. today.

JENNY: In regard to the online software, numerous rumors have been going around that Harrah's intends to utilize an already existing online poker network, maybe acquiring another online poker room or simply partnering up with one.  Should we be expecting news on this in the not-so-distant future?

MITCH:  You know to be honest - like I said - we're just defining and exploring our interactive strategy and I can't really be concerned with news flow or rumors.  We announced this deal on May 23rd and what we said was that we were going to explore an interactive strategy and we're still exploring all of the options.

JENNY:  Going back to the topic of online gaming in the U.S. - Where do you see online gaming for the U.S. in the future?  Do you see a middle ground that can be reached with online gaming operators and the U.S. government?

MITCH:  I really think it will happen.  We have a lot of patience to help get it right - meaning take the time that it takes to show people that need to be shown that this can today be effectively regulated, taxed, monitored, that the issues are responsible and underage gaming can be dealt with properly.

JENNY:  Have you received positive feedback with the changes that were made last year with the WSOP final table being delayed until November?  And will WSOP continue this in more years to come?

MITCH:  Anytime you make a major change you're going to have mixed opinions but to be perfectly frank - the feedback has mainly been very positive; ratings were extremely high on ESPN last year; the public got to know the final table participants better and attendance this year - in a terrible economy - was incredible.  We had more participants in all of the events combined than we had last year.  So I think the feedback in this year's attendance and last year's ESPN ratings speak for itself.  The public and the players in large part really appreciated the November 9.

JENNY:  How does it feel that poker is now considered a sport and the extreme attention that's it's gotten over these past years?

MITCH:  Poker is not a phenomenon; it's a great sport; it's a great skill game and I truly believe that it's a skill game.  I think that some of the great professional players have really brought this sport to the attention of the public so that they appreciate what is required to play and win in poker.  Certainly, ESPN has done great things for poker.  By broadcasting the tournaments, they have legitimized the World Series of Poker as being a league and poker as being a sport.  So, by and large to be involved in it at this level feels very good.

JENNY:  Mitch, thank you for taking time to sit down with me for this interview.

MITCH:  You're welcome.


Jenny Woo, Gambling911.com Senior International Correspondent


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