Pokerpreneur

With more than $3.6 million in lifetime tournament winnings, Jason Somerville is a titan at the poker table. The 30-year-old scored a World Series of Poker bracelet in 2011, has numerous big scores to his name, and is also a star at the virtual poker felt with more than $2 million in winnings online.

Beyond that, Somerville has set himself apart in a crowded world of vagabond poker pros – heading a growing company focused on his online poker stream platform (in which he comments and narrates his play for a live audience), a busy merchandise sales business, a growing tournament series, and has even recently taken over the online web-streaming presence for events like the Aussie Millions.

As larger companies like the World Poker Tour, WSOP, and PokerStars continue to expand their reach and newcomers like PokerGO reach out for even more poker fans seeking live tournament and cash-game action, Somerville’s RunItUp.tv venture has found a niche as a daily proprietor of poker strategy, entertainment, and a unique brand within the industry.

The expanding entity now brings in millions of viewers online and many of those fans have been converted into customers beyond their laptop screens.

STREAM ON

The growing Somerville phenomenon began a few years ago on YouTube with “Run It Up,” a bankroll challenge series in which he tried to run a certain dollar figure up to an even larger figure over a certain amount of time. The video blog on YouTube was in conjunction with Ultimate Poker, a now-defunct Nevada-based online poker company. When Ultimate folded, Somerville continued with his YouTube broadcasts and eventually found another poker sponsor in PokerStars.

“I was just trying to be entertaining and educational,” he says of those early days.

Those efforts worked and he began to build an audience. When Twitch was bought out by Amazon, the company was directed to look for other non-video game categories and help expand the platform and build the brand. Twitch experimented with categories like music, art, and cooking. Poker was also seen as a potential driver of young viewers.

Somerville’s bankroll challenge seemed like a natural fit, and the company contacted him and set up a trial for three months with certain metrics they hoped his stream would reach.

“We hit those metrics in about nine days and it was a home run from the get-go,” Somerville says. “And I’m taking it very seriously, I dedicated a huge percentage of my life and resources to building this team over the last two years.”

A BRAND IS BORN

Since moving his RunItUp platform to Twitch, Somerville’s brand has grown to be one of the more popular streams on the site. Beyond building his own presence, he also sees Twitch as a way to grow poker to a younger crowd.

“There are so many new players,” he says. “People just see poker as a category on Twitch and when I’m streaming, at my highest numbers we’re getting 10,000 or 20,000 viewers, that puts us in one of the highest categories on Twitch.”

Originally from Long Island, New York, Somerville has become a bit of a poker nomad since the U.S. government closed down Internet poker. Now a state-by-state issue (with online poker only legal in Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware), Somerville has split time between New Jersey and Canada over the last year so he can play and stream online.

RunItUp has even reached No. 1 on Twitch several times – with players from all around the world checking out Somerville’s action.

“You may have no idea who I am, you may never have watched poker before and you go, ‘Wow, 20,000 people are watching this dude, something cool must be going on,’” he says. “The next thing you know you’re hooked watching me play a tourney and you’re like, ‘Wow, I want to learn how to play.’ To me that’s the power of Twitch, that’s the power of RunItUp.tv. We’re touching people that would would otherwise never be touched by poker content – especially in America.”

Somerville says there are always new players dropping in on his stream to check out the action. Twitch skews to younger viewers, many of whom missed the original poker book in the 2000s that propelled the game’s popularity.

“So many of the people who are watching on Twitch are the people who are 18 to 24 years old who never saw the golden days of poker like I saw,” he says. “So bringing them to poker now, they go, ‘What is this?’ You know how many times I have to answer on my stream: ‘What’s the button?’, ‘What’s the blind?’ or ‘Is this real money.’

“That’s how I’ve always seen Twitch generally. We’re building new poker fans, we’re finding players who fell out of love with the game over the last few years find poker again and be like, ‘Wow this is interesting.’”

BEYOND THE TWITCH FELT

In the last few years, RunItUp has grown from merely a Twitch stream to a unique poker brand. His company has undergone a natural progression from beyond merely playing poker for a living, but playing to build the brand. No longer is he reliant on revenue from the felt, instead alternative streams keep RunItUp rolling on.

“It’s like its own small TV network,” he says. “I guess at this point I put in close to 2,500 hours of broadcasting on Twitch, reached just over 25 million visits, and served almost a billion minutes of content served worldwide. Those numbers are absolutely astronomical. I’m pretty sure only the World Series of Poker beats me  for raw numbers – and it’s become a bit of a phenomenon.”

That phenomenon has evolved into RunItUp.tv. The website offers fans a link to the Twitch stream and much more. RIUStats.com offers a complete library of every single session he’s ever played and tracks of your wins and losses. Viewers can watch poker sessions via video on demand.

The system has created a platform that continues to grow and has become much more than just online poker. Along with revenue derived from poker winnings, Twitch also runs its own video ads and Somerville gets a percentage of that ad on his stream. Twitch also allows for advertising for individual streamers and some even have other deals with the company.

Somerville has his own advertisers, but has also expanded to promoting poker tournaments. Many of the deals he strikes with partners include advertising on the stream. That includes casinos like the Peppermill, which hosts the Run It Up Reno, and PokerStars, which hosted a RunItUp event at the New Jersey Festival in Atlantic City. Past deals have also included the daily fantasy sports site DraftKings.

“Obviously I have several different other revenue sources that bring in money, and poker is just  one of the many at this point,” he says. “It’s been rewarding. We just did Run It Up Reno, which we run twice a year. People flew in from Russia, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Germany, Alaska, Hawaii, and all across the U.S. and Canada to play in RunItUp Reno all based off the stream. It’s amazing and just a fragment of the community coming together. And that event has continued to grow since we’ve been doing it the last two or three years.”

The business also sells merchandise and keeping the operation running now involves eight other employees besides Somerville. Two people work full-time on the stream as well as a producer, and a graphic artist. Another employee helps with stats and presentations and a bookkeeper pays invoices and manages accounting. Two employees manage his online store.

“I would say at this point it’s a legitimate small business,” he says. “We’ve sold something like $200,000 worth of T-shirts and hoodies over the last two years, and that’s about the smallest part of the business. So that alone is its own thing. We design the clothes, we manufacture them through a third-party, do all the shipping and handling ourselves. So that is just one portion of the Run It Up business.

“This is my life. I haven’t been a professional poker player in years. I play for fun, I play on the stream a lot, but my primary income is not poker. My primary income is the stream in building it.

EXPANSION, GROWTH, & ACTIVISM

With the growth of RunItUp, Somerville is looking for even more growth. Along with his Reno events, his group also runs RunItUp Calgary in conjunction with the Deepstacks Poker Tour. He also partnered with the Aussie Millions poker tournament earlier this year to lead its multimedia efforts. He  hopes more opportunities are on the horizon.

Poker has been on the upswing over the last year with record turnouts at the World Series of Poker and other major tournaments. New media efforts have capitalized on the demand for more coverage and live action. Video blog efforts by poker pros like Daniel Negreanu and Doug Polk have drawn millions of views, and ESPN’s live coverage of the WSOP throughout the summer was well-received.

The online streaming service PokerGO also debuted this year, offering live coverage of the WSOP, poker documentaries, and offering new tournament coverage including live final tables of the World Poker Tour. The service has even revived popular poker shows like “Poker After Dark” as it attempts to establish a significant number of players willing to pay for more poker.

Somerville finds himself among those leading the game into the future and hoping to attract even more players and fans.

Others in the industry have taken note and see RunItUp’s effects on the game. Phil Hellmuth, winner of 14 World Series of Poker bracelets and author of the new autobiography Poker Brat, has seen the ups and downs of the industry first-hand after more than three decades in the game. A part of the ESPN broadcast crew for the WSOP and new host of the WPT’s “Raw Deal” instructional segment, Hellmuth sees a real poker revival with players like Somerville leading the way.

“I’m proud of Jason, and he’s a good guy,” says Hellmuth. “He is building something, and it’s great for poker.  He is doing things the right way: hard work, good entertainment, great content. Poker is on a big upswing right now: the WSOP being live for 12 days, PokerGo cranking out great content, Twitch and social media poker player stars crushing it, and poker shows returning in full force to television.”

Overall, about 30-40 percent of the RunItUp audience is from the U.S., which works out to about 100,000 to 150,000 unique American viewers, Somerville says. Along with building his platform, he hopes to mobilize an army of poker fans to help change laws at the state and federal level concerning the legalization of online poker.

“Promoting regulated online poker means a lot to me because as an American there’s really no reason we shouldn’t be allowed to play online poker when we can do things like play daily fantasy sports, buy lottery tickets, and bet on horse races and all other number of silly things,” he says. “So I’ve taken that role very seriously as well.”

With poker booming again, Somerville is looking at even more on the horizon.

“I’m trying different configurations of things,” he says. “I want to see what works, and I’m open to trial and error.”

Sean Chaffin is a freelance writer in Crandall, Texas, and writes frequently about gambling and poker. If you have any story ideas, please email him at seanchaffin@sbcglobal.net or follow him @PokerTraditions. His poker book is RAISING THE STAKES: True Tales of Gambling, Wagering & Poker Faces and available on Amazon.com.

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