Texas Tech University

Newly Hired Rawls College Leader Founded the World Poker Tour

April 19, 2024

Newly Hired Rawls College Leader Founded the World Poker Tour

Steve Lipscomb will use his expertise to expand the Alderson & Griffin Center for Family Business & Entrepreneurship as its executive director.

Steve Lipscomb wants his students at Texas Tech University's Jerry S. Rawls College of Business to understand it's not often a business comes together according to plan. 

He knows success stories like that can seem unrealistic, but from his experience creating the World Poker Tour (WPT) in the early 2000s, it can happen – and fast. 

“The first three to five years played exactly as I had pitched to our investors,” Lipscomb recalled. “I told them we were going to make this into a televised sport and people were going to flock to it.”

Lipscomb remembers it was like riding a wave as he juggled the titles of CEO, promoter, writer, producer and director, determined to transform poker into a televised mainstream sport. As he gained his balance and began to enjoy the view, he became a huge believer in the art of doing – an endurance race he still enjoys today. 

Steve Lipscomb
Steve Lipscomb

Lipscomb will not only practice this work ethic, but also will strive to “create and iterate” as the newly hired executive director for the Alderson & Griffin Center for Family Business & Entrepreneurship. The center provides innovative networking opportunities, insightful educational forums and discussions, relevant academic programs and applied research to a wide range of entrepreneurs including emerging leaders, successors, senior generations, students and key nonfamily executives.

“The center is an important addition to the fertile ground we are seeding at Rawls and Texas Tech to encourage students, faculty and our community to help us build the futures we all desire,” said Rawls College Dean Margaret L. Williams. “We are excited to have Mr. Lipscomb join our exceptional faculty as an associate practice professor and look forward to benefiting from his years of experience building, advising and shaping successful public and private ventures.”

The Alderson & Griffin Center for Family Business & Entrepreneurship is strategically positioned at the intersection of corporate enterprise, entrepreneurial innovation and academic research. Lipscomb is “all in” to further elevate its collective creation, progress and understanding.

“I think nobody knows what you're capable of more than you do,” he said. “The center will be a place where people can discover what that means for them.”

Taking a Gamble

In Lipscomb's case, the more he was told the WPT would never work, the more he knew it would. 

There was a time when The New Yorker magazine even weighed in on the WPT phenomenon with a cartoon that jokingly questioned why poker was featured on the Travel Channel. Lipscomb shares in the same bewilderment about his own life path, having earned a Doctor of Jurisprudence from University of Chicago Law School with the intent to become a lawyer. 

While he enjoyed law school and thrived there, the Tennessee native found himself equally intrigued by the classes and performances he participated in at The Second City, a comedy club/theater and school of improvisation in Chicago. Post graduation, he moved to Los Angeles and quickly realized his law firm work was just a way to support his entertainment habit. 

“It was pretty clear in my mind that I was headed do some sort of crazy showbiz stuff,” he said. 

Battle for Minds set
"Battle for the Minds" set

His first film venture was a documentary chronicling changes in the Southern Baptist Convention and its impact on women pastors. The film performed well at festivals, won numerous awards and garnered the attention of Hollywood producers and screenwriters like Al Burton and Norman Lear. 

That opened the door for Lipscomb to begin producing television with them and others. While on hiatus from producing a show for Comedy Central, Lipscomb had the opportunity to produce and direct a one-hour documentary about poker to air on the Discovery Channel. He accepted and quickly became intrigued about the poker world. 

“I witnessed this remarkable, but very small community of people playing poker for a living,” Lipscomb said. “When that one-hour documentary aired, it doubled its audience in an hour with no promotion. Very clearly, there was an audience who wanted to watch poker.”

Poker table with talent
Poker table with talent.

Lipscomb pitched “poker as a sport” to every network he could find focused on sports or reality programming but was turned down flat. 

“They thought I was nuts,” he recalled, “which turned out to be the best “bad beat” of my life. When they said ‘no,' I quickly managed to raise money and launched the World Poker Tour as the first poker sports league on the planet.”

At first, it was a challenge for Lipscomb to figure out how to make a card game appear exciting and digestible to viewers who are not poker aficionados. He described this trial-and-error process as a post-production tangled mess that took eight months to unravel. 

The solution involved 16 cameras with angles that showed the cards not too little or too much, paired with custom-built graphics that popped out when players looked at their cards and disappeared when they folded. This enabled viewers to comprehend the game even while on mute or in a bar.  

“We did testing in Las Vegas that helped the network understand people were not just interested in fluffy pieces about casinos,” Lipscomb explained. “They wanted to watch the poker.”

Sure enough, once the WPT began airing in 2003, all doubts about Lipscomb's creation were crushed by numbers. Almost immediately on the Travel Channel, they had a household rating of 1.5-2% – comparable to National Basketball Association games at the time. 

Publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Inc. Magazine featured Lipscomb and his WPT success story on their front pages and covers as the show continued to skyrocket in popularity. 

Hollywood ReporterInc Magazine CoverCard PlayerWall Street Journal

Just one year later, Lipscomb and his executive team looked up in awe at the Nasdaq billboard in Times Square after ringing the bell to take WPT Enterprises, Inc. public. From that point forward, he progressively removed many of his early WPT hats, one by one, to focus on the company's growth as its president and CEO.

“The world changed and I sort of found what I would call ‘my jam,' which was the excitement of building something from nothing and scaling every vertical we could find,” he said, “from consumer products to electronic video games and other categories.”

No Bluff Business

Looking back, Lipscomb considers the WPT as his business school of sorts as he worked to transform a television show into a global sports/gaming brand.

“We had an incredible team that didn't say ‘no' a lot,” he credited. “We found ways to say ‘yes' to build things that worked, and when they didn't work, we got better and better at moving on quickly.”

Going public - outside NASDAQGoing public - toast

He and his teammates created award-winning consumer products, marketing partnerships and brand-building verticals; while, at the same time, seeding and launching numerous businesses, including the world's first poker talent management company, the first televised card tour in China's history and a popular mobile phone game. 

By 2009, Lipscomb was approached by multiple companies interested in purchasing the WPT. After carefully analyzing the hand in front of them, he and the board decided it was time to cash in those chips. 

“The acquirer was an online gaming group in the market segment that was making most of the money at the time,” he said. “I was not interested in staying onboard, so I walked off into the sunset to find the next thing.”

After his WPT chapter closed, Lipscomb felt empowered by the business knowledge he absorbed from the experience. He remained CEO of the publicly traded shell company and merged it to expand an existing energy company, quadrupling the stock price. He then became CEO of the spinoff company to oversee a private placement memorandum and the monetization of leftover WPT assets, which produced more than $25 million for the new company to deploy in the domestic oil and gas industry.

“Once I handed off management of the two spinoff public companies, I blissfully worked myself out of a job,” he said. “I planned to spend the rest of my time trying to help people build stuff to make the world a better place.”

Lipscomb formed Practicrats, LLC to chase this passion by working with corporations, sports leagues and foundations to build businesses. He is founder/board chair of Gamers.Vote which partners with gamers, influencers and companies to encourage voter participation, as well as GamersAct.org, inspiring gamers to address climate change. He also spent a decade as managing director of FixItAmerica.org which supported bi-partisan resolutions in state legislatures. 

As part of those initiatives, he attended the EarthX conference in Dallas last year where a government official inspired him and other private enterprises to aim toward a more sustainable future. 

“I walked away from there thinking I needed to find a way to do more,” he admitted.

A few conversations later, he learned about the job posting for the Alderson & Griffin Center for Family Business & Entrepreneurship and felt what he describes as a “Star Wars” tractor beam drawing him to the position. 

He is convinced the work being done at Texas Tech can change the world, and this belief only strengthened after his visit to campus. 

“The sort of visionary people like Dean Williams and the leadership at Texas Tech pulled me in,” he said. “I think we have lofty goals, and I say ‘we' because I feel like nothing gets done by an individual. It's always done with people, so to join that community and find a way to try to help it grow and flourish is exciting to me.”

Lipscomb officially began his Rawls College role April 11. He plans to teach one class a semester beginning in the fall, but the Alderson & Griffin Center for Family Business & Entrepreneurship activities will begin immediately and include the ongoing McCoy Family Business Speaker Series.  

“There are great minds here and great things happening,” he said. “I think there's never been a better time, with all of the resources around us, for people to join together and do amazing things. That's what this opportunity means to me.”

Lipscomb laughs as he discloses he would have never imagined jumping up and down to participate in a business school program a year ago. But he says that is the beauty of his remarkably blessed and wonderful journey. 

“I find in life it's always better to pick a path and start walking,” he shared. “If you had told me when I made my first social issue documentary about religious faith that I was going to be the poker guy, I would have told you that was crazy. But that's the way life works, I think. 

“And I certainly encourage everyone around me to do the same. So, if you have something in you that just won't be quiet – something you feel like you need to build – please come and join us.”

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