Late last night, I tweeted about how disappointed I was in the potential “November 9” makeup.
To be exact, I said “If Devo, Collins or Lamb don't make ME Final Table, I'll doubt I'll even watch it. #Starpowerisgone #Pokerneedsmarketableplayersattheend
Most of the recognizable names were eliminated on Day 6 and 7 (Erick Lindgren, Allen Cunningham, Eli Elezra, Jean-Robert Bellande, Sorel Mizzi, Aaron Jones, Sami Kelopuro, Tony Hachem, Joseph Cheong, Christian Harder, Peter Feldman, Steve Brecher, David Bach, John Esposito and the heart warming last couple standing of David Sands and Erika Moutinho) and there weren’t any big draws amongst the final 22 players. That isn’t to say that there aren’t great players remaining or that they don’t each have a compelling story to tell. Certainly Ben Lamb is a great story as the current Player of the Year points leader after a tremendous series, but who in the general public had heard of Ben Lamb before this year. No disrespect to any of the remaining players, but if our collective goal is to grow poker, then having a final table of previous unknowns doesn’t help our cause. While I’m happy for them, I’m sad for poker as a whole.
In these distressing times with uncertain legislative support for online poker, we want as many eyeballs witnessing our game. We want as much of the general public to embrace and support our efforts to return online poker, and poker in general to its rightful place in the United States. I appreciate that a couple people responded last night that there were good players and potentially good stories to come out of the remaining players. I even liked the one suggestion of creating 30 minute bio shows of all nine players. Although I doubt that would ever fly, maybe a one hour preview show giving background on all nine might. But bottom line, I don’t think you can take nine unknowns and sell them to the public beforehand. To me it is not enough that hardcore fans are passionate about the game it has to appeal to the casual fan or those who aren’t even fans.
The WSOP Main Event is our Super Bowl and we want it to be seen by as many people as possible. Tweaking the presentation and schedule can help incrementally, but having star power makes a bigger difference.
It’s well established that celebrity sells. If you look at pro sports, the biggest franchises (i.e. Yankees/RedSox, Boston/Lakers, Cowboys/Steelers) always pull the biggest ratings. The biggest individual stars always increase ratings (i.e. Tom Brady/Manning, Lebron/Wade, Jeter/Rodriguez/Pujols). When big poker stars like Ivey, Dwan, Brunson, Hansen, Antonius, Seidel, and Ferguson don’t go far, it hurts poker. When Negreanu, Hellmuth, Lindgren, Cunningham and Elezra go far, but miss making the November 9, it hurts poker. It’s not that you need a table full of poker celebrities, but the overall viewing experienced is enriched by having the magnetism and personality of an established star. Even one of the large crop of online whiz kids that are taking over in the live tournament world would bring their own following and personality. Each has seen the bright lights before and realizes that poker is more than just playing well. It is a performance. When poker is on TV, it is entertainment.
Those in the know realize the variance of tournament poker. Those in the know realize that no matter how well you play you need considerable luck to get through a field of 6,865 players. But those not in the know are confused when no recognizable top player can make the final table. It undermines the credibility of the game when every player at the end has never made it there before. It takes away from the image of the game if previous winners can’t get back there again. Where are the dynasties? Where are the power franchises? Where are the great stars exhibiting their dominating ways?
If our collective goal is to grow the popularity of poker, then we naturally want some of the games bigger names to participate. It both legitimizes the Main Event as the biggest stage of poker and draws people in for the charisma and appeal of poker’s bigger names.
Each year, ESPN and the WSOP tweak the TV coverage and schedule of the tournaments with one goal in mind. They want to improve the Nielsen ratings. Having more players and rake is appreciated and a sign of a positive poker economy, but increased ratings and improved demographics translate directly into much more money for themselves and poker in general. Historically, TV poker hasn’t been a big relative draw. The ratings for the WSOP have never been huge.
ESPN has covered the World Series of Poker for many years. In fact, ESPN has a deal to air the WSOP through 2017. Each year since the Moneymaker boom of 2003, they have made adjustments to try to improve the ratings. Some of the biggest changes arrived in 2008, after a down year in ratings when Jerry Yang won. ESPN and the WSOP decided to delay the final table play out four months until November so that people wouldn’t know in advance of the close-to-live TV coverage who won. They shifted the final table venue to the more dramatic and larger venue of the Penn & Teller Theater at the Rio. The Nielsen ratings for the Peter Eastgate win improved 46% over 2007 for the final table to 2.4 million viewers (1.9 Nielsen rating). The 2009 WSOP coverage improved 7-9% with Phil Ivey joining the Joe Cada-won final table, but drifted badly in 2010 when Jonathan Duhamel won.
For the 2011 WSOP, long time production partner Poker 411 was replaced by Poker PROductions, who produce many of the made for TV poker shows like High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark. A more professional and sophisticated featured table was created with “the mothership” design. New announcers and 30 min. delayed live ESPN2 and ESPN3.com streaming coverage was initiated to give more immediate coverage and help “get younger.” On ESPN, regular coverage will be limited to the $50k Player’s Championship and expanded coverage of the Main Event to focus on the two marquee events with the greatest concentration of big names, celebrity and drama.
Examining the final 14 players in the Main Event, there are five players from USA, and one each from the Ukraine, Ireland, Costa Rica, Germany, S.Africa, United Kingdom, Czech, Canada and Belize. The one positive might be that the international draw and appeal could increase, but none of those players are established stars in their respective countries yet.
Given the choice, every fan would construct their own ideal final table made up of their favorite players. I know mine would include many of my poker pro friends in the poker world. But in a desire to appeal to the widest demographic, I feel strongly that televised poker and thus the overall image in the general public’s eye will continue to struggle when established charismatic stars don’t make the final table of our greatest tournament.