If you haven’t heard, ESPN has decided to cover just three events aside from the Main Event this year, and two of those aren’t bracelet events. There will be a couple of hours devoted to that “WSOP Champions Invitational,” a couple more showing the “Ante Up for Africa Celebrity-Charity Event,” then two hours showing Event No. 4, the $40,000 buy-in “Special 40th Annual No-Limit Hold’em” event. The remaining 26 hours will all be covering the Main Event.
Negreanu expressed regret that ESPN will not be covering the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. (which he helped create). He noted how in 2006, the inaugural year for the event, the final table was played as no-limit hold’em. A few complained about that endgame switch -- I seem to remember doing some whimpering on here about that, too -- and so in the following year it was decided to keep it H.O.R.S.E. to the end. Negreanu believes that’s why ESPN has chosen not to cover the event this year -- that is, because Omaha/8 and the stud games don’t play well on TV -- and he is probably right.
Obviously there has been a move away from showing non-hold’em events, generally speaking. In fact, ESPN’s coverage of the WSOP over the last few years has been the only place where one can see non-hold’em events, so it’s too bad (for some of us, anyway) that we’ve now come back to all-hold’em-all-of-the-time when it comes to the WSOP.
But what we’re also seeing this year is not just a move away from non-hold’em events, but from the entire preliminary “season” altogether. Just one bracelet event! In other words, ESPN seems to have decided to go back to 2003 (and before), when the Main Event was the World Series of Poker.
Various factors are often discussed to explain the “boom” which so markedly changed both the WSOP in particular and poker’s popularity, generally speaking. The 1998 film Rounders, starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton, is usually cited by a lot of players as having been an introduction of sorts to the game of Texas hold’em. It was also 1998 when the first online poker site, Planet Poker, began dealing real money games. Would take a while for the online game to gather momentum, but within a few years both PartyPoker and PokerStars would be attracting players in significant numbers.
In 1999, Late Night Poker debuted in the U.K.. Its use of under-the-table cameras to show players’ hole cards helped change the way poker was shown on TV. In 2002, the World Poker Tour started filming its first final tables, using the “lipstick” or “hole card” cameras, and when the WPT show debuted on the Travel Channel in the spring of 2003, it was a hit right away.
By the late summer of 2003, when ESPN began showing its seven one-hour programs devoted to the 2003 WSOP Main Event, all of the various factors were in place to help create the “boom.” And lighting the fuse was the terrific “reality TV” plot of the amateur Chris Moneymaker, the Tennessee accountant who qualified for the ME via a $40 satellite on PokerStars, and who improbably took the sucker down.
In terms of poker on television, it has never been as good as ESPN’s coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker. Of all the factors that contributed to the “boom,” I’d cite those seven one-hour programs, shown on Tuesday nights during August and September (as I recall), as the most influential.
In 2004, ESPN decided to expand its coverage of the WSOP from seven to 22 hours, with the majority of those hours being devoted to preliminary events. While nine hours went to showing Greg Raymer’s run through 2,576 total entrants to win the Main Event, there were 13 hours devoted to 13 different preliminary events.
And they showed everything -- not just no-limit hold’em. Four of those 13 hours covered four different preliminary NLHE events. There was coverage of pot-limit hold’em and limit hold’em events. Two different seven-card stud event final tables were shown, as well as two different pot-limit Omaha final tables. The razz event which T.J. Cloutier won was shown, as was the no-limit 2-7 Draw event won by Barry Greenstein. They even showed the final table of the ladies’ event that year.
ESPN’s interest in preliminary events continued in 2005. The overall coverage expanded to 32 hours that year, with the first six hours covering WSOP Circuit events. Then one-hour shows covering 14 different preliminary events were aired. They got rid of razz, no-limit 2-7 draw, and the ladies’ event, and stuck mainly with hold’em, save a couple of PLO events and one seven-card stud. Then they gave 12 hours to the Main Event.
Now, after a few more years of tinkering, ESPN has moved back to where it was before, with the focus almost entirely being on the Main Event.
Here’s how the hours of coverage of preliminary bracelet events & the Main Event compare. The chart doesn’t include coverage non-bracelet events like the WSOP Circuit events, the Tournament of Champions, etc. Also, the chart is only referring to broadcasts on the ESPN network, not the pay-per-view final tables or streaming web ESPN360 stuff:
For those of us who are poker players/fans, we certainly would like to go back to 2004-05 and see more preliminary events. And something other than no-limit hold’em.
But I think ESPN would like to go back to 2003 and somehow reignite that boom.
“What story do you think they [ESPN] prefer to tell, if they could script it themselves?” asked Johnson of Negreanu on the Two Plus Two Pokercast. “The ‘Chris Moneymaker any man can win a million dollars’ story, or ‘this is a skill game, and we want to see the big name pro players playing at final tables’? What story do you think they prefer to see?”
“I think that’s pretty clear,” answered Negreanu. “The Cinderella story has sort of been done. It’s done almost every single year because of the size of the Main Event. It’s just more compelling drama when you have players that you already have a genuine rooting interest for [being shown]. When guys like Hellmuth and Matusow make a deep run, that’s going to help the ratings.... The way it used to be, [there were] seven pros and one Cinderella, but these days it’s more like seven Cinderallas and a guy you might have heard of and, oh, that guy who won an online tournament.”
Negreanu’s implication is that ratings go down when audiences don’t recognize the players. Which makes sense. And also perhaps helps explain why ESPN would want to show even more of the Main Event leading up to the November Nine. By showing so many hours, they guarantee themselves the ability to show those familiar “name pros,” but they also are better able to try to highlight (and perhaps make stars of) the unknown players who eventually make it deep in the event.
I don’t think ESPN necessarily doesn’t want a “Cinderella story.” Indeed, as Negreanu implies, they are probably going to get one, whether they want it or not. They just want whatever story is going to make the most people watch.