|April 20, 2005
In 2001, while doing a search for poker on TVguide.com, I read with glee that the 1997 World Series of Poker (WSOP) would be broadcast one afternoon on ESPN2. It was an hour-long show, which I knew I had to tape, for poker was seldom seen on TV.
Now poker is on TV pretty much every day, with poker shows raking in solid ratings even though the events are seldom seen live. ESPN has gotten into the shuffle by greatly expanding poker coverage over the past two years; the WSOP grew from an hour-long special to a multi-week extravaganza. On top of this, ESPN now covers the U.S. Poker Championship and just concluded its original series Tilt, both of which brought in good ratings. ESPN has clearly capitalized by meeting viewer demand for poker shows, and looks to do so for many years to come.
Recently I had the chance to speak with Ms. Keri Potts, publicist for poker at ESPN, about poker past, present, and future at the network.
Not New. While it may seem like poker on ESPN is new, poker has actually been televised for 14 years on the network. According to Ms. Potts, the network has aired a variety of poker shows since 1991, and since 1994 has broadcast coverage from the WSOP. Seeing interest in poker rise, ESPN decided to bring the program in-house and produce it under the ESPN banner, signing a multi-year agreement with Binionís, the casino where the World Series was played.
In 2003, ESPN produced a 7-part series that aired in the late summer through early fall, covering the main event where viewers followed Chris Moneymaker on his road to the WSOP championship. Ratings were huge, so ESPN decided to increase the production the following year, creating a 22-hour special. This gave TV time to the many other events at the WSOP that do not get as much publicity. While the main event champion wins the "big one," there are in fact many other championship bracelets given out at the WSOP in games such as Omaha, seven card stud, Razz, etc. Knowing that there is interest in different variants of poker, ESPN added coverage of these events, so that in 2004, 12 episodes were devoted to games prior to the main event.
Expanding More. While 22 hours seems a lot for an event that took place weeks before it was broadcast, the ratings for the WSOP coverage were very strong last year. ESPN decided to increase its coverage even more this season, adding 10 hours to the WSOP.
Ms. Potts stated that this yearís 32 hours of coverage are to begin in July. The WSOP has now expanded to include five circuit tournaments leading up to the main tournament. ESPN is already filming these circuit tournaments. Coverage from these events (held in January through April) will be broadcast first, with coverage from the events at the actual World Series coming this fall. This year, play will take place at the Rio Casino, with the final 27 players from the main event being moved to Binionís. The WSOP will also start later, in June, with the main event scheduled to begin July 7th.
The WSOP coverage will also include a special "Tournament of Champions" this year. This began last year, with players in this tournament selected as the best in the game by their peers. This year (and in years to come), the event will be based on performance at other events during the year. Players will accumulate points, similar to the Nextel (formerly Winston) Cup of stock car racing, with the top 10 players participating in the Tournament of Champions No-Limit Holdem Tournament. (The winner of the WSOP main event will get an automatic entry.)
With coverage of the WSOP circuit events starting in July, the news is great for fans of TV poker. The bottom line? ESPN will deal up original poker content every week from July through November.
In addition to covering the World Series, Ms. Potts stated, ESPN reached a multi-year agreement to broadcast the U.S. Poker Championship. This was taped last fall at the Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City, and broadcast in March in six one-hour shows. Ms. Potts said that ratings were solid, pulling in a one share. (Meaning 1% of all televisions were tuned in at that time to ESPN.) This continues to be re-broadcasted.
Ms. Potts also said that the network was pleased with the show Tilt and that viewers tuned steadily. "Tilt did very well for us, especially the night it was on." She said it had "very consistent" ratings, and in the key demographic of men ages 18-34, Tilt brought in ratings that were up 146% from the program that had previously been broadcast in the time slot.
A Big Production. Due to the nature of poker tournaments, it is difficult to broadcast events live. Because of that, when creating a one-hour program, editors have to choose what makes the most interesting hands. Ms. Potts stated that every hand is logged over the course of the tournaments, so that at the conclusion, ESPN will have thousands of hours of tape. Then editors will be able to choose the most interesting hands to broadcast. Doing this is an incredible effort, but creates a polished final product for the viewer.
ESPN will also continue the hole camera coverage, allowing viewers to see the cards players hold. The "nuts" segment will also return. At this time, Ms. Potts said she was not sure what might be added; there may be more commentary and enhancement, but nothing of what made the show successful the past two years will be taken out. According to Ms. Potts: "You donít mess with something thatís successful, you just enhance it."
Poker will be a mainstay of ESPN for quite some time. 2005 will be pokerís biggest year yet on ESPN, so get your Tivo or VCR ready: Itís going to be one fun summer and fall.
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|Paul Kammen is an avid low-stakes poker player from the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He has played regularly at the Canterbury Card Club since it opened in 2000, playing primarily in low stakes Stud and Holdem games. Since then, he has played at various other casinos in Minnesota and Las Vegas, and also plays regularly at the low-stakes tables on PokerStars. He is the author of two books on poker, How To Beat Low-Limit 7-Card Stud Poker (2003, Cardoza Publishing) and How To Beat Seven Card Stud Eight-or-Better (also available at ebookmall.com) and available soon in print.