Saturday, July 16, 2011

The WSOP November 9 Has Much Less to Play for in 2011

n9_2-300x172.jpg (300×172)                                                                                         While some names were recognizable, the majority remained unfamiliar even following their final table appearance. In 2008 the winner of the event was Peter Eastgate who beat the likes of Denis Phillips and Ivan Demidov to capture the title. Many avid poker viewers will know their names but it’s unlikely anyone except true poker die-hards would remember the names Darus Suharto or Kelly Kim who were also at that table. Ratings for ESPN were o.k. but certainly not what the broadcasters had hoped for. And because it was aired the day following, most people already knew the winner, so the suspense was gone. Ratings in 2009 and 2010 weren’t any better even though ESPN moved up the broadcast in hopes that people wouldn’t know the winner so would tune in. Unfortunately for ESPN it seemed the only people really interested in the final table were families and friends of the contestants or those who had a bet on it. And even poker fans that followed the WSOP often lost interest as a result of the 4 month delay. Nevertheless, ESPN wasn’t too upset because they were able to rake in a fair bit in advertising revenue, particularly from the likes of PokerStars and Full Tilt.
Some of the professionals at the WSOP were disgusted by the delay and made no bones about it. In fact Jeff Shulman, who is the editor of a major poker magazine and was one of the finalists at the 2009 table, threatened to throw away his bracelet if he won it. Shulman argued that the WSOP was becoming far too commercialized and the WSOP organizers were damaging the game with their decisions, including the decision to delay the final table for four months.
While some players like Shulman and Ylon Schwartz in the year prior condemned the WSOP for the delay, other players loved it for a different reason. There were always a couple of professionals at the final table who would benefit by wearing poker paraphernalia from companies who sponsored them, but the majority of players were usually no names who won a satellite to get in. As a result they often had no sponsorship deals and usually agreed to a quick deal with PokerStars or Full Tilt in exchange for wearing the poker sites’ garb at the final table. The 4 month delay allowed those players to hire agents and work out more lucrative deals with one of the poker companies. The time off also provided those players the opportunity to get some professional guidance at a poker school, another reason why many of the pros were upset with the decision for the delay.
In fact, endorsement deals were one of the main reasons a lot of player who normally wouldn’t play at the WSOP agreed to pony up thousands of dollars to play. When they looked at Chris Moneymaker, Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem, all decent players who won a WSOP, they envisioned themselves. Each of those players was paid millions to represent PokerStars after their WSOP win despite the fact that none of them were outstanding professionals and household names prior to winning the tournament. And furthermore, many would argue that Chris Moneymaker really isn’t that good a poker player and just got lucky. So if someone like Moneymaker can make millions despite being mediocre, why couldn’t it happen to them too?
Everything seemed to be going according to plan for 2011 until Black Friday. On that day, the FBI seized 10 websites including PokerStars, Full Tilt and Cereus and American citizens were immediately cut off from those websites. Cereus effectively shut down and Full Tilt is in limbo after Alderney, a small country in the British Isles which holds the company’s license, put them on suspension pending a review. And PokerStars, while still catering to the non-U.S. market has seen its traffic dwindle to a fraction of its former self.  Not surprisingly the results have been evident at this year’s tournament. From all accounts by people currently at the tournament, poker related patches, tee shirts or hats are few and far between and even Tom Dwan did not wear any Full Tilt paraphernalia despite the fact he hasn’t officially quit team Full Tilt. That’s not the least bit surprising since Full Tilt could no longer afford to pay the professionals. As for PokerStars, their website now only displays (Moneymaker, Hachem, Daniel Negreanu, Vanessa Rousso, Jonathan Duhamel, Bertrand Grospellier and Viktor Blom); all who fill a niche in representing certain markets and the rest of the people on the site are “friends of PokerStars.” Needless to say that figure of 7 pros is way down from the former number the company once sponsored and it’s highly unlikely PokerStars will have any interest in sponsoring anyone at this year’s final table.  So for the November 9 there is likely much less riding on this year’s victory than in the past.
The question that has to be asked then is why do they want to wait until November to finish this thing? Clearly the main reason for putting off the tournament for 4 months hasn’t worked as hoped and even the plan to use hole card cameras in the live product this year won’t generate much additional interest. ESPN, who stood to make millions from poker site commercials during the broadcast, will probably find it hard now to sell the spots and American players who were expecting to get rich from endorsement deals won’t generate anything unless they can get small deals from Bodog or similar sites catering to U.S. players. And even European or Asian players probably won’t get endorsement deals since it’s been apparent in the past that Party Poker and other Euro based sites don’t bother with the WSOP. Those sites have found better value sponsoring players at European and Asian based tournaments.
The November 9 was a good idea on paper, but after 3 years it appears that there are far more people who enjoy playing poker than watching it. Interest in poker programs that are taped still remains high but the live product hasn’t reached the levels the WSOP or ESPN had hoped. Instead of generating interest in the WSOP it appears the 4 month delay just allowed people to forget about it and lose interest. Combine that with the decline in sponsorship and the final table should be pushed back to a July finish as it was in the past. Perhaps if and when online poker is legalized in the United States there will be merit for a November finish, but as it stands, the WSOP would be better off to just end this tournament in July as has been the tradition.

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