How To Fix the WSOP Ratings Problem

Let's just say it's going to take more than a couple of pretty faces to turn the WSOP ratings arrow north again.

There’s been a lot of discussion recently [started by us] about what the WSOP / ESPN can do to bump its stagnate at best–declining at worst– ratings.

We spoke to Ty Stewart on our last podcast (listen here) and on This Week in Poker (watch here) on the topic. And we created the #wsopneedsto twitter discussion for your suggestions (of which there were plenty of good ones).

Based on conversations we’ve had amongst ourselves, with “industry types,” and from your suggestions, we’ve compiled a few ideas to get WSOP ratings back up and reach the mass audience while getting the current audience more invested.

While these aren’t all of the ideas we have / where presented, it’s a good starting point. Plenty more below the fold.

1. Stop cutting costs, which means cut the Main Event. The vast majority of WSOP coverage on ESPN is now dedicated to the Main Event. Makes sense to a degree: it spans two weeks where most tourneys last 3-4 days. It also cuts production costs. By dedicating the bulk of programming hours to one event as opposed to spreading it out over the entire 6 weeks of the WSOP, while we’re no math majors, we do realize this saves money.

However, the drawback to this is there are now 32! episodes of the Main Event, and quantity is trumping quality.

441 Productions (the production company responsible for the WSOP since ’03) has one of the most difficult jobs in all of poker. Producing a coherent Main Event story that starts with over 7,000 entrants requires a level of detail and precision that can’t be understated. However, the broadcasts have evolved into countless stories about people we’ll never see again on the show (except maybe with a fleeting elimination) and other distractions that are clearly not translating into ratings. By cutting the episodes, you can eliminate inconsequential stories/storylines, focus more on the November Niners and other worthwhile pros who ran deep.

For example, this year barely any attention was paid to Adam “Roothlus” Levy (12th) and The Intense Stare of Scott Clements (18th), two of the more well-respected, most consistent players on the circuit. For all of the complaints from some about how poker has no new stars post-03, well, right there is part of the reason why. Guys like these are stars of tomorrow (and really, today) but you’d never know it from the WSOP coverage. Instead, the focus is on the fleeting. We’re pretty sure that a Roothlus or Scott Clements has better odds of making another deep Main Event run in the coming years than, say, Soi Nguyen.

Or somewhat relatedly, break out of the structured format of the broadcast when appropriate so storylines get their just due. For example, when Matt Affleck (who ESPN gave a ton of time to this year) busted from the Main Event, what we witnessed in person was one of the more captivating human interest moments of our seven-year WSOP history. However, with the amount of editing done to the moment, and inability to just keep the camera focused on Affleck (and Norman keeping his mouth closed–sometimes silence says more than words), the gravity of the situation was completely lost during the broadcast.

Bottomline: If you had a shorter WSOP episodic run that focused on more of the big moments, typically that’s going to lead to a bigger pay-off in the ratings.

2. Where does the rest of the programming hours go then? The $50k Players Championship is a slam dunk to cover. As is the Main Event. We’re pretty sure Ty Stewart and crew will continue some form of fan voting/all-star tournament, as it guarantees name pros on TV. As suggested by a few Tweeters on our #wsopneedsto, remaining programming should then go to a flexible schedule of final tables, where the big names/big stories of the year get the screen time they deserve. If Phil Hellmuth (the biggest ratings needle mover in the game) makes a final table and goes for bracelet #12, well, that makes it to the broadcasting schedule. If someone is pwning the WSOP and dominating the Player of the Year race, he might actually get some face time.

Think about 2006. 21 year-old Jeff Madsen wins two bracelets (including one in an epic heads-up battle against Erick Lindgren) and Player of the Year honors with one of the more impressive WSOP showings in recent memory. Should’ve been a huge star. But none of his wins made it to broadcast. Ball dropped.

Now what if the WSOP just doesn’t have compelling final tables and you’re short on hours before the Main Event begins? Easy, you film more Main Event. Always have that as a fallback.

This isn’t hard.

3. Ditch Lon McEachern and Norman Chad. When the WSOP first started airing its modern iteration on ESPN in 2003, Lon and Norman were just fine. The fields weren’t dominated by 23 year-old online phenoms (look at the old final tables, filled with old white dudes and homeless Elix Powers). So Norman and Lon fit the demo and where the game was back then. However, the game is much younger now. It requires more edge to grab the appropriate demo’s attention. And Lon and Norman are as edgy as a circle.

Their routine is basically same old, same old (and is now duplicated and given more screen time during NAPT broadcasts). Time for some new faces and voices.

Fortunately, the formula to make this a hit isn’t too difficult. You get a hot girl for features/exit interviews. Then follow the ESPN3 live stream model by bringing in an established pro who can talk strategy and a new “color” personality who has something to say other than how hot Patrik Antonius is or how many times he’s been married.

Again, this is not hard.

4. Bring back the fun… Poker is a game filled with degenerates. Time to embrace it, not sanitize it. It works for other “fringe” sports. Plus, after 7 years in the industry, we’ve come to learn that the poker players themselves, with a few exceptions (see: Hellmuth, Phil and Negreanu, Daniel), just don’t care about marketing beyond the poker audience. It’s -EV to them for whatever reasons. This means that more effort will need to be made on the production end to create situations and segments that highlight player personalities and make them more marketable. The Nuts segments back in the day did this well (remember Bill Gazes getting hit with the football?) but it seems like they ran out of ideas for these a loooong time ago.

But if Survivor can keep figuring out new challenges after 20 seasons, the WSOP broadcasts can probably come up with some interesting personality packages as well.

5. …but don’t ignore the strategy. Some of this would point be accomplished with a better announcing duo (i.e. a pro who handles that specific aspect), but one thing we’ve learned in poker is that the mainstreamers and hardcore fans alike really enjoy good, thought-provoking strategy. Currently, we get none of that in the featured table commentary. And the online poker site sponsored strategy packages (this year, from Tilt) usually aren’t anything overly interesting/memorable.

Get some of the new, younger thinkers from PokerVT, CardRunners, or one of the other 457 online training sites to dissect critical hands from years past or present.

Again, this isn’t hard.

6. Promote the the damn thing. This one almost squarely falls on ESPN’s shoulders. Now when the November Nine was first announced, the poker media was sold on the concept that ESPN would be doing a special feature on the final table-ists as well as other promotional efforts. But for a company willing to take $20M in advertising from PokerStars for a year and dedicate fortyseven billionty hours of programming hours to the WSOP, ESPN sure doesn’t treat the World Series like a premier property.

Poker accomplishments at the WSOP never make SportsCenter except on the rarest of rare occasions. Even worse, WSOP stories rarely get real estate on Only when Phil Ivey made the ’09 final table did ESPN step up, following him on E:60 and with a magazine feature. But Phil Ivey can only make the final table every other year or so, so time to get the internal marketing engine humming a little more at the Global Sports Leader.

7. Delay heads-up and make it live. We’re going to work on the assumption that the WSOP/ESPN is going to keep the November Nine concept for now. If so, we’d suggest delaying heads-up and then airing it as a live event. Spend a few days to a week following the final two 24/7 style, build interest around them, and broadcast a live heads-up  (non-hole-card cam) event where one of these two individuals we’ve just learned so much about from the aforementioned 24/7 style series wins around $10M. That’s compelling television.

On that note, it’s time to decide if poker will be treated as a sport, or more like a reality show. If it’s a sport, then you build around your marketable stars while trying to create new ones. If it’s a reality / game show, then you promote the hell out of the fact that someone wins $8-10M each year in your “competition.” It’s a subtle shift, but a strategy that could pay dividends if executed properly.

Like we said, that’s not all of the ideas, but it’s a starting point for discussions. While the WSOP is clearly and unquestionably the biggest brand in tournament poker, it is at a crucial point now where something needs to be done to ensure it stays that way.

Finally, here’s some of our favorite suggestions from the #wsopneedsto twitter discussion.

:: @Balsbaugh: #WSOPneedsto be more flexible w/ production sched, tape relevant final tables(@Phil_Hellmuth going for 12), then call audible on ME hours

:: @genebromberg: Televising big bracelet events far better than FOURTEEN ME episodes before the money bubble bursts.

:: @SammyTheDentist: #wsopneedsto make heads-up live.

:: @Easycure: More non-NLHE events on TV, add sponsor $$$ to the prize pool, run 1st class tournies, pay dealers well, regular ESPN time slot.

:: @ djslybri: #WSOPneedsto show more preliminary events and be prepared to film one if name player(s) make a final table, and shorten the wait for FT

:: @georgesylak: #WSOPneedsto promote the game through mainstream media. That means national talk shows, USA Today, radio spots, billboards, ect.

:: @Pokermojo: #wsopneedsto show more final tables, less ME, and move Nov 9 to Sept 9.

:: @CdnSweets: @wickedchops #WSOPneedsto get wider set air times The big game plays at same time mon-Friday here in Ontario. Wsop random times and episodes

:: @change100: Get rid of the 1-hr rule for “non-exclusive” media. Figure out crowd control issues inside ropes another way.

:: @BJNemeth The #wsopneedsto move back to the spring,so episodes air on ESPN during the summer.The Nov 9 should be the Sep 9(9/9)

:: @WindBreak247: #WSOPneedsto Focus on the same stories that poker media hilight throughout WSOP. Usually they’re ESPN afterthoughts, if mentioned at all.

:: @ JonAguiar: @wickedchops new guest commentators who can provide special high level insight, FBI agent on tells, math guy on ev of a bluff, #wsopneedsto

:: @compncards #WSOPneedsto go back to showing a couple preliminary events which attract name players

:: @compncards: #WSOPneedsto Hire a PR firm to do a better job of promoting the players and the event.

:: @JoshSlagter: If NASCAR can keep views for 4+ hours , WSOP can find a way to fill 15 hours on a cable station. I’d be hooked w/hole cards.

:: @HerschbeinCPA: @wickedchops #WSOPneedsto re-think the “November Nine” was supposed to build hype & ad $’s, all it is now is a chance for ESPN to catch up.

:: @trishalynn: #WSOPneedsto hire their own producers because a well-paid, dedicated in-house team could have a finished show up the next day

:: @opurt11: #WSOPneedsto Stop showing the same scenes. Cash being brought out of a vault? Lame. Show the players being intro’d w/their song instead.


9 Responses

  1. nomenot

    November 15, 2010 5:29 pm, Reply

    How about this. Bring 5 card draw back to the WSOP and film the final table of this! Before you shun the idea (which I know sounds crazy), ask yourself this: what poker variant would most of the general public be familiar with if it were not holdem? 5 CARD DRAW!

    Think of the movie Maverick.

  2. SquareHead

    November 16, 2010 8:40 am, Reply

    The POKER AND GAMING CHANNEL is for real ! All poker and gaming, all the time. Coverage of the WSOP is great, but how many times were you all set to hunker down for some cardplaying just to preempted by an athletic event ? Poker is a competitive endeavor, but it is not a sport, per se. With that in mind, it needs its own channel(s). There are tournaments year-round and worldwide: Asian Poker Tour, Latin American Poker Tour, and others. Envision a partnership, for the sake of viewers, of Poker Stars, Full Tilt, the World Poker Tour, and add the Heartland Poker Tour creating a 24/7 gaming experience. There might be too much for one network channel, so……POKER AND GAMING 2. More coverage of more events. [not for nothin’, but who thinks a bust of Chip Reese wouldn’t look classier for the Chip Reese trophy ?]

  3. poker fan

    November 16, 2010 12:12 pm, Reply

    #3 is pure win. Dump Lon and Norm. I’ve been saying this for years to my friends. We don’t need Lon to tell us that player X raised, when we have the graphic onscreen showing us that. Let’s hear from someone that can give insight – why are they raising? sensing weakness? trying to isolate? ///tilting///?

    And Norm – OMG – I’d _almost_ rather hear either of the two Vanessa’s inanely prattle on than listen to old, tired, recycled shtick from Norm. The drooling over Patrik is new(er) but irrelevant and distasteful.

    And where the hell is

  4. Kevin Mathers

    November 16, 2010 12:24 pm, Reply

    Back in the day, I suggested on Pokerati the idea of a “September Six”, then air the prelim events afterward.

    If a different network was handling the WSOP, they may be able to dedicate more time to promoting the tournament itself. ESPN has way more important things to promote (baseball, NFL, college football) than poker.

    ESPN airs the WSOP at a pretty set time (Tuesday nights at 9pm). It only moved slightly this year because of their 30 for 30 documentary series.

    Unless 441 Productions hires psychics who can predict who makes a final table, they’re going to only cover certain events that will have big mainstream names (TOC, 50k Players’ Championship). For several years, they covered many prelim events which featured “friends and family” final tables.

    Maybe the casual fan can handle the occasional non-holdem final table, but it’s been proven in the ratings that they prefer NL-holdem. Maybe if the PLO Poker After Dark is a success, ESPN and other networks will consider branching out in what type of poker tournaments they offer.

    I’m sure many efforts have been made to try and get the November 9 out there in the mainstream. You run into a problem where some don’t care to take part in the publicity, or others are only able to get publicity in their little corner of the world.

    Three years into the Nov. 9, and ESPN still can’t figure out that maybe some people don’t want to know the winner right away, and do a half-assed spoiler on SportsCenter and then talk about the winner on the website, bottom line, and on TV.

    Throw in the fact that a stream was made available for the hardcore viewers, and that helps decrease the number of people who want to know what the hole cards were three days later.

    One of these years, ESPN and Caesars/Harrah’s will get this right.

  5. sajeffe

    November 16, 2010 12:36 pm, Reply

    I enjoy ESPN’s coverage of the WSOP but I agree with many of the suggestions above, but whatever you do, just don’t turn it into a sleeeeezy show with no taste. I like the idea of broadcasting different events. I do find NLHE entertaining but would love to see PLO and PLO8 as well as a bunch of other events (I think 5-card draw is a great idea, btw). One of the little things I really like about the current coverage commentary is learning different players’ histories — where they’re from, their regular jobs, education, etc.

    The twitter suggestion of showing player intros instead of the cash coming from the vault is a good one. I’m more interested in seeing/hearing the nine being introduced than seeing security guards loading up piles of money. They do it for the drama, I’m sure, but I think there’s probably more drama in the introductions.

    Btw, SquareHead, if there were a poker channel and I could afford to add it to my television package, I’d watch it ALL THE TIME. :-)

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