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Friday, April 9, 2010

March Sadness: Is televised poker dead?

The nationally televised 2003 World Series of Poker victory by everyman Chris Moneymaker inspired a boom in poker that produced impressive results: everyone from Don Cheadle to George Constanza was lining up to register for exponentially growing tournament fields.

Seven years later, the honeymoon is over. The dwindling fields at nearly every major poker circuit are evidence that dead money dreamers are no longer willing to take blind shots at being the next Mikey McDermott. Rich flounders once willing to plop down 10K for a casual afternoon of degeneracy suddenly find themselves pinching pennies at the Circus Circus buffet line. The donkeys are officially dead.

On the surface, the 2010 Heads Up Poker championship provides the perfect remedy: the opportunity to market poker's brightest stars in a 64-player free for all on national television. What better event to revive the dormant mainstream interest in poker than watching Cheadle's gutshot take down an irate Phil Hellmuth's pocket aces?

The problem is no one's watching. Ratings for the star-studded event (by poker standards) have dropped over 54% since it's inaugural 2006 season. Both the WPT and High Stakes Poker (a favorite in the poker community) were dropped by their respective networks for the second straight season. The quick hook NBC gave poorly produced Face the Ace after just two episodes is further proof that poker's biggest names aren't appealing to audiences outside of die-hard poker fans.

The 2010 heads up championship provided its usual array of bracket busting upsets: Annette Obrestad took down Hellmuth in the first round, Monkeymaker toppled Patrick Antonius and Leo Wolpert to fight his way into the sweet sixteen. How about Jerry Yang deposing of Mike Matusow, Jennifer Harman, and Barry Greenstein? Such earth shattering upsets have to help spike the ratings when the event airs in mid-April, right?

Expect the heads up championship to be dealt in last regardless. Here's why:

1. The spoiler effect: Joe public already knows who won. While the diehards will watch anyways, the casual fans televised poker needs lose interest because they already know the outcome. This is a problem poker producers have been trying to solve by shortening the gap between the actual event and airdates but the necessity of editing holecam footage make delays unavoidable. Imagine the dip in NFL ratings if fans already had access to final boxscores or the difference in box office returns for a movie if the audience already knew the final twist when deciding to watch the film?

2. The underdog factor just isn't the same. In the poker world, Jerry Yang beating Barry Greenstein in a best of three heads up match is the equivalent of your local community college beating UNC in the first round of the NCAA tourney. The rub here is that David beating Goliath in a couple hands of tournament poker doesn't generate buzz because upsets are more the norm than exception in poker. Post Moneymaker, we've seen an abundance of questionable poker talents win bracelet after bracelet and the public has grown immune to their rags to riches stories. When a recognizable pro manages to navigate a minefield of amateurs and win it's great for poker but when an anonymous logger from West Virginia wins it's no longer newsworthy. Guess which happens more often?

3. Poker remains taboo. The UIGEA continues to wreak havoc on the bread and butter of the game, online poker. A 2009 episode where the US government unexpectedly seized $34 million in online player's funds certainly stunted the online growth poker desperately relies on. Poker-related programming is blacked out in certain areas (Utah, of course) of the country due to local gaming laws. The bottom line is that for every Hellmuth Milwaukee's Best advertisement you see on TV there are five networks who turned down sponsorship in fear of reprisal from anti-poker conservatives. Last week's brazen armed robbery of the $1.1 million cash prize during a televised European Poker Tour event doesn't help either.

While it's obvious poker will never take over primetime TV, it still has a few rebuys left. Producers for the World Series of Poker show a willingness to tweak their presentation with innovative ideas such as creating the marketing friendly November Nine concept or switching the final table of the 50K H.O.R.S.E event into an viewer friendly format of no-limit hold 'em shootout.

While adjustments such as these dilute the purity of poker, the game is entering an era where everyone needs to make concessions to keep poker on TV. Producers and tournament directors need to lower expectations of monolithic televised events bringing in American Idol worthy numbers and create a more realistic and sustainable model that can keep networks happy. If they continue to push gimmicky shows featuring an overweight plumber going heads up with Phil Ivey, poker fans can expect to be playing an excruciatingly long game of 52-card pick up in the future. Well at least we have baseball handicapping now!


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