Poker's time in the sun may have come and gone, if recent ratings are any indication By STEVE FRIESS
If there were ever a year when the World Series of Poker should have enjoyed a renewed boost, it was 2009. The stars had aligned in every conceivable way, and grandiose predictions seemed warranted.
“This is going to be the most-watched Final Table in history,” legend Phil Hellmuth predicted to me before it took place in two spurts on November 7 and 9.
And I believed him. It certainly made sense. Alas, he was wrong.After all the noise in recent weeks about the conclusion of the 40th WSOP Main Event—the $10,000 Buy-In No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em tournament viewed as the pinnacle of the game’s prestige—virtually nobody bothered to report the outcome that actually mattered. TV ratings for the two-hour Final Table broadcast on ESPN on November 10 were actually down from the 2008 broadcast. The difference was nominal—this year’s show drew about 1.8 million viewers, and last year’s drew 1.9 million—but still, down is not up. Worse yet, ESPN says the 2009 ratings for the 31-telecast, 15-week season had a 1.0 share, which was even with the 2008 season.
All of which invites this important question: Now can we say that poker has plateaued in the United States?
This notion is one that makes World Series of Poker bosses groan. Skeptical journalists have long been taking note of poker’s relative weakness versus its white-hot years, 2003-2006, when poker TV shows were all the rage and Internet poker blossomed into one of the universe’s all-time most profitable enterprises. In 2006, when 8,773 players entered the World Series of Poker’s Main Event and the top prize hit $12 million, there seemed nothing that could slow the game’s stampede into the hearts and minds of American popular culture.
Poker overlords like to note that Congress put the kibosh on poker’s growth by passing a law in the fall of 2006 severely restricting the ability of most Americans to easily put money into their online poker accounts. This certainly is true and did result in a dramatic drop the following year in WSOP Main Event entrants. In fact, in the three years since, that figure has yet to top even 7,000.That’s all well and good, but that does not explain the waning interest in watching poker on TV, and it is only via TV that tournament poker can become anything more than a peripheral part of mainstream American culture. Why would one’s inability to play online reduce one’s interest in following the pros? If poker wants to be compared to the big sports leagues, don’t they know that the vast majority of people who watch the NFL or NBA don’t actually play football or basketball?
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