ESPN Gambles On Live Poker Coverage

The dog days of summer are indeed brutal, except for people who follow baseball religiously like Old Hoss Radbourn.  Between endless episodes of Baseball Tonight and soccer friendlies, there isn't much going on in terms of sports on TV.  However, one of the events ESPN has made a trademark of their summer television is the World Series of Poker.  And while the poker boom has been well and truly over for a few years, this summer ESPN made a bold decision to double down (wait, isn't that blackjack?) on more poker than just their normal taped shows.

Throughout the main event, ESPN has shown several hours of live poker coverage, WITHOUT the use of hole card cameras.  Wait, no hole card cameras?  Isn't that the innovation that started the poker boom with the 2003 WSOP Main Event and the World Poker Tour?  With that single innovation, poker went from the television outhouse to ratings royalty because we knew what hands were being played.  Just take a look at this archaic clip from the 1998 final table featuring a boyish Vince Van Patten to see what the dark ages of televised poker looked like…


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Wow, that was painful to watch.  Why would ESPN want to go back to poker coverage like this drudgery?  Actually, ESPN's gamble, although received with mixed reviews by most, was a risk worth taking.  For one, ESPN dressed up the live coverage with their usual bells and whistles.  But, ESPN also made the wise decisions to use seasoned poker pros like Phil Hellmuth and Antonio Esfandiari to provide expert commentary.  The analysis from Hellmuth and Esfandiari, although almost impossible to be accurate, took viewers inside the heads of the players during hands.  It was truly a learning experience for anyone interested in the game of poker, not just seeing the predictable taped all-ins and bad beats after already knowing the cards in play…

And even if the live coverage wasn't perfect, with lots of misidentified hands and a lack of on-air talent behind Hellmuth, Esfandiari, and Norman Chad, ESPN deserves a lot of credit for taking a risk.  Let's face it, is anyone complaining that Major League Lacrosse or the WNBA or softball was bumped by live poker?  Probably not.   In fact, our friend Austin Karp from Sports Business Journal was able to help us out with some detailed ratings info on the live WSOP broadcasts…

Ratings and viewership for ESPN’s first-ever daily live coverage of the WSOP Main Event from July 14-19 were up double digits over every day part (non-primetime) on ESPN2 compared to July 2010. The 10 telecasts on ESPN2 averaged 415,000 viewers, an increase of 58% from 263,000 viewers a year ago. The biggest day part gains were made during the early morning (1:00-5:00am ET) on ESPN2 when live WSOP coverage got 286,000 viewers, up 126% from 126,000 viewers. In primetime, ESPN2 averaged 504,000 viewers, while the one prime time telecast on ESPN (July 19) delivered 646,000 viewers.

Not too shabby.  It's also unlikely the live shows will affect the ratings for ESPN's taped broadcast of the WSOP throughout the summer.   Poker's ratings have nosedived anyways the last few years thanks to the oversaturation of the game on TV.  Even the 2010 WSOP ratings on ESPN were down anywhere between 16% and 25% from 2009's showing.  The online crackdown in the U.S. this year hasn't helped the game's popularity either.  However, the live showing of the WSOP by ESPN has clearly given a much needed shot in the arm to poker on tv.

Fair is fair.  And while this site is often critical of the WWL, and with good reason, credit must be given when it is due.  Not every innovation is a success, in fact, some are downright failures (see ESPN's Sky Cam last college bball season).  In the end though, ESPN has to be given credit for continuing to push the bounds in the presentation of live sporting events, yes, even for poker.

Thanks again to our friends at SBJ for coming up with the ratings data!