ESPN Shows How to Cover Poker With WSOP Successes
American cable television network ESPN’s live broadcasting of this summer’s World Series of Poker (WSOP) has, not unexpectedly, proved to be a massive hit with poker fans.
However, despite poker in the USA suffering numerous debilitating body blows in recent months, the latest ratings have also shown that the Las Vegas series was a major attraction for non-poker viewers as they tuned in to the ground-breaking broadcasts from ESPN of the $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em Championship main event as the 6,865-strong starting field was reduced to leave us with the November Nine.
Employing amiable commentators such as poker pros Olivier Busquet and Antonio Esfandiari most certainly helped, but so, too, did ESPN’s serious coverage of the biggest poker event on the planet.
The most up-to-date Nielsen ratings – which is an audience measurement system used in the USA – show that the 10 programmes aired on ESPN2 gained an average 0.4 household coverage rating. To you and me, that’s about 351,000 households and 415,000 people watching each episode.
But the figures for ESPN’s primetime airing are even more spectacular, with a 0.5 rating as 646,000 viewers tuned in, while people who watched the broadcasts on the Internet via ESPN3 enjoyed an astounding 23 million minutes of programming.
ESPN’s senior director of programming and acquisitions, Doug White, was certainly thrilled by the numbers, saying that the channel liked “how the show looked from a production standpoint and from a ratings standpoint”.
In fact, as White pointed out, “these shows performed very well against the early morning (1-5am ET) average, increasing by around 136% overall”.
While there had been understandable concerns that poker was slipping in its attraction, White quite correctly added that ESPN’s coverage “was something the sport needed in order to take the next step” in targeting a wider audience.
He continued by pointing out that ESPN are determined to ensure that poker does not “become stagnant”, emphasising that “we want to be very fresh and progressive with our coverage – whether that means updating the featured table sets or increasing the amount of on-air analysis”.
It’s quite clear that ESPN have done a great job in that sense – particularly as most recent televised poker events have arrived as a result of online poker rooms buying time on TV channels to boost their visibility in the market place.
The norm has been for online poker firms to engage the services of production companies as they buy time slots on channels – normally for late-night airings – to create programmes that rely heavily on advertising that particular business.
This meant that TV networks gave little support to the shows, quite often resulting in poor ratings.
However, White is adamant that ESPN have approached their coverage of the WSOP quite differently, saying that he believes “it has been very clear ESPN is committed to poker”.
While stressing that ESPN have “been heavily involved” in poker programming since 2003, White reckons the cable channel have shown that “our commitment is evident in the number of hours the network has devoted to the World Series of Poker”.
White could not be more accurate in his assessment, with the WSOP gaining increased coverage on the network, as well as on their website, with the November Nine even discussed on flagship programme SportsCenter – the daily sports news television show.
Additionally, The Inside Deal – which is ESPN’s live poker podcast – has reached a new audience through greater exposure, meaning many of the commentators and pundits on the show will now be better recognised among non-poker fans.
It is also evident that ESPN took their live coverage seriously as veteran commentators Lon McEachern and Norman Chad were joined by the likes of big-name pros Busquet, Esfandiari, Johnny Chan and Phil Hellmuth for detailed analysis of the event.
Esfandiari – who won a WSOP gold bracelet back in 2004 in the $2,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em event – was brought on board to provide commentary on the main ESPN show, as well as several more episodes, and proved a big hit with poker fans. So did fellow pro Busquet, of course, with his ability to simplify the sometimes-complicated language of poker.
Iranian-born Esfandiari – who is known as The Magician – immediately felt relaxed as ESPN bosses had told him “to be myself and provide as much commentary as possible”.
Even then, however, the 32-year-old did feel some “pressure because I had to speculate to hundreds of thousands of viewers what each player held and explain why”, although he was quick to point out that “thankfully, I was right more often than wrong”.
Esfandiari added that he was flattered by the comments posted online about him and his ability to read players, with some suggesting that he “must have had access to the hole cards” – which is obviously untrue as the Nevada Gaming Commission would not allow such an advantage.
But Esfandiari reckons “that is the beauty of live television”, before adding that he hopes “poker continues to grow in that direction”.
Meanwhile, 29-year-old American Busquet – who is the son of French immigrants – also won positive reviews for his capacity to provide uncomplicated explanations of poker slang that ensured even novice viewers could understand what was happening on the tables of the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino.
The New Yorker acknowledged that his job was “to cater to the audience”, but stressed that he “didn’t want to dumb down the strategy and analysis for anyone” – thus ensuring that “hard-core poker fans…appreciated it” while supplying amateurs with “some value”, too.
Busquet believes that beginners – and even non-poker viewers – “either enjoyed (the shows) from an entertainment perspective or, for the first time ever, they realised just how complex this game could be”, while at the same time proving that poker is not “some random luck-based game played by degenerates”.
Certainly, after the recent troubles faced by poker in the USA – including the shutting down of several websites such as PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) on April 15 – Busquet believes that ESPN’s extended coverage of the WSOP provided a wonderful opportunity to showcase the game in a positive light and hopefully spark renewed interest after the dark days following ‘Black Friday’.
It is his hope that, “with the right approach”, additional events and tours will be able to follow in the footsteps of the WSOP and attract live coverage – and maybe even result in players gaining some big-name sponsors.
He reckons “this has the potential to be really big (because) players shouldn’t just be wearing Full Tilt and PokerStars patches – they should be advertising for companies such as Nike and Adidas”.
Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that Busquet is right as ESPN have shown that, with a considered and exciting line of attack, poker can recover from the many setbacks it has faced recently to emerge stronger and more popular than ever.