ESPN Scores Big With Live World Series of Poker Coverage
Network Sees Ratings Increase For Early Morning Hours
ESPN’s live coverage of the 2011 World Series of Poker was a huge hit with the poker community, but now the ratings are proving that even non-poker enthusiasts were tuning in for the innovative broadcasts detailing the Main Event action as the field trimmed itself to the November Nine.
According to the Nielsen ratings, the 10 telecasts on ESPN2 averaged a 0.4 household coverage rating, reaching a total of 415,000 viewers per episode. The primetime broadcast on the ESPN flagship telecast was even more impressive, drawing a 0.5 rating and reaching 646,000 viewers. This doesn’t even account for those who watched all of the broadcasts online at ESPN3, which saw over 23 million minutes consumed by viewers.
Doug White, Senior Director of Programming and Acquisitions for ESPN, was pleased with the overall numbers. “We like how the show looked from a production standpoint and from a ratings standpoint,” he said. “In fact, these shows performed very well against the early morning (1-5 a.m. ET) average, increasing by around 136 percent overall. This was something the sport needed in order to take the next step. We don’t want poker to become stagnant. 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.”
Over the past few years, most televised poker was a result of online poker room time buys. In most cases, an online poker company would hire a production company to buy up various time slots, usually late at night, and create poker programming that heavily advertised its product. This programming, beyond the obvious advertising benefits, had little programming support from the network itself. White maintains, however, that this is not the case with ESPN.
“I think it’s been very clear that ESPN is committed to poker,” he explained. “We’ve been heavily involved since 2003 and we hope to have a longstanding relationship with Caesars Interactive Entertainment. I think our commitment is evident in the number of hours the network has devoted to the World Series of Poker.”
The WSOP has been given an increased presence on the network and on their website. The November Nine was even mentioned on SportsCenter and members of ESPN’s poker podcast, The Inside Deal, have been given opportunities to expose themselves to a new audience during the live coverage from the ESPN studios in Bristol, Connecticut.
In addition to support from the studio, the live coverage was supplemented by the presence of seasoned veteran announcers Norman Chad and Lon McEachern, along with detailed strategic analysis from pros such as Phil Hellmuth, Johnny Chan, Antonio Esfandiari and Olivier Busquet.
Esfandiari was asked to offer up his commentary for the lone flagship ESPN broadcast along with several other episodes and, along with Busquet, was a favorite among the hard-core poker audience.
“They told me to be myself and provide as much commentary as possible,” said Esfandiari. “There was a lot of pressure because I had to speculate to hundreds of thousands of viewers what each player held and explain why. Thankfully I was right more often than wrong. It was pretty flattering when I read a thread about me and how I must have had access to the hole cards, but I really didn’t because of the Nevada Gaming Commission. That’s the beauty of live television and I hope that poker continues to grow in that direction.”
Busquet was also eager to jump in the booth and received great reviews from his peers on his ability to take complicated poker jargon and present it in a way that even beginners could understand.
“I’m supposed to cater to the audience,” said Busquet. “I didn’t want to dumb down the strategy and analysis for anyone. The hard-core poker fans certainly appreciated it, but even the amateurs could get some value. They either enjoyed it from an entertainment perspective or for the first time ever, they realized just how complex this game could be. This isn’t some random luck-based game played by degenerates and we shouldn’t be afraid to show that to the public.”
Both Esfandiari and Busquet realized that this could be the opportunity the game needs spark the next poker boom and hoped that more tours and events move towards live coverage in the future.
“This has the potential to be really big,” said Busquet. “People shouldn’t just be wearing Full Tilt and PokerStars patches, they should be advertising for companies such as Nike and Adidas. There’s no reason it can’t happen with the right approach.”
Black Friday has undoubtedly cast a shadow over the members of the November Nine, who are unlikely to see the lucrative deals offered by the big online sites in years past, but it has also had an effect on the advertisements that will be on display when the ESPN airs its edited coverage this fall.
“Because of the indictment, you won’t be seeing a large number of online poker ads during the episodes leading up to the November Nine,” said White. “New partners will fill the void in an effort to give us more well-rounded support for the coverage.”
Though he declined to comment on the future of televised live poker coverage, White did say that ESPN was in the process of evaluating the recently acquired data to determine what, if any plans were in the works. One thing is for sure. If they can find a way to properly monetize it, then we may be seeing the first signs that poker has evolved from a kitchen table game into a full-fledged spectator sport.
The televised action will kick off Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. This week’s coverage will highlight the WSOP grudge matches featuring Johnny Chan vs. Phil Hellmuth and Sam Farha vs. Chris Moneymaker.
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