After seeing a decline in viewership numbers in 2007, ESPN’s broadcasts of this year’s World Series of Poker attracted some of the biggest audiences it has seen in more than two years.
“The viewership and interest we’ve seen this season tells us that the World Series of Poker still has a very strong following,” said George McNeilly, the senior director of communications for ESPN.
According to McNeilly, ESPN’s 30 WSOP episodes are up 6 percent from last year (with an average Nielsen rating of .90), and its main-event episodes are up 10 percent (with an average Nielsen rating of 1.01). A Nielsen rating of 1.0 translates to 1,145,000 households.
The final hour of ESPN’s Oct. 21 episode, which saw the final 79 players of the tournament narrowed down to 27, had a bigger audience than the 2007 main event final table, according to McNeilly.
The 10 p.m. hour of the Oct. 21 episode earned a 1.44 Nielsen rating, while the 2007 final table had a 1.38 rating.
ESPN’s Oct. 28 episode, which ended with only the November Nine left standing, boasted a 44 percent increase from last year and obtained a Nielsen rating of 1.59. The last time ESPN poker had ratings this good is when Jamie Gold talked his way through his monster field of 8,773 players in 2006.
Seth Palansky, the communications sports and entertainment director for Harrah’s Entertainment, attributes much of the ratings increase to this year’s new format, which held off the playing of the final table until all previous episodes had aired. He believes the buzz of “who will win” rather than “who won” has energized the casual fans of the game. The final nine players returned to the Rio in November to finish what they started this summer.
This year’s main event also benefited from a deep run by two of the more entertaining professionals in the game, Phil Hellmuth and Mike Matusow. The “Poker Brat” and “The Mouth” finished in 45th and 30th place, respectively, and received plenty of air time.
Ty Stewart, the corporate director of the WSOP, recently told Brandweek, a subsidiary of Nielsen Media Research, that people shouldn’t put too much stock in this year’s ratings.
“To evaluate what we're doing just through TV ratings would be short-sighted,” Stewart said. He said that the organizers of the tournament were trying to re-energize the event and make it compelling to a broader audience, and it seems it worked this year.
ESPN went into this year’s broadcast projecting that about 1 million people would watch each episode when it premiered, a number it appears to have met based on the ratings.
Wondering how this year’s World Series of Poker ratings surge compares with other major sports events and TV shows?
Well, the Oct. 28 episode of the WSOP main event garnered a 1.59 Nielsen rating — outdueling NBC’s National Heads-Up Poker Championship’s recent audiences. On April 27, NBC’s third episode of that tournament received a 1.0 Nielsen rating, down from 1.11 from 2007 and 1.49 from 2006.
Poker is still not all that close to the “big boys” in terms of ratings success. ESPN’s Monday Night Football between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots scored a 7.0 rating on Oct. 20, while ABC’s Bank of America 500 NASCAR event on Oct. 11 earned a 3.8 rating.
But the bright news is that poker ratings are getting closer to the political pundits’ shows. The Oct. 28 WSOP rating of 1.59 isn’t all that far off from Bill O’Reilly’s Oct. 22 episode of The O’Reilly Factor, which was good enough to be rated as the third-most-watched cable news program of that week when it brought Fox News a 2.9 Nielsen rating.
Oct. 28, 2008 WSOP episode: 1.59
NBC Heads-up episode 3 (April 27, 2008): 1.0
Same episode, 2007: 1.11, Same episode, 2006: 1.49
Oct. 11, 2008 NASCAR’s Bank of America 500 on ABC: 3.8
Oct. 20, 2008 Monday Night Football between Patriots and Broncos on ESPN: 7.0
Oct. 22 episode of The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News: 2.9