How ESPN can improve WSOP coverage

ESPN Table
ESPN films the final table of the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event.

Over the past five years, ESPN has brought us coverage of the World Series of Poker. The primary focus in both 2002 and 2003 was, naturally, the Main Event. Since 2004, ESPN has done a great service to the poker world by covering other preliminary tournaments that make up the WSOP in addition to the Main Event.

That said, though, dissatisfaction with the ESPN broadcasts lingers, and there are specific criticisms that the network needs to look at in preparation for filming and producing next year's event. First off, the ESPN cameras need to film every final-table event at the World Series.

In the past couple of years, ESPN has switched from doing this to choosing only a handful of events to tape, and thereby missed out on some historic occurrences. In 2005, we did get a chance to see the heads-up action between poker pros Phil Laak and Johnny Chan (when Chan became the first to win a 10th bracelet), but saw none of the play leading up to that point.

In this year's preliminary tournaments, Phil Hellmuth's 10th bracelet victory didn't even see the light of televised action, although you could pay to see the WSOP online broadcast of the tournament.

While it would add to the video and production teams' workload to undertake taping every event, by doing so ESPN would be able to go back after events had played out and then choose the most pertinent footage to put on the air.

The network would be able to select its coverage based on several criteria, such as players in attendance at a given final table, particularly active and exciting final tables and potentially historic happenings. This would give viewers a chance to see more preliminary events, and make ESPN's coverage exponentially better.

Secondly, ESPN needs to expand the coverage of final-table action of these preliminary events beyond a simple hour. During these broadcasts of nine-player action, ESPN actually showed - between player profile stories and "The Nuts" - approximately only 10 or 12 hands of poker.

When there were nine players at the table, the bulk of the action was lost as we only saw when people were eliminated (and even that only sometimes).

If ESPN embraced the World Poker Tour-style two-hour broadcast of tables, opportunities to build the storyline of the tournament would increase dramatically. Instead of leaving its audience wondering how a start-of-tournament short stack was suddenly among the chip leaders, ESPN could intensify the drama by showing additional hands that demonstrated how earlier table action had unfolded.

It could also show some poker strategy and thought behind the players' actions rather than simply showing someone pushing in with a less-than-great hand at a particular point.

For the Main Event, does ESPN really need to cover the four (or however many) Day 1s of the event? Does it even really need to cover however many Day 2s there are?

Everyone knows that it is rare for players who broke out of the gates early in a tournament to be around when it comes down to post-bubble play. ESPN could probably cover the first two days of the World Series in a two- or four-hour broadcast rather than devoting almost 10 hours to what is basically staging for the run at the top prizes.

If producers' intent is to demonstrate the range of interesting players in the tournament or to highlight celebrities who've come out of the woodwork to partake in the event, then just run a special hour or so and put those stories in there.

ESPN should focus on the part of the tournament that most viewers are interested in. Once the money is hit, the true action of a tournament takes place as the survivors vie for the millions of dollars up for grabs.

This is the portion of the tournament that most people want to see and would like to hear more in-depth commentary on, not only from the players' point of view, but the announcers' as well.

When the Main Event makes it down to the last four to five tables, ensure that all of those tables have hole-card cameras. By doing this, viewers will be able to get a look at the actions of those players, whether professionals or newcomers making their mark.

The Main Event brand would also be bolstered by extending coverage of this type beyond just the final table.

Finally, is it about time that Lon McEachern and Norman Chad be replaced? While their repartee can occasionally be entertaining, their demonstration of poker knowledge leaves something to be desired.

Admittedly, entertaining the viewers is important - the "E" in ESPN stands for entertainment, after all. But many viewers would like more substance to the broadcasts. Norm Chad is a competent poker player and, if he demonstrated this knowledge more, it would add tremendously to the proceedings.

McEachern is an able host but seems to be lost sometimes during the play of events.

Perhaps if McEachern and Chad focused less on banter and more on play-by-play, ESPN could get away with using them for another round of WSOP coverage, but additional commentary from professionals who played in the event would be invaluable (and it's something ESPN does make good use of in its pay-per-view broadcasts).

Sean Sheikhan, Mike Matusow
Sean Sheikhan and Mike Matusow commentating.

As far as model commentators are concerned, before 2002, Gabe Kaplan was a WSOP final-table announcer who could be entertaining but was also very educational in assessing the skills of the competitors. Phil Hellmuth has also demonstrated a very astute knowledge of the game during his broadcasting attempts.

You could also potentially include actor Dick Van Patten (we're going back some time there, folks!) and tournament director Jack McClelland, who were more than competent as final-table announcers.

While ESPN is to be commended for their coverage of the World Series overall (especially the footage of this year's H.O.R.S.E. event, the explanation of the games and their graphic displays), making the above changes would not only draw in more casual players but also add value for those viewers who are dedicated poker buffs.

It will be interesting to see what changes ESPN will have made when the cards fly once again in the coverage of 2008's WSOP, which debuts in the real world on May 30.

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