Nov. 9 overall success despite snags

Peter Eastgate
Peter Eastgate, 2008 WSOP World Champion.

When the heads of the World Series of Poker announced their "November Nine" concept for the Main Event at the beginning of May, the general reaction from the poker community was mixed at best.

Those who were for it more often than not took a cautious "wait and see" attitude; detractors were vocal and confident that the idea was nothing less than the death of tournament poker itself.

Fast-forward four months and Jerry Yang champion.

Judging poker's success by television ratings alone is a fool's game best reserved for the occasional mainstream media outlet who sends a reporter into a story with no background, much like the New York Times recently did for an article in (of all things) its Fashion and Style section.

But there is no denying that a rise in ratings is good for poker, and this year's experiment with the Main Event final table definitely drove more people to watch than in the past few years.

"Let's face it, TV is an important component of the popularity of poker," says Seth Palansky, the WSOP director of communications.

"That said, I'm never big on one rating here or there. The trends show that this year the switch really helped invigorate [interest in the WSOP], and I think you have to go back to 2004 to find ratings higher than what were pulled off Tuesday."

The ratings turnaround is even more impressive given the nature of the game's programming on cable compared to 2004. Palansky points to the fact that ESPN now shows a total of 2,700 hours of WSOP coverage per year, meaning that poker isn't "appointment television" in the way that NFL games are.

"There's the accurate belief that [the WSOP] will air five times in the week after its initial airing, and you can catch it anytime."

Given the nature of the audience's viewing habits with poker, the turnaround in ratings for this year's Main Event was even more impressive.

"Should we all look at one rating number and say if this makes it a success or not? I don't believe that's the right way to do it," Palansky says. "But there's no denying that this change led to quite an increase in viewers, and therefore that's a good thing for everyone."

The on-site experience

One of the main differences in this year's Main Event finale compared to previous years was the poker-as-spectacle aspect of putting the show on in the Penn and Teller Theater. Instead of having room for a few hundred spectators at best as in years past, the venue change meant over 1,000 people at a time were able to watch the November Nine do their thing.

When asked how the actual experience compared to what people had hoped for, Palansky doesn't take long to answer.

"I think the quick, simple answer is that it exceeded everyone's expectations," he says. "From poker players we talked to, to our own internal staff, to ESPN staff, to the November Nine themselves, everyone was amazed."

It's clear that nobody, even the WSOP staff who came up with the concept in the first place, expected would-be spectators to be lined up outside the venue five hours before the scheduled start time.

Arguments might rage as to whether poker is a game or a sport, but the fans at the Rio certainly treated the November Nine like star athletes, stopping them repeatedly for autographs and photos the way they would players at an NBA or Major League Baseball game.

Moreover, the crowd that had shown up on Sunday for the full final table returned late on Monday evening despite the fact that the two remaining players, a Russian and a Dane, had only requested 25 tickets for friends and family in the audience. That pokes big holes in any doubt that poker is still popular with fans created by the game's omnipresence on television.

"It was off-the-charts impressive that poker fans came out in force like they did and waited as long as they did," says Palansky. "And it would've been better if we could've gotten everyone in."

As of right now there is no official answer as to whether the delayed-final-table concept will make a return for the 2009. The heads of the WSOP still have to have plenty of meetings to hold among themselves to dissect exactly how things went, and there are also discussions to be had with the Player Advisory Council established in 2007.

November Nine Part Deux?

Given the successful nature of the November Nine experiment, there's little reason to expect it to disappear entirely. What's more likely is a makeover that streamlines the product based on what worked and what didn't.

This year's decision to delay the Main Event final table was announced May 1, a late change when the WSOP was set to begin just one month later. Because of the last-minute nature of the decision there were roadblocks that had to be overcome.

One of the largest of those obstacles was the fact that the four-month delay between the end of the WSOP as a whole and the resumption of the Main Event was dictated by ESPN's programming schedule rather than by the actual poker tournament itself.

"We couldn't get the time to do it differently based on existing contracts to get our Tuesday night time slot," says Palansky. "There was no logical place to move if we did it differently."

If the experiment is in fact repeated in 2009, the delay shouldn't be as long, because ESPN has more lead time to make changes to its schedule.

There were other TV-related roadblocks as well. For instance, for continuity purposes the ESPN set used at the final table was the same one used in the Amazon Room throughout the 2008 WSOP - even though it impeded about two-thirds of the live audience's ability to see the actual table.

With more advance planning in conjunction with ESPN, those sorts of issues can be kept to a minimum if the delay makes a return in 2009. And other outside issues that made 2008 a bad year for introducing nine relatively unknown players to the world - such as the Olympics and a historic U.S. presidential election - won't be a factor.

In the end

The November Nine experiment didn't change poker's cultural status overnight, but it did show that there is room for innovation in the way poker is presented to the public. A live stadium filled with a thousand poker fans cheering for their favorite players wasn't on anyone's list of things they expected to see one day.

That the WSOP's executives took such a risk says a lot about how willing they are to go out on a limb to make changes that are good for poker, and by extension for those who play the game.

The players who were willing had media opportunities galore in their local markets; just ask an exclusive interview with the champion and a written recap of the Main Event's final day. Check out the 2008 WSOP section for details.

 

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