WPT Championship in Attendance Freefall

Daniel Negreanu
'They need to compete and get these events populated by running online satellites.'

Some 195 of the best poker players on the planet descended upon Bellagio in Las Vegas for the start of the World Poker Tour's Season 8 World Championship this week.

But while attendance records were being set in Italy on the European Poker Tour's latest stop and the newly formed North American Poker Tour continues to travel across the Unites States proving poker is anything but a passing fad, attendance numbers at the WPT Championship are in a freefall.

Just three short years ago, the Season 5 WPT Championship drew a massive 639-player field.

With a $15,495,750 prize pool allowing eventual winner Carlos Mortensen to walk away with $3,970,415 in first place cash, the tournament set a record for the richest ever held outside of a World Series of Poker Main Event that still stands today.

In 2008, attendance dropped to 545. A year later, just 337 players entered, marking another 38% drop.

Now, hundreds of players skipped the preliminary events at Bellagio to play at NAPT Mohegan Sun and although many of the names are the biggest in the game, this week's $25k buy-in championship event failed to draw even 200.

2004 WPT Player of the Year and Team PokerStars Pro Daniel Negreanu says the reason the WPT Championship is taking a nosedive while tours sponsored by the online poker room he represents continue to flourish is relatively simple.

"The EPT and the NAPT, and anything PokerStars does tour wise, kicks their ass," he said. "The thing that the WPT was always way too foolish to understand, what completely destroyed their model as a company, was not attaching themselves to online satellites.

"They need to compete and get these events populated by running online satellites. All the PokerStars tours work because of the satellites."

But while the answer sounds simple, Bellagio Tournament Director Jack McClelland says its implementation is not.

"All the online sites that would like to send us players can't," he explained. "Our financial people say we can't take the money."

When PartyPoker bought the WPT in the fall of 2009, the organization expressed an interest in running more satellites for WPT events and holding the door open for competing sites to do the same.

But with online poker standing in some murky legal waters in the United States, McClelland says Bellagio can't take buy-in money from online poker rooms even if it wanted to.

The casino has applied to the Nevada Gaming Commission to have the situation clarified, but no answer has come yet.

"We hope their opinion is that we can accept it," McClelland said. "But until then I'm running a long distance race on one leg."

Negreanu says another factor is the fact EPT San Remo and the tour's Grand Final in Monte Carlo are just a few days apart, helping draw at least a third of the would be WPT Championship players across the pond for a few weeks travelling the southern coast of France and Italy this time of year.

He also says a lot of the Wall Street money that once filled seats in the WPT's tournaments went south with the economy.

But despite the fact a $25k buy-in may be too pricy in what appears to be a new poker economy, he says the bottom line is still the satellites.

"Obviously there is a chunk of players that had money and now don't and they're not playing," Negreanu said. "But the truth is there's just not enough of an opportunity to get into this thing cheap."

McClelland also says Icelandic ash grounding air travel in Europe may have cost the event 20 to 30 players who would have flown over from Europe, but even with the skies open and the online satellite situation cleared up, he believes a drastic change needs to be made to draw players back to the WPT Championship.

"We might not be able to compete anyway," he said. "PokerStars is like an 800 pound gorilla. That's why next year I'm going to put it in May.

"I don't like having it right before the World Series, because I've had tournaments right before the World Series before and everybody complains it's not a good time. But, at this point, I don't have any choice."

McClelland announced Monday the Season 9 WPT Championship has been tentatively scheduled for May 21-27, 2011, traditionally the week before the start of the World Series of Poker.

The 2010 WPT Championship continues through April 25 at Bellagio. For comprehensive coverage tune in to PokerListings' Live Updates and News.

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