Tuesday, April 08, 2008

WSOP Main Event Final Table 90-Day Delay: Guest Post by BJ Nemeth

Editor's Note: I'd like to welcome BJ Nemeth to Tao of Poker in his debut guest post (and I certainly hope that it won't be his last). BJ will be discussing the recent controversy surrounding the rumor that Harrah's and ESPN would delay the final table of the main event and play it 90 days later once the last nine are set. BJ has been a tournament reporter since 2004. His impressive resume includes stints at Card Player, Poker Pages, Poker Wire, and Poker News. He's currently the lead tournament reporter for the World Poker Tour.

Thanks to BJ for sharing this piece. Enjoy, Pauly...

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WSOP 90-Day Delay

By BJ Nemeth
Foxwoods, CT

If you haven't heard, the big news in the poker world right now is that Harrah's and ESPN are rumored to be considering a 90-day delay before the final table of the WSOP Main Event. The Main Event would play out as it always has until the field reached the final nine players. At that point, play would stop, and those players would take up to three months off. ESPN would edit and air the pre-final table episodes, building momentum for a "live" final table to be shown to a much larger television audience.

Obviously, this would be a drastic change to poker's premiere event, and there are a lot of players and fans debating whether this plan would lead to the apocalypse of poker or the spark of another poker boom.

Pauly knows that I'm a strong advocate for this rumored change -- I think it has the potential to make poker a true spectator sport, bringing more fans, money, and fish to the game. He asked me to write something for the Tao explaining why I think it's such a good idea. You'll have to wait a bit longer to read Pauly's opinion on the issue; he's listening to both sides and weighing all the pros and cons before going public, but you can expect his thoughts here at the Tao in a few days.

First, let's clarify a few things about the proposal:

1. Is This a Late April Fool's Joke?
While these are rumors, we know that this has been seriously discussed among the key decision makers at Harrah's and ESPN -- this isn't just an idea that sprang from a random post on 2+2. Harrah's has no official comment on the rumors at this time, but there is a very real possibility that this could happen by 2009.

2. When Do the Final Tablists Get Paid?
As soon as the tenth player is eliminated, the final nine players will immediately receive ninth place money. (Last year, ninth place was worth $525,934.) When they return for the final table up to 90 days later, they will play for the rest of the prizepool. (Last year, for example, it would have been $60K more for 8th, $1.3 million more for 4th, and $7.7 million more for 1st.)

3. How Live is "Live"?
The final table would *not* be shown live the way it was last year on pay-per-view, which would put most casual fans to sleep. It would be delayed a day or two to allow for a quick edit to get it down to a watchable duration (3-4 hours?), complete with holecams to see the players' cards. Reportedly, the phrase they're using is "plausibly live," and the results would be kept secret.

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Most players can already envision the negatives of a 90-day delay. What if somebody is arrested or killed in that time? What if amateurs hire professional poker coaches to improve their game? While arguments like these are valid, I think they are overstated, and none of them outweigh the potentially huge benefits to the industry.

For the record, a death or an arrest would almost certainly be treated the same way it is now. Any player unable to return to action is simply blinded off, and any prize money earned is held until the player (or their estate) shows up to claim it. Remember Vinnie Vinh? He disappeared twice in last year's WSOP after finishing Day 1 of a prelim with a big stack — big enough to survive blinding off, and the stack finished in the money without him. The reason a player fails to return (drug use, arrest, or death) is irrelevant.

I find it interesting that some critics complain that this delay would compromise the "integrity" of the tournament, yet have no problem with card cams. Showing a player's cards is without question the biggest threat to the integrity of the game as it is traditionally played, and a lot of players (including Erik Seidel) argued strongly against them when they were first introduced. But card cams played a pivotal role in the recent poker boom, and most of those critics now admit that the upside was much bigger than the downside. I think that's the case with this new proposal as well.

Now for the good news.

1. The WSOP Becomes a Television "Event" Worth Watching
With this one change, the WSOP on TV becomes a live "event" that far more people will be excited to watch. Nobody will know the result, which is critical to the success of sports television. NBC ran into problems a decade ago when they broadcast the Nagano Olympics on an 18-hour delay, and it really affected the ratings because many people learned the results ahead of time from other media. (And that was when the internet was still relatively new.) If CBS rebroadcast the NCAA championship game between Kansas and Memphis tomorrow night, nobody would watch it, because anyone who cared would already know who won.

2. The Unknown Players Are No Longer Unknown
Equally as important, poker fans will have learned enough about the unknown players to develop a rooting interest, either for or against them. This is critical, because the past few years, we've only had one notable pro at the final table -- Mike Matusow in 2005, Allen Cunningham in 2006, and Lee Watkinson in 2007. (And Watkinson is considerably less notable than the other two.)

We'll see these players in ESPN's coverage leading up to the final table, but they'll also appear in other media. ESPN the magazine would certainly feature a story on the nine final tablists, and they'd probably also appear in publications like Sports Illustrated and Newsweek. We'll get a depth of information on these players that is impossible with the current one-day delay.

If an Australian makes the final table (or an Irishman or a Scandinavian), it won't take long for most of their countrymen to know his or her name and backstory. Even here in the States, players will likely receive plenty of coverage from their local news (TV, radio, magazines, newspapers) playing up the angle of "local player has a shot at the biggest cash prize in sports." A regional interest gives more fans something to root for.

Yes, you might still have one pro and eight amateurs. But those amateurs will now be a bit more fleshed out and relatable. It'll be the family man, the doctor, the young internet pro, the police officer, and so on. The police officer might be a serious player who has earned the respect of pros, while the doctor caught a lucky rush of cards and is just happy to be there. One thing that reality TV has taught us is that competitions between regular people can attract large audiences, provided the audience gets a chance to know them. (Most reality TV finales are live for a reason — the same reason that sports are broadcast live.)

3. Big Ratings Are Good For Everyone in Poker
All of this leads to a big increase in ratings. And let's face it, ratings matter.

The current ratings for poker on TV are pathetic by the standards of live sports, and the demographics have been dropping every year since 2004. By turning the WSOP final table into a live "event," it will attract a much, much larger audience. Everyone in poker will know the date and time that the WSOP final table airs on TV, and most of us will be watching it with far more excitement than we have in recent years. The contagious nature of excitement will trickle down to the casual fans and even attract some non-poker friends and family who are curious to see what the fuss is about.

In the short run, high ratings benefit Harrah's and ESPN the most. But in the long run, high ratings benefit everyone in poker, because it attracts more fans, more sponsors, more money, and best of all for the players, more fish thinking they can do what Jerry Yang did.

4. Better Opportunities for the Final Nine
Many people criticizing this plan say that it's unfair to those final nine players who have to wait 90 days. But there are some clear benefits to consider. Rather than agreeing to a late-night deal to wear a PokerStars or Full Tilt logo (signed under the duress of being both exhausted and euphoric), these players can take a few weeks to carefully negotiate sponsorship deals -- deals which should be worth more money with higher ratings and increased coverage. Also, under the current system, the random seventh-place finisher quickly fades into near obscurity, without so much as an article about him in Card Player. Under the new system, the player who is seventh on the leaderboard will be featured in articles and interviews for the weeks leading up to the final table.

5. Long-Term Benefits
Higher ratings than poker has ever seen can bring side benefits. A lot of mainstream companies leery of partnering with poker (or poker players) will overcome their objections if the ratings are high enough. The most marketable players (Negreanu, Hellmuth, Annie Duke) could increase their exposure (even if they don't reach the final table) by coaching one of the amateurs appearing at the live final table.

Finally, if poker's premiere event receives extensive coverage as a live "sporting event," that could really help our case here in the United States that poker is a skill game or a “sport.” In the long run, it could change the mainstream mindshare enough to provide poker the same exemptions that fantasy football and horseracing receive from legislation like the UIGEA.

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Before you claim this final table delay is too radical, consider this:

In 1971, the WSOP Championship had a $5,000 buy in, included just six hard-core gamblers, and it was winner-take-all.

By 2007, it had grown to a 12-day marathon with three Day 1s and two Day 2s. More than 6,300 players paid $10,000 each, though thousands of amateurs got in at one-tenth the price (or less), and nearly 10% of the field finished in the money.

The WSOP is not nearly the same as it was, and a decade from now, it will have changed again. Change is inevitable, and Harrah's/ESPN is willing to try an experiment to take the WSOP to the next level. If it fails, they'll change it back. But I am confident that it will succeed and bring more growth, money, and positive exposure to our industry. I look forward to the day when the WSOP Final Table is a special event held at Caesars Palace (like a title fight in boxing), with thousands of fans buying tickets to be there in person while tens of millions fans watch it "live" around the world.

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