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World Series of Poker: Who's Holding The Cards Really Matters

Tuesday, 17 Jul 2007 | 11:57 AM ET
2007 World Series of Poker Final Table
2007 World Series of Poker Final Table

The Final Table of the World Series of Poker begins today at 3 p.m ET. You can order it on ESPN.com for $19.95 and watch it live if you want. I’m not going to talk about specific names, so there’s no need to turn away if you don’t want to know who made it the finals.

Enough of the disclaimers. Now let’s get to the point.

Poker has had a tough year, with congressional legislation that has taken some of the big players out of the U.S. market. That in turn has hurt the turnout--the 6,358 entrants in the main event, down more than 25 percent from last year’s number. To take this further, the fewer number of people paying the $10,000 fee, means there’s less for the winner ($8.25 million vs. $12 million last year).

Despite all this, the World Series of Poker is still compelling television. Last year, ESPNaveraged almost one million viewers per broadcast and I have no reason to believe that this year’s tape-delayed coverage will take a significant hit.

Poker is poker. It’s loved by many. And the lipstick cameras and features make it very watchable -- even, believe it or not, to people who have no clue how poker works.

But the World Series of Poker and ESPN could be in trouble, depending on who wins. Why? Because you can’t underestimate that it’s not only how the cards are played, it’s also who is playing them.

Over the last couple years, ESPN and the WSOP has had the great fortune of celebrating winners with compelling stories. The boom really started in 2003 when Chris Moneymaker won it all. Remember? He was an accountant in Tennessee who got his seat by winning a $39 satellite tournament on Pokerstars.com. The man with the great name took the title and brought home $2.5 million. The following year it was Greg Raymer--the patent lawyer from Pfizer , who wore holographic glasses, took home $5 million.

Then Joe Hachem,a poker pro, won and it wasn’t quite the same. People didn't care as much. That’s why I’m worried if a pro wins.

There are nine people at the final table and five of them are poker professionals. Why is that bad? Because what makes this such compelling television is that an average Joe can win it all. You can’t get your shot at playing Tiger Woods in a major. You can’t enter yourself in Wimbledon and return Roger Federer’s serves. But you can play with the best in the World Series of Poker. And the awesome stories of Moneymaker and Raymer make it a must see.

The problem is that, with the wins of Moneymaker and Raymer, I'm sure more people turned pro. That makes it harder for the little guy to win, which makes it harder for a good story to rise to the top. I always said the best thing the World Series of Poker had going for it was that the same guy wasn’t going to win twice anymore. But I’ve now come to realize that it’s just as bad if the pros win.

So I’m not going to give names, but you should root for the 22-year-old kid from New York, even though he’s supposedly a professional video game player!

News & Notes
The University of Wisconsinhas sold 69,140 public and student season tickets for the 2007 season. Its Camp Randall Stadium holds 80,321.

Irvin Muchnick, author of the book Wrestling Babylon,”signed a deal to pen a book on the tragic story of the late WWE wrestler Chris Benoit. The book will be called “Chris and Nancy: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Wrestling’s Cocktail of Death.” It will be published in 2008 by ECW Press.

In other WWE news, comScore reported that the WWE’s Web siteexperienced the largest change in unique visitors of any Web site from the month of May to June. Thanks to the Benoit tragedy, unique visitors increased from 3.8 million in May to 8.4 million in June--a 117 percent increase.

Fresh off cashing in off Coke’s acquisition of VitaminWater, Met third baseman David Wright has been tabbed the new spokesman for Fathead. Commercials started airing on the ESPN family of networks yesterday.

Racket maker Prince is getting into apparel. Last week, the company announced the unveiling of its advanced fabrics brand that will be called Aerotech. The clothes will be available in January.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com

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