The 2021 World Series of Poker has come and gone and, for the most part, it was a highly successful run. Almost 90 tournaments, all run very well, and the threat of COVID-19 was pretty much nonexistent save for the end of the schedule. But there was one thing that, while on its face looked like a good move, turned out to be detrimental for the game.
Months before the start of the 2021 WSOP, Caesars signed a new, long-term deal with the streaming outlet PokerGO and the broadcast outlet CBS and its CBS Sports Network to manage the coverage of the tournament. Although they used the same on-air talent and production company that was used during its highly successful run on ESPN, “the powers that be” either could not get a satisfactory deal with “The Worldwide Leader in Sports” or thought that this other arrangement would be better for the organization. The changeover in the airing of the WSOP leads one to ask the question – does poker even WANT to be mainstream anymore?
A Highly Resilient Game…
Poker has, in its history, been a tremendously resilient game. Born on the riverboats of the Mississippi (we could go back further, but not necessary) at the beginning of the 19th century, it was originally a simple game of “I’ve got a better hand than you” played between four players. There were 20 cards, nothing under a ten in the deck (A-K-Q-J-10 of the four suits) and the cards were dealt and you bet – those were the origins of Five Card Stud.
That did not provide enough action for enough players, however. With the introduction of the 52-card deck, other variants of the game could be developed such as draw games and Seven Card poker. The additional cards also allowed for more players to take part in the game. Toss in a war (the Civil War was not all bloody battles and dysentery) and soldiers waiting for the next fight and poker blossomed into “America’s Game.”
The game traveled westward with the expansion of the U. S., with the gamblers of the Mississippi migrating to the cow towns and mining enclaves of Texas, Arizona, California, and Nevada. As with most things, there was the need to continually invent options for playing the game of poker, leading to the development of Texas Hold’em in the 30s (according to the legislature of Texas) and, eventually, such creations as Omaha Hold’em, Chinese Poker and many other variants. But one thing has consistently eluded the game of poker – mainstream respect and credibility.
The “poker boom” of the Aughts – brought by the convergence of online poker, televised poker in the World Poker Tour (the first legitimately successful poker “tour”) and the unlikely named Chris Moneymaker winning poker’s pinnacle event, the $10,000 WSOP Championship Event – was the closest that poker has ever come to “mainstream” acceptance. Because of that trinity of occurrences, suddenly it was cool to be seen as a “poker player.” Celebrities embraced the game on television, “made for television” events regarding poker were created, and there was an abundance of broadcasted poker content.
But alas…all good things must come to an end.
The Scourge of “Black Friday” Stopped the Mainstream Train
April 15, 2011, otherwise known as “Black Friday,” stopped the mainstream train in its tracks. In one fell swoop, the U. S. Department of Justice did what two World Wars, the Great Depression, and several “police actions” could not do – stopped the growth of poker. Not only did it severely impact online poker play in the U. S. and dented the worldwide nature of the game, but it also stopped mainstream companies from getting further involved in poker. Instead of getting sponsorships from mainstream companies for its players and events, poker went backward.
This was no better seen than in the decision this year for the changeover from ESPN to the PokerGO/CBS Sports Network combo platter.
It does have to be said that, production wise, the WSOP was well done. In the hands of Mori Eskandari, however, that was to be a given. Although people want to complain about the commentary booth, the stalwarts of Lon McEachern and Norman Chad, this year joined by Jamie Kerstetter for a fresh voice, continued to demonstrate the excellence that they have since they stepped into the booth what seems like ages ago but was only 2002. The problem lies in that nobody saw the content.
With the departure of ESPN, one of the questions asked was “who was going to provide the live coverage?” The answer, unfortunately, was nobody. PokerGO had the streaming rights for the WSOP and they put the clampdown on those rights, offering the first hour for free over their YouTube feed before pulling the plug and shifting to an entirely streamed production. And CBS is about to learn something that ESPN could tell them – few watch a poker tournament that they already know the outcome.
Poker is in a challenging time. In 2019, the world of poker was just beginning to pull out of the power dive that “Black Friday” had hit it with. The Championship Event was the second largest of all time and 2020 looked so promising. Then…came COVID.
Now poker has to stand back up after another body check. While the numbers for the 2021 WSOP were decent, there’s a long way to go to get back to 2019’s promise. Part of that promise could have been aided by having the festivities of the WSOP shown on network or cable television for the next generation to see.
Many who are at the apex of the game today were initially spurred by that moment in 2003 when that amateur Moneymaker stunned the world with an all-in bluff of Sammy Farha, the man who looked straight out of Central Casting when you said “poker player.” It was “the bluff of the century,” as Norman Chad called it. And if streaming had been around at that time…nobody would have seen it.
PokerGO is a very private company. They have never stated how many subscribers they have, nor have they ever stated how many people watch their live streams or even watch their catalogued programming. And, if those numbers are not so great, they sure as hell aren’t going to be broadcasting it (no pun intended), especially if they are able to rope in CBS Sports Network to pay part of the bill for the WSOP.
The Game Needs to Grow
Instead of locking the game behind the digital curtain of streaming, as PokerGO seems to be doing with a great deal of content, there needs to be live poker programming done. It should NOT be specially created “made for television” poker – which PokerGO also has with the “High Roller” events that constantly show the same 30 players – but it should be the big events that draw casual eyes…like what happened nearly 20 years ago. The WSOP should be seen live, on broadcast or network television, not shuttered off to streaming sites or to be broadcast at a later date on a sports network that has trouble making the main tier of many cable services.
Here is something that PokerGO should consider. Every once in a while, toss out an ENTIRELY FREE broadcast. No matter if it is the World Poker Tour, the WSOP, one of their “High Roller” championship events – give people a taste of what they might see, not just a snippet that an hour gives. Try to grow the game through the casual fan seeing what is going on, because hard core people are not going to help keep you in business…you are going to have to try to appeal to a larger group than JUST “poker players” to make your channel successful.
CBS is going to have to step up, too. Instead of shuffling the edited broadcasts off to something that people have to hunt for on their cable dial, put it on during your weekend broadcasts on mainstream television – yes, that means you might have to miss putting on that Alabama/Georgia Southern beatdown or not run the Professional Bull Riders latest hoedown. And hey…doing it LIVE might be even better – but that is something for you and PokerGO to work out.
Poker has been around for over 200 years now in the U. S. But does it want to be a part of the mainstream? Having our biggest events in the face of the general public is something that might help to achieve a more mainstream acceptance. While poker purists and the hard-core fans might like having their own private club, it is not going to bring any new blood – or new money – into the system, whether you are a streaming channel or the game itself.