The 2009 World Series of Poker (WSOP) debuted on cable station ESPN on Tuesday with a $40,000 buy-in No Limit Hold’em tournament commemorating the 40th running of the prestigious series. In the end, ratings fell by 4%, but were up in several key demographics.

In 2008, the WSOP on ESPN began airing one week earlier than this year’s festivities. Nevertheless, ratings in 2009 were off by 4% for the premier episode and household impressions were down 2%, according to ESPN Media Contact George McNeilly. However, numbers for two key demographics increased year over year, an encouraging sign for the Bristol-based cable network. McNeilly told Poker News Daily that viewers were up 2% among men ages 18 to 34. In addition, the number of men ages 25 to 54 who tuned into the 2009 WSOP on ESPN grew by an astonishing 16%. Meanwhile, in men ages 18 to 49, the number of viewers was on par with last season’s telecast. Six players at the $40,000 buy-in tournament’s final table were in their 20s, with 2004 WSOP Main Event Champion Greg Raymer serving as its elder statesman at 44 years-old.

Despite overall ratings being down, McNeilly remains optimistic about the remainder of the 2009 WSOP on ESPN schedule. He commented, “We have a long season of outstanding events and great storylines to go.” Last year, the finale of the 2008 WSOP Main Event, which occurred after a 117 day delay at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, turned in a 1.9 rating, up 46% from the rating that conclusion of the 2007 Main Event received (1.3). The latter tournament featured Jerry Yang defeating Tuan Lam. In total, pushing the final table of the Main Event back to coincide with its television broadcast paid off. Instead of viewers asking how a player won, they were left wondering who would win poker’s most prestigious title.

In 2008, the average rating for the 32 episodes that made up the WSOP broadcast was 0.9. That figure represents 919,000 households and 1.55 million viewers, which were up 13% and 15%, respectively, in comparison to 2007 figures. Next Tuesday, the WSOP Champions Invitational will air. The invite-only tournament attracted 20 former Main Event winners to the Rio to battle for a vintage Corvette from the Imperial Palace car collection and the Binion Cup. The tournament’s final nine include Dan Harrington (1995 Main Event Champion), Carlos Mortensen (2001), Huck Seed (1996), Tom McEvoy (1983), and Doyle Brunson (1976 and 1977). The spectacle kicks off at 8:00pm ET on ESPN and runs for two hours.

ESPN’s poker offering will also include the annual Ante Up for Africa charity tournament. The $5,000 buy-in event that raises money and awareness for the crisis in Darfur will pan out on television screens around the country on August 11th at 8:00pm ET. The tournament featured a “who’s who” of the celebrity world, including Mike Tyson, Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Sarah Silverman, Doug Benson, Nelly, and Jason Alexander, whose “Seinfeld” reunion on HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” later this year has been the talk of the television industry.

ESPN will air 24 hours of the 2009 WSOP Main Event between August 18th and November 3rd. On November 10th, the conclusion of the $10,000 buy-in feature tournament will play out, with chip leader Darvin Moon taking on a final table that also includes Full Tilt Poker pro and 2009 two-time bracelet winner Phil Ivey and controversial CardPlayer Magazine Editor Jeff Shulman. The latter has threatened to trash his bracelet should he win due to an ongoing rift with Harrah’s, which owns the rights to the WSOP. Other members of the November Nine are James Akenhead, Kevin Schaffel, Steven Begleiter, Eric Buchman, Joe Cada, and Antoine Saout.

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