Poker’s longest standing TV program will see the premiere of its historic 16th season at the end of the month. The World Poker Tour will begin airing on FOX Sports Regional Networks throughout the US on Sunday, April 29.
But for the first time, it will be doing so with some new faces out front and major changes afoot. Ones that could threaten the popularity of one of the game’s most enduring brands.
Long-time lead host Mike Sexton gave up his position with the WPT after 15 seasons last year. Sexton had been with the WPT since its pre-poker boom inception in 2002. He was well established as the voice of poker in the US. However, Sexton left to take on a role as chairman with the suddenly resurgent partypoker online poker room.
Tony Dunst takes over
Starting with the season-opening WPT Choctaw event from Choctaw Casino & Resort in Durant, Oklahoma, Tony Dunst will replace Sexton, joining long-time Sexton co-host Vince Van Patten in the commentary booth on a full-time basis.
Of course, Dunst is a favorite to have very little trouble filling Sexton’s shoes, having had an ongoing role with WPT hosting the show’s Raw Deal segment the past few years. He’s also stepped in for Sexton whenever he made deep runs in WPT events, which seemed to be quite often the past few years.
He comes in with the right mix of style and experience and fans of the show’s familiarity with Dunst should help make the transition a smooth one.
However, Dunst’s replacement on the Raw Deal segment brings about some other questions.
Instead of replacing Dunst with a young, brash, and opinionated type of the same ilk, the WPT hired a veteran player who remains one of the game’s most polarizing figures. One the poker community was none too happy to see take over the role.
Phil Hellmuth enters the fray
People either love or hate Phil Hellmuth. The 14-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, who has exactly zero WPT titles, has been caught on camera berating amateur players, bemoaning his bad luck and allowing his massive ego to run wild countless times in the almost three decades since he first won the 1989 WSOP Main Event. He truly is the poker brat.
WPT CEO Adam Pliska is saying publicly he’s thrilled to introduce Hellmuth as the WPT’s new Raw Deal host. Privately, he has to be hoping the public hasn’t yet tired of Hellmuth’s antics and caustic behavior. Something many in the poker community suggested they had when he was first hired last year.
In fact, several vocal opponents took to social media criticizing the WPT for going old school with the Hellmuth hiring. They all claimed they would have rather seen the WPT hire someone in Dunst’s next-generation mold instead.
The Raw Deal is designed to appeal to a younger generation of poker player and fan through the use of honest, aggressive, and constructive criticism on hand analysis. Dunst’s natural style and flair really helped make the segment his own.
Hellmuth has a reputation for being overly critical of other players and rarely offering up anything constructive. As a result, there’s a chance using him to replace Dunst could backfire. In fact, it could turn off the very same fans and players the segment was initially designed to attract.
World Poker Tour quality endures
The venerable Van Patten is back for a 16th season. Lynn Gilmartin will anchor the show for the fifth straight year, doing the job as well as anyone before her.
The latest 27-episode WPT season on FOX Sports Regional Networks will include action from some of the top poker destinations in the world and the awarding of the WPT’s one-billionth prize dollar.
The quality of the programming is likely strong enough to withstand any negative impact Hellmuth taking over as Raw Deal host may have. However, questions still persist as to whether the WPT’s popularity will endure now 16 seasons in. After all, it has lost its iconic host an added a truly polarizing figure to the team.
Tune in to new episodes every Sunday on FOX Sports at 8 and 11 p.m. local time for all the answers.
Lead image courtesy of World Poker Tour.