The 2018 World Series of Poker Main Event has been a rousing success. That begs the question: how have live tournaments like the WSOP largely avoided the declining numbers seen in the online and live cash game segments of the poker industry?
The 2018 WSOP is part of a three-year trend
Thanks to a nine percent year-over-year increase, the 2018 WSOP Main Event is the largest field since 2006, and the second largest field in the tournament’s 49-year history.
It also marks the third consecutive year the WSOP Main Event has seen a significant increase in attendance.
The recent growth (4.9 percent in 2016, 7.2 percent in 2017, and 9 percent in 2018) flies in the face of the narrative that poker is in a period of decline, or, if you listen to some social media pundits, dying.
The numbers for the Main Event are a good sign. And a deeper dive into WSOP attendance paints an even rosier picture for the future… provided online poker continues to make headway in the US and across the globe.
Where are the new players coming from?
At first blush, US attendance looks quite strong, as US players are responsible for nearly three-quarters of the WSOP Main Event field over the past four years.
Further, the number of US players grew by 20.5 percent from 2015 to 2018. That’s an increase of 980 players.
That said, the growth rate of US players is lagging behind the growth rate of overall attendance, which clocks in at 22.6 percent over the same period.
So, while US growth is above 20 percent over the past four years, rest-of-world growth clocks in at 29 percent.
All of that bodes well for the WSOP next year, and beyond.
The US market is still untapped
As more states come online, the number of direct buy-in US satellites will continue to grow, bringing hundreds more players to Las Vegas for the WSOP Main Event.
Estimates put the number of online qualifiers for the Main Event from WSOP.com Nevada (not including qualifiers from New Jersey) at around 100 in each of the last two years, and an estimated 60 players in 2016.
Expect even more online satellite participants in the 2019 WSOP ME.
International growth will also continue
At the same time, there’s room for even more growth internationally.
New markets in Asia and South America are opening, and WSOP participation is booming from countries that were previously non-factors.
What’s the actual ceiling for WSOP Main Event attendance?
It’s hard to know where the ceiling for the WSOP Main Event is.
Had UIGEA not happened, the 2007 World Series of Poker would have had an over/under line of 10,000 players.
If online poker returns to the US in earnest, there’s no reason to believe attendance for the WSOP Main Event can’t break five-figures.
Non-US player participation will continue to rise as more and more markets open up and mature, and online poker would cause a significant spike in US attendance.
There’s also the female factor. A third of online poker players are female, but female participation in the 2018 WSOP ME was in line with previous years: 3.8 percent.
If poker ever solves its female problem, attendance numbers will skyrocket.
Poker isn’t dying, it’s changing
It’s easy to understand why the narrative that poker is dying (at least traditional poker) has gained traction.
Poker rooms and tables have been steadily disappearing across the United States, particularly in the poker capital of the world, Las Vegas.
Further, despite new markets opening, and the dawn of the era of liquidity sharing, online poker preferences are shifting. Players are choosing the newer, faster, more-gamble-y games like lottery style Sit & Go tournaments over traditional poker games.
Yet live tournament poker seems to be thriving. And not just at the WSOP.
Don’t be fooled by the declining buy-ins and smaller turnouts at some tournaments. That’s largely a product of increased competition and not an indication of the popularity of live tournament poker.
In fact, it would appear that live tournament poker is either:
- Independent of other forms of poker, and therefore unaffected by the current shift; or
- Lagging several years behind the live cash game and online trends.
The former seems more likely than the latter. The poker world may have to come to grips live tournament poker is a different animal that draws from a wider player pool than cash games and online poker.