ESPN deserves a recognized place in history for creating the World Series of Poker we know today. The television giant put poker on a pedestal that made the game inescapable from anyone flipping channels in the mid-2000s. Money poured in from the network to build the WSOP brand and create characters who are still recognized today.
However, in 2018, the same ESPN that established the Main Event as poker’s biggest spectacle is now tearing it down. Poor scheduling on behalf of ESPN for this year’s Main Event is tarnishing what should be two weeks with no room for complaint.
The elimination of the November Nine created a new era of poker for both players and fans. Last year’s compromise of two days off prior to the final table proved to be a success. Media created stories for casual fans to feed into the brief window. John Hesp’s miracle run to the final table reached worldwide status when BBC did a feature on the Englishman.
The potential to have a Hesp in 2018 is gone. The Main Event schedule places the first day of the final table 15 hours after the end of Day 7. Any player who is blessed enough to reach the final table is bound to decline interview requests as a means to sleep (you try sleeping with $8 million on the line) and prepare as much as possible for the biggest financial spot of their life. There is simply no time to create arcs to build on during the broadcast.
ESPN and the WSOP decided optimal scheduling for poker’s biggest spectacle is not worth any time to build up the characters for the viewing audience. The last time the final table took place the day after playdown day was in 2007, which is also the year before the inception of the November Nine. Social media did not exist as a means to promote players and ESPN owned all rights to broadcast the final table.
Casual viewers unable to have a ‘hero’ or ‘villain’ to provide a rooting interest are not going to be drawn in unless ESPN and the WSOP are able to conjure up Phil Ivey or Daniel Negreanu among the remaining nine.
The PokerGO live stream and ESPN telecast leading up to the final table can only go so far to drag away from other broadcasts unless there is an already established star deep. Those spotlights are few and far between.
ESPN does not have an immediate incentive to ‘grow poker’ but more viewers tuning into the Main Event for the first time helps both ratings and potential entrants in upcoming years. The argument for ESPN wanting to save money on production costs does not hold water. The $1 million Big One For One Drop plays immediately after the Main Event and goes live on ESPN. A three-day event of the Big One’s size fits perfectly into a potential gap between Day 7 and final table. Assuming ESPN is using the same crew for One Drop as they are the Main Event, those workers are still needed to work the additional days after the Main Event concludes.
To give the Main Event final tablists the short end of this non-existent deal demeans their achievement. Good luck trying to have them fly in family and friends on less than 24-hours notice. The ESPN stage boomed in 2017 with East Coast pals of Scott Blumstein who came in to support their man.
A guess in the defense of ESPN is their ostensible hope that another William Kassouf or Mickey Craft falls into their lap and makes the final table.
To their credit, the World Poker Tour wants to create stars out of all of those who attain status as a member of a televised final table in Season XVII. Their rival does not feel the same about their own talent and is taking them for granted.
A final table full of complete unknowns is a justified end to this saga.