Lack of TV presence drops WSOP's H.O.R.S.E. field to 95 players

29 June 2009

LAS VEGAS – As he watched the action of the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship early Saturday night, World Series of Poker Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack had a wide smile on his face as he motioned to the crowd hovering along the rail. The fans were standing two and three deep in most spots and the amount of camera bulbs that were flashing made it look like a red carpet at the opening of a blockbuster motion picture.

"How can anyone stand here and see this and say that this event isn't already a spectacular success," Pollack said. "The rails are packed and that's the way it's been since [the H.O.R.S.E. event started] on Friday. Almost every top player in the world is here sitting among these nine or 10 tables. It's tough to look around and not see a poker icon at one of the tables."

It was indeed a who's who of poker stars. There were Main Event champs (Chris Ferguson, Huck Seed, Doyle Brunson, Jim Bechtel), the two living defending champs of the event (Scotty Nguyen, Freddy Deeb) and some of the other more recognizable faces in the game (Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey, Annie Duke, Mike Matusow, Gus Hansen).


"This was a joint decision by ESPN and Harrah's and we did talk with a variety of stakeholders including poker players. In the final analysis, viewers strongly associate the WSOP with Texas Hold'em"
ESPN Senior Director of Programming
and Acquisitions Doug White.









But even with the star-studded field and the packed rail, Pollack couldn't escape the fact that the field for this fourth edition of the prestigious H.O.R.S.E. Championship was down more than 30 percent compared to the first three. After attracting nearly 150 players in each of the first three years (143 in 2006, 148 in 2007 and 148 last year), the 2009 H.O.R.S.E. Championship saw just 95 players ante up the $50k – and even that was a stretch.

Day 1 of the event was scheduled to begin Friday at 12 noon, but at 11:45 a.m. just 30 or so players had signed up, prompting the WSOP to push the start back an hour to allow some more players to use the late registration option. When play started there were about 60 players in the field and when registration closed at the start of Level 2 it had reached the 95-player mark. But the decision to delay the start didn't sit well with a few pros that were there on time and ready to go at high noon.

"We did what we felt was necessary," Pollack said. "And we tried to explain that to the players who were there on time. I still think that 95 players in a $50k buy-in during the worst economy of our lifetime is still a pretty good turnout."

Notable players missing in the field included last year's runner-up Michael DeMichele, Allen Cunningham, Tom "Durrrr" Dwan, Phil Hellmuth, Ted Forrest and Lyle Berman, who made last year's final table. With the 95-player field, 16 players will cash this year with the winner of the David "Chip" Reese Memorial trophy taking home $1,276,802. Last year the top prize – won by Nguyen – was $1,989,120.

Pollack cited three reasons – in no particular order – for the drop in the number of entrants – the economy, the fact that there was a $40,000 No Limit buy-in tournament just four weeks earlier and the decision made by ESPN not to televise the event for the first time.

But most of the players that Casino City spoke with were adamant that the primary reason was the lack of ESPN cameras in the room.

"That's 100 percent the reason; it's probably the only reason," said 2004 Main Event champ Greg Raymer, who was eliminated from the event early on in Day 2. "The economy and the $40k tournament may have played a role for a very small percentage of people. But the truth is, if ESPN were televising it, there would have been a lot more players here."

Raymer, who said he wasn't planning on participating until he enjoyed a $29,000 windfall at the Bellagio poker room the night before Day 1, explained that with his contract with PokerStars would not buy him into the H.O.R.S.E. Championship because it is not a TV event this year.

"So it had to come out of my own pocket," he said. "And I'm sure there were a lot of players out there in the same boat. Because the buy-in wasn't being picked up, they either chose not to play in it or they couldn't come up with the buy-in. To be honest, I really shouldn't have played in it. To appropriately play in a tournament you should have 100 times the buy-in in your bankroll. I'm sorry to say I don't have a $5 million bankroll."

Doyle Brunson and Andy Bloch also told us that they thought TV was the driving force behind the decision of many players to skip the event. And on his blog, Negreanu was quite vocal about the decision not to televise the event.


ESPN_WSOP_Cards

Players are hoping that the decision not to televise the annual $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. World Championship will be reconsidered. (photo by Phil Ellsworth/ESPN)



"We got 95 [players] and no, the economy was NOT the primary reason for that. Not even close," Kid Poker wrote in his blog. "No TV is what caused it. Not for the reasons you might think. Not because poker players are so desperate to be on television, the main reason we lost so many players is that many pros today have sponsorship deals. Many of those deals are contingent on the fact that the event is televised."

ESPN announced back in April that it was only going to air two bracelet events this year and that of the total of four events being shown, all of them featured Hold'em events. The network explained at the time that over the years events showing forms of poker other than Hold'em suffered in the ratings. So instead of mixed events this summer, ESPN will be airing a record number of Main Event coverage going from 18 in 2008 to 24 in 2009.

ESPN Senior Director of Programming and Acquisitions Doug White further defended the decision to us on Monday.

"Much care and thought went into the schedule as we want to show the most compelling action," White said. "This was a joint decision by ESPN and Harrah's and we did talk with a variety of stakeholders including poker players… In the final analysis, viewers strongly associate [the] WSOP with Texas Hold'em."

Raymer said he wasn't doubting ratings were down in non-Hold'em events, but hopes that can change over time.

"It's unfortunate that the public can't find it in themselves to learn and enjoy these other games," Raymer said. "No Limit Hold'em has drama because it's relatively simplistic. But I think it's the most boring. To me, the other games are more fun to watch and they're definitely more interesting to play. We need to raise the level of sophistication of our TV viewing audience."

One suggestion that Bloch made was to have the H.O.R.S.E. event revert back to the format that was used in the inaugural event when Hold'em was used at the final table. Bloch, who was at that final table and eventually lost an epic heads-up match against the late Chip Reese, thinks this solution would make everybody happy.

"The original tournament of champions did it before the WSOP got big and we did it in 2006, so there's a lot of precedence for that kind of format," said Bloch, who was eliminated from this year's event on Day 3. "I think it would be great change the format to having No Limit at the final table and then – just so people can't complain that it's no longer a real H.O.R.S.E. event – we change the name of it to the Chip Reese Memorial Tournament. That would be great for everyone involved – including TV."

Added Negreanu in his blog, "I'm confident that the decision makers will see, after the drop in numbers, just how important it is to go back to the original format, and get it back on television. I'll be louder than ever in reminding them how important it is that this event continues to hold a high level of prestige."

When asked about a possible format change to make the event more attractive for TV, White said, "We are here to serve sports fans. We'll head into next season just as we did this year, with an open-minded approach to best serve the fans."

Speaking of the fans, they continued to jam the rail for the H.O.R.S.E. event throughout the weekend and even into Monday when lay began with Vitaly Lunkin,
Erik Sagstrom and Deeb ranking 1-2-3 on the chip lead board.

"I don't focus on numbers, I focus on quality," Pollack said. "If you focus on quality long enough over time, you're going to be OK and that's what we're trying to do."


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