Friday, May 02, 2008

The WSOP and the Ratings Sweeps Final Table

[The opinions expressed here are mine alone, and not necessarily those of my employer or employers.]

It was pretty much open knowledge that the announced press conference this week by Harrah's and the WSOP was to confirm that the final table of the WSOP Main Event final table was to be delayed to November, in large part to be able to hype the partipicants and the massive money involved, the better to reinvigorate TV ratings and casual poker interest in a stagnant televised-poker market.

To be sure, ESPN was a big mover behind the new plan, though as spring arrived it appeared that getting it done for the 2008 WSOP was too little, too late. Among the rumored issues was the lengthy time required to have changes of such a major scope authorized by the Nevada Gaming Commission, the official oversight body for such tournaments. NGC approval normally takes months, but this, somehow, made it onto the fast track. Disney corporate muscle, perhaps?

No matter. The move's going to happen, and I don't care about that in a personal sense. The chance of it personally affecting me is related only to the chance I have of needing to return there for work duties, and that's part of my job... Its greater effects on poker I do care about, however. En fuego threads have popped up on bulletin boards of all sizes, most of which has which have featured largely negative comments on the proposed change.

Can't say I blame them. The change benefits the upper crust of pro players, and also benefits the donkeys having the runs of their lives, who will then have a chance to study and improve. It's a distinct dis-benefit to the rank-and-file player who grinds away year after year. It's also a distinct dis-benefit to international touring players. It's a decent enough idea, just poorly executed.

Some of what was said to during the conferences during the conference had me agape with the double-speak being shoveled. One early call had CC phoning in to ask, in part, whether Harrah's was going to sweeten the prize pool with a slice of the added revenues generated by ESPN's switch to make this a ratings-sweep, high-viewership powerhouse. Would Harrah's share the wealth?

WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack circled around the question and then returned to it, avering that Harrah's was indeed padding the pot. That padding in turn, turns out to be the accrued interest generated by the $20 million or whatever will generate in a low-risk CD over the 117 days the ME is placed on hold. That money, of course, is rightly the players' anyhow, so it can be translated as saying that the pool will be padded slightly -- by the players' own entry fees. I find the attempt by Harrah's to claim that this is Harrah's "padding" the player pool to be both inaccurate and disingenuous. They're giving the eventual winner the accrued interest on the portion of the player pool that has to be held for the extra four months. They're contributing nada from the extra corporate sponsorship deals they have or may yet ink.

Another point of contention sure to draw attention in recent days is the oft-repeated mantra that the changes were approved by the Players Action Committee. The PAC has powerful members, and it's unfair to refer to it as "rubber stamp" organization, but the PAC is neither all players, nor do the players who are on the committee free of other business interests that would not make them far more likely togo along with the change.

According to a recent Matt Savage column on PokerNews, the PAC consists of: The PAC is headed up by WSOP Commissioner Jeffrey Pollack and is attended by Harrah's executives Howard Greenbaum, Ty Stewart, Gary Thompson, Bruce Benson, Joseph Scibetta, and Effel. Player representatives are Howard Lederer, Daniel Negreanu, Jennifer Harman, Annie Duke, Phil Gordon, TJ Cloutier, Cyndy Violette, Robert Williamson III, Mickey Appleman, Wendeen Eolis, Barry Greenstein, Chris Ferguson, Bob and Maureen Feduniak, Marissa Chien, Tom Schneider, and Steve Zolotow. Also among the PAC members are WSOP Media Director Nolan Dalla, and from the television-production side, Matt Maranz, David Swartz, and Jamie Horowitz.

Interesting mix. First, the business side of poker occupies almost as many positions on the committee as those occupied by people who would generally be identified as major pro players. Second, several of the players on the board are exactly among the upper crust that would likely benefit the most from the extra wrinkles the four-month delay would bring. Either these players would benefit from huge endorsement opportunities from being likely the only name star at a final table to be pimp-delayed for four months,or would be the most likely to leverage their own teaching and promotional opportunities regarding the players who are lucky enough to make the final. Such high-end influences and pros are less likely to reflect the interests of rank-and-file players, and are more susceptible to the big-dollar pitch likely offered by Harrah's and ESPN. It's not the true cross-section of the pro-player public Harrah's makes it out to be.

I haven't even gotten into some of the other very obvious issues the delayed final brings up, including the widespread collusive threat the new format is likely to encourage.

In short, I wish it well as a innovative concept, but I think it's a bad move for poker as a legitimate, serious game. Maybe I'm wrong. We'll see.


CC said...

Thanks for the shoutout, and hope you're doing well. I estimated $140-170k would be added to the prize pool for the Final Table from the interest; a chunk of change to you and me, fairly meaningless for the Final Table participants (and to your point, it's their cash). I jumped on the Miller rep saying that this gave them value (value=$$).

Gene said...

For some reason I missed the fact that Pollack said the interest on the prize money counted as money Harrah's was adding to the prize pool. That is absolutely outrageous, it insults the intelligence of every player who enters the Main Event. If that's the quality of the thinking behind this idea, maybe it's not going to work after all.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't focus too much on his choice of words there, Gene. He was answering a question about value added to the prizepool, and it was a good opportunity for him to inform us that the interest during the 117 days would be given to the players, not kept by Harrah's/Caesars.

Pollack is under no delusions that this money belongs to Harrah's, and is some sort of "gift" to the players. That was just the context under which the question was asked.

Most players who first heard the rumors assumed that Harrah's would keep the interest. (How cynical!) A few people changed their opinions from negative to positive based primarily on the fact that any interest earned is given back to the players.

Remember, this idea was worked out thoroughly with the Players Advisory Committee. Even if Pollack doesn't instinctually understand some of the issues (that the prizepool is, in fact, the players' money; the potential for collusion; how bad it would be to accelerate the final table blind structure; etc.), he has people like Daniel Negreanu and Howard Lederer to explain things to him.