For a long time, the TV poker market in the United States has been carved up by just a few players. ESPN has a lock on the World Series of Poker. FOX Sports has the World Poker Tour. The Heartland Poker Tour is syndicated on small networks and local providers around the country. Aside from a handful of other local and regional shows in limited runs, that’s basically been the TV poker lineup for the last several years.
Earlier this week, though, a new player announced that it will be entering the game soon. The Poker Entertainment Network (PEN) is slated to launch this December. Based in Los Angeles, the network will run 24/7 and be dedicated to covering all facets of the world of poker from live tournaments and cash games, to lifestyle and reality shows, to the latest poker news from around the world. Current plans for the Poker Entertainment Network involve covering tournaments in markets outside of the poker’s traditional home in Las Vegas, particularly on the East Coast and in the Midwest and Canada. New markets like Florida, which has become a popular destination for established tours like the WPT and the WSOP Circuit since the state’s legislature changed the law to accommodate high-stakes tournaments a few years ago, also look to get plenty of coverage from PEN.
It’s not the first time that an all-poker cable network has been launched – that honor belongs to the Poker Channel, which reaches 30 million homes in 30 countries throughout Europe. But PEN will be the first taste of a dedicated network within the United States. Its launch comes at an interesting time for poker in the U.S. Besides Florida, there’s been an explosion in legalized markets further up the East Coast; West Virginia and Delaware have already opened for business, and Maryland is set to open its first live poker operation at the end of August. Also, just within just the last year, online poker has been explicitly legalized in Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada. While there’s only one room up and running at the moment – Nevada’s Ultimate Poker – several others have been licensed, meaning that more options for players are just around the corner. And several other states have been considering legislation to join the early adopters. Throw in the potential for interstate compacts, allowing participating states to share their player pools, and the potential for growth becomes clear.
Of course, just building the online infrastructure wouldn’t be enough to guarantee success. There has to be a way to tell the tens of millions of Americans who play poker that they can one again check-raise their friends for money on the internet. The poker boom in the early 2000s was fueled by the twin engines of online poker and televised tournaments. It proved to be a potent combination. The influx of new players provided a base for the World Poker Tour’s traveling show and turned the WSOP Main Event from a modest gathering of a few hundred poker pros every spring into a behemoth that seated nearly nine thousand, mostly amateurs, and awarded $12 million to the winner. The broadcasts of those tournaments then reinforced the game’s popularity. If the online game should come back with real force in the near future, PEN’s December launch would put the network in a good position to take advantage.
The other question is whether there’s enough of an audience to justify an entire network. In an earlier era, with far fewer cable TV networks in existence, with poker occupying a narrower niche within society, the answer would likely have been a resounding “no.” But today’s landscape is dramatically different in both regards. There are so many cable networks today that the viewership needed to keep any given one afloat is much smaller than it used to be. And while estimates of the number of regular poker players in America vary, the Poker Players Alliance cites numbers from Poker Players Research, the most recent of which show that in 2010 some 22.2 million Americans played poker for money at least once a month. That’s nearly nine percent of the country’s entire adult population, roughly comparable to other popular American pastimes like tennis (30 million players) and golf (26 million). Each of those sports has its own dedicated cable network widely available in the U.S., suggesting that a similar poker channel could find success.
One other consideration is that the poker media grew out of the last boom but didn’t truly mature until long after UIGEA put the brakes on it. As a result there’s far more poker content out there today than there ever was during the boom. The number of poker tours has grown significantly in the last few years. Cash games have proven popular on television (High Stakes Poker on GSN) and the internet (Live At The Bike from the Bicycle Casino). Poker documentaries have even begun to pop up. There are more people out there today with more experience producing poker content than at any other time, giving a poker TV startup plenty of options when it to original programming.
None of these factors on their own make PEN a guaranteed success, but they certainly don’t hurt the fledgling network’s chances. When you add them all together, they make for a compelling case to give an all-poker network a try. Starting in December, we’ll all have a chance to see whether it works as well in practice as it looks like it should on paper.