The 2014 WSOP is officially in the history books now that Martin Jacobson of Sweden has won the Main Event. But if you’re the only one of your friends who actually knows that, don’t be too surprised. The audience for ESPN’s coverage of his victory on Tuesday night, featuring a new “nearly live” format with a 30-minute delay that allowed hole cards to be shown for every hand, was down 6.1 percent from last year’s.
A total of 1.15 million people tuned in to see Jacobson become poker’s latest world champion. Last year, 1.23 million people watched Ryan Riess take down the 2013 championship. Part of the drop from the previous year might be attributable to the matchup. In 2013, the final night of coverage featured the heads-up match between American amateur Jay Farber and his professional compatriot. This Tuesday’s ESPN coverage showed three-handed play between three European professional poker players – Jacobson, Felix Stephensen, and Jorryt Van Hoof – before Van Hoof was eliminated in third place and the two Scandinavian players faced off for the bracelet. Not only was last year’s matchup more immediately accessible for an American TV audience, but the two-man show was significantly shorter as well.
There’s not a lot ESPN can do about the makeup of the final table, and they don’t appear to be ready to change the format of their broadcasts to make them shorter. Moreover, they’ve been happy with flat numbers in the post-Black Friday era, so the chances of major changes to the WSOP formula mean we’ll probably see a similar format through 2017, when the network’s contract to air WSOP coverage comes to an end. But a look at the rest of the shows that finished ahead of the WSOP this Tuesday in the top 100 cable TV programs gives a couple of hints as to how some other enterprising producers could turn a poker-related property into something a more mainstream audience will actually want to watch.
Sons Of Anarchy – 4.38 million, 2.2 rating
The top-rated show on Tuesday night was FX’s Sons Of Anarchy. The latest episode of the drama about a California motorcycle gang, now in its seventh season, drew close to four times as many viewers as the WSOP finale. If viewers want to see more colorful characters and crime, a lightly fictionalized version of the lives of the Binion family, founders of the WSOP, would give them plenty of both – after all, father Benny only left Dallas for Las Vegas when the sheriff he’d had in his pocket lost the election and two reformers took over the District Attorney’s office.
The Big Bang Theory – 2.373 million, 0.9 rating
Re-runs of this long-running sitcom about a bunch of nerds grabbed five of the top 10 ratings for all of cable TV on Tuesday, with the most-watched of them seen by twice as many people as the WSOP. Given that all the outlaws and loudmouths are gone from poker and the game is beginning to be dominated by “nerds and mathletes,” as one friend of mine describes them, it’s hard to know what additional lessons to take from The Big Bang Theory. Maybe the best is to make people laugh – perhaps by upgrading the WSOP from a guy who ”>says he once suffered through three laughless years before giving up on stand-up comedy to one who has produced comedy for MadTV and Funny Or Die? (Or if you’re a traditionalist, like the latter himself, maybe just let the latter write for the former.)
Real Housewives of New Jersey – 1.634 million, 0.7 rating
With 50 percent more viewers than the WSOP, this reality show about wealthy “housewives” is a spinoff of a franchise that has shown America the pampered lives of rich women living in major metropolitan areas since 2009. If all you want to do is match their banality, plenty of high-rollers in New Jersey and other poker centers have “girlfriends” who can probably quote you an on-camera rate. But if you wanted to do one better, you could make a reality series about the women who make a living playing cash-game poker in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New England, or any other place where grinding to pay the bills is a possibility. There are plenty of them out there, and they’re bound to be a lot more interesting than any housewife since they live by their wits in a male-dominated world.
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – 1.23 million, 0.4 rating
There’s a hunger among the American TV-watching audience for dark crime stories, as the popularity of a marathon of Law & Order: SVU on Tuesday show – almost every single episode was more highly rated than the WSOP. Sadly enough, there enough such stories around the poker world to put together a full season of a Law & Order-like crime anthology series. Sometimes a poker player meets an untimely end, like Mehmet Hassan, who was murdered after being lured into a premeditated burglary. Other times it’s the poker player on the wrong side of the law, like Ernie Scherer, who was tried and convicted of murdering his parents, or Marcus Bebb-Jones got 20 years for murdering his wife, whose body wasn’t found until seven years after she disappeared.