I was perusing my own archives yesterday, ostensibly to select some of my better pieces as writing samples for prospective employers. Not that there are any of those knocking my door down these days, but better to be prepared, right? In between my realization that I had not composed a traditional resume in over 12 years and the desire to bathe my scratchy throat with a glass of ice-cold chocolate milk, I came upon a list of op-ed ideas I'd scribbled down on October 4, 2010. One of them jumped out at me.
"Has the November Nine run its course?"
I didn't end up penning that one. I probably could or would have written the opposite side of that argument in 2008 or 2009. Back then, it was an innovative idea that had the potential to generate a lot of revenue for Harrah's and the "Niners" alike. And for a while, it did.
Later that day, I read this PokerListings piece, in which writer Arthur Crowson questions WSOP communications honcho Seth Palansky about the future of the November Nine.
“We’re committed to it but I think what we learned over the summer with the live and taped programming is that we’re going to have to revisit the concept after this November,” clarified Palansky.
My, how one year changes everything.
More than six months post-Black Friday, we've seen the poker television landscape decimated. Poker After Dark? No mas. NBC Heads-Up? No mas. My favorite new poker show The Big Game? No mas. And ratings for everything else, including the slickly packaged Mori Eskandani-produced WSOP broadcasts? In. The. Shitter. I'll go out on a limb and say that even if the events of Black Friday hadn't occurred, the drastic culling of poker TV hours was still an inevitability-- it just would have taken more time.
Bottom line? People just don't seem to want to watch it anymore, no matter how many bells and whistles are tacked on. Heck, even I don't watch it anymore and I'm supposed to be one of those "hard-core fans" producers and advertisers and network execs count on. These days, if I'm going to dedicate hours to watching poker, it's in the form of a strategy video or a final table replay-- something that can (and has) enabled me to make more money in live games. Because I'm sure not making it in the media anymore. And living in San Francisco sure is expensive.
This year's November Nine will more likely than not be the last one we see. One of the primary reasons for creating the four-month delay was to give the Niners the opportunity to pick up sponsorships, do a shitload of publicity, and "build anticipation" for the final table. Now, with poker's principal advertisers and sponsors (online poker sites) sidelined in the United States, what sort of deals are these guys going to get, if any? Mainstream corporate sponsorship has been the holy grail the Harrah's brass has sought for the WSOP since the boom, but their quest has largely come up empty in terms of the November Nine (and not for lack of trying. Really really trying). Rather than wearing patches touting Nike, Red Bull, or Mercedes-Benz, the Niners have largely shilled PokerStars, Full Tilt, and various online training sites. Oh, and that patio furniture company that threw a few bucks at The Grinder last year.
Not only has poker's sponsorship model drastically changed/disappeared, the game's delivery system has evolved. Rather than sticking with a produced, tightly packaged episodic format aired months after an event's completion, more and more of them are being live streamed online. Broadcasts like Live at the Bike and EPT Live pioneered this concept as far back as 2005, and it's now being widely used on the WPT, the WSOP-Circuit, and the WSOP itself. It provides instant gratification for the viewer, and technological advances have made it much cheaper and easier to implement. What sort of hard-core fan will still sort through hundreds of hands on a live blog trying to extrapolate the action when he or she can simply watch it all unfold on a 15-minute delay?
Put it this way. I watched the live stream constantly while the WSOP Main Event was playing down to a final table this July. But I haven't watched a single packaged WSOP episode on ESPN this year. And I'll probably watch the live stream again next weekend when the cards go in the air inside the Penn & Teller theatre.
Fans haven't changed, but their appetite for certain delivery systems has. I don't watch movies in 2011 the same way I watched them in 1999 and I don't follow poker the same way I did in 2007. Only three years ago, I made the bulk of my income live-blogging tournaments and now it's a method that is nearly obsolete. The optimist in me thought the death of tournament reporting and the rise of the live stream might give way to a rebirth of longer-form poker writing, but Black Friday put a stop to that when the taps of the two online behemoths pumping cash into the industry were abruptly turned off.
Magazines and online sites I once wrote for have precious few advertising dollars rolling in. Some have folded altogether. Others will no doubt follow in the coming dark years of the game, before the U.S. Government gets their shit together and finally legalizes online poker. But I have no more faith in those charlatans and snake-oil salesmen than I do in Full Tilt Poker, who still owes me $1,945 of my own money.
I believe there's a larger reason why folks have stopped watching televised poker. It's not only that the casual fans stopped tuning in as the boom drew its last breaths. It's not only that Black Friday effectively stopped the influx of new American players to the game. It's not only that televised final tables were increasingly made up of people folks had never heard of rather than familiar old-school pros. It's all of those things, but it's bigger than that.
People aren't just broke, they're broken. They are so fucking broken they're actually starting to turn off the Real Housewives and rise up out of their self-induced collective coma against the institutions rigging the game in this country. Russ Hamilton's crimes are downright quaint when held up against the shit Goldman Sachs gets away with every single day. With economic depression, high unemployment, falling wages and a bleak future facing the citizens of our hopelessly sold-out country, who the hell wants to watch a bunch of 23 year-olds in hoodies play cards for millions of dollars? Why give a rat's ass about the newest poker-minted millionaire when you can't even play a $10 sit-n-go in your own home anymore thanks to our government?
Think about why people got hooked on televised poker in the first place. Not just because they found it exciting and suspenseful, but because they knew anyone could win. Anyone could ship a satellite package online and parlay that into tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a live event. Anyone could end up under those lights, popping champagne with Mike Sexton. Lots of "anyones" did, and millions were inspired to play. Without that carrot, it's well, just an empty stick. Live streaming will sate the diehards and perhaps the Main Event will always live on in some form of edited package, but I expect even more programming to die out unless online poker makes a quick, legal comeback.
On April 15, thousands of people who once had a way of supporting themselves outside the system had their way of life taken away with one stroke of Preet Bharaha's pen. When it comes to the fall of online poker in the U.S., the powers that be weren't getting their "fair share" of that juicy green pie. So they leveled the industry altogether in order to eventually weasel their way in. It won't happen in the short-term, but it will happen eventually. There may be time pressure for those clinging to the last vestiges of the industry, but there's no time pressure for them. Our money will always be there, ready for the taking the minute that tap is turned back on. Perhaps when the big banks finally start collecting all those precious transaction fees from online poker players we'll see someone in a JP Morgan Chase patch at the final table. Remember, guys. You're only allowed three. B of A gets three too, and so does Citibank.
I didn't apply for a press credential to last year's November Nine. I drove out there, saw some friends, dropped off Pauly and was back on I-15 south before cards went in the air. I didn't apply for them this year either, even though I will be in Las Vegas when someone finally holds that bracelet aloft. You're more likely instead to find me somewhere off the Strip, in a cash game or a nightly tournament, iPod in my ears and 16 oz. of steaming coffee in my cup holder, trying to grind out the rent money. After all, I do have another skill set that has thus far helped me avoid complete financial ruin. I might as well use it.
For what it was, though, the November Nine certainly had its moments. And most of them revolved around the friends, family, and fans of the players who came out to support them, often in matching specialized shirts (seriously, who doesn't love a group costume?). I'll miss their infectious energy and I'll miss the spectacle, but they'll no doubt be channelled into whatever new delivery system the Harrah's brass conjure up. A 48-hour delay? A week? Maybe I'll be around to cover it live, maybe I won't.
But I'll surely be watching the stream.
2011 November Nine photo by Jay "WhoJedi" Newnum