NBC Sports plans to announce today that it will produce its own Las Vegas-based poker tournament — a move that could be a prelude toward landing the World Series of Poker on network television.
NBC will film the National Heads-Up Poker Championship, a showdown between 64 players at the Golden Nugget in early March, just the latest in a series of new television programs aimed at capitalizing on poker’s growing popularity.
The event, which features a $1.5 million purse and will air on four consecutive Sundays in May from 9 a.m.-10 a.m. (noon to 1 p.m. on the East Coast), prior to the network’s telecast of the Arena Football League. The tournament will conclude with a two-hour finale on May 22 from 10 a.m. to noon. (1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Eastern time).
Unlike other televised poker events, the format will be head-to-head competition with a single elimination. Players will pay a $20,000 buy-in and play no-limit Texas Hold ’em. The overall winner will receive $500,000.
“It’s almost like an NCAA (basketball) tournament format where you have 64 players and get them down to one overall champion,” said Jon Miller, senior vice president for NBC Sports. “The most dramatic phase of each game is when it comes down to the final two players. It’s in these heads-up matches that top players play their opponent more than the cards with a lot of bluffing and table talk.”
Miller said an NBC producer who has worked on NASCAR and the Olympics came up with the idea for a tournament.
“Poker has found a tremendous audience with a great following. One of our top producers who has worked on NASCAR and the Olympics came up with this idea,” Miller said.
Miller said the event would be filmed March 4-6 and players would be seeded into groupings.
Miller said NBC looked at other venues around the country, but decided Las Vegas was the right location for the tournament, which will include a recognizable field of players, including poker legends Doyle Brunson, Howard Lederer and Johnny Chan, and the two most recent World Series of Poker champions, Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer.
“Las Vegas gives this event a tremendous amount of credibility,” Miller said. “This is where a Bandarq poker championship should be held.” Rob Dondero, executive vice president with R&R; Partners, said the time slot for the broadcasts and their national scope could be worth $500,000 in exposure to both the Golden Nugget and Las Vegas for each telecast.
“They may get fairly decent ratings for an early Sunday morning time slot,” Dondero said. “The Nugget will get exposure from having its name on the table felt and the cards and through some property shots.”
Miller said invites had been sent to players and he expects the field to be filled quickly.
“Poker has been exploding in popularity the last couple of years,” Brunson said in a statement. “The only thing missing was having a tournament on a network TV. As a player, I couldn’t be happier.”
NBC has had success with two televised poker events shown the last two years opposite the Super Bowl pregame coverage, Miller said. This year’s event, the Poker Superstars Championship, scored a 2.2 rating opposite an National Basketball Association game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, which had a 2.0 rating. Miller said the Las Vegas event will add to NBC’s poker credentials.
With Harrah’s Entertainment announcing in January that it had retained the former president of CBS Sports as a consultant to renegotiate its agreement with ESPN to televise the World Series of Poker, Miller said NBC might want to get in on the bidding.
“When we got the U.S. Open and our golf package, we had to show we knew how to do golf,” Miller said. “With what we’ve accomplished so far with poker, the World Series of Poker is something we’d like to take a look at. Poker has found a tremendous audience with a great following.”
Harrah’s obtained the rights to the World Series of Poker last year when it purchased downtown Las Vegas’ Binion’s Horseshoe. It sold the downtown casino to MTR Gaming Group last year, but retained both the Horseshoe name and the World Series of Poker.
Harrah’s plans to hold this year’s event at the Rio beginning the first week of June. The no-limit Texas hold’em main event will be played in mid-July with the final two days, scheduled for July 14-15, taking place at Binion’s for the final time.