Why Poker is a Sleeping Giant in U.S. Sport

The extent to which poker should be considered a sport can be debated to no end. On the one hand, it does not require athletic ability or physical exertion — even if long hours at a tournament can be tiring in a certain way. On the other hand though, professional poker functions like a sport, with competitions, tournaments, rankings, and spectators.

If we think of poker in the latter sense, and from a viewership perspective, it seems very much like a sport. And building on this premise, there are actually some reasons to believe that it may be a sleeping giant on the U.S. pro sports scene.

Past Viewership

One reason to be bullish about the potential of poker as a spectator sport is that its past viewership has been fairly strong. As recently as 2008, viewers for the main event of the World Series of Poker on ESPN topped out around 2.4 million. That was actually a 34% increase from the previous year, but it was also a number that came a few years after pro poker’s true TV heyday.

For the sake of comparison, that 2.4-million number would put the WSOP main event ahead of some popular sports. While it doesn’t land poker in the company of the likes of the NBA, MLB, or NFL, it does top boxing, rugby, and some NASCAR races, as well as some tennis and golf competitions. Poker might not have the clout of a “major” sport, but it certainly wouldn’t be a fringe one.

Comeback Potential

One of the reasons that pro poker appears to be past its prime in the U.S. is that ordinary people have fewer ways to play than they did a couple of decades ago. This is because of what has effectively been a nationwide ban on internet poker, which is where so many amateurs connected with the game. The past few years, however, have seen online poker emerging once again in parts of the U.S.

As of now, Nevada, Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey have legalized online poker, and at least six other states are openly considering doing the same. Revenue at legal online poker sites in states that have legalized the game skyrocketed last year during the pandemic, and early indications are that numbers are staying strong even as people ease back into the real world. In short, online poker is working in what could soon be about a quarter of U.S. states. We could be seeing the early steps on a path toward near-nationwide legalization, which could in turn spark a second poker boom and renewed interest in the professional circuit on TV.

Appeal to New Fans

Another important factor to consider regarding poker as a sleeping giant is that if and when it catches on among amateurs again, it will bring along total newcomers as well. By checking out some beginner guides to poker, players will find the process as simple as learning the rules of common varieties, figuring out how and when cards are dealt and bets are made, and trying out some easy, low-stakes games. Anyone with a general interest can at least pick up the basics in a matter of hours.

This easy process for new players is arguably what helped poker to explode so rapidly in the early 2000s. People saw amateurs winning money on television and decided to try the game out themselves. That only helped to perpetuate more interest, and in turn elevate the pro game to greater heights. In theory, this can happen all over again if online poker indeed continues to expand.

Inevitability of New Viewing Options

It is also vital to consider the fact that if there’s a second wave of interest in professional poker, it will come with more viewing options than people had in the past. Already, people have ways of streaming pro poker events that they didn’t have in decades past. And it’s not a stretch to imagine that in another year or two it will have become normal to watch professional poker tournaments in virtual reality — perhaps even from the perspective of a dealer or popular player. Options like these would only further boost viewership.

Whether or not poker is a sport in the strictest terms, it is clearly a form of professional, spectator competition with significant potential for near-term growth. If a second poker boom is upon us, there’s reason to believe the game will quickly become more popular with viewers than all but the most major U.S. sports.

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