Earlier this week, the WSOP Circuit main event in New Orleans (traditionally one of the bigger fields in the WSOP Circuit) drew only 156 players to conclude the 2009-2010 WSOPC season. The total number of main event entrants for the entire season (11 main events in all) was only 1,524. Regrettably, three main events didn't get more than 64 entrants. On the other end of the spectrum, the two North American Poker Tour (NAPT) main events this year had more players combined with 1,588 (the duo drew 872 and 716).
Andrew Feldman and I have previously discussed this situation online and on ESPN Inside Deal . In summary, television coverage and online registration lead to bigger fields and subsequently larger prize pools.
Although I have repeatedly said that the WSOP Circuit (along with the World Poker Tour) needs to look at these factors, it's easier said than done. High-quality television production costs significant money and the current UIGEA (Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act) has hurt online participation.
Harrah's realizes that there needs to be a change and is taking action before next season.
"We recognize there is some work to be done to get the WSOP Circuits to the level we expect of them," said Seth Palansky, WSOP communications director. "We are hard at work internally and putting a lot of experienced people together to address the issues. We anticipate that the 2010-2011 season will see some dramatic changes to the WSOP Circuit."
Here's my personal specific solution to help the WSOP Circuit events revive themselves without adding either of the two aforementioned factors. The WSOP brand has something that no other tour can bring to the table. It is arguably the most recognizable and desirable symbol in all of poker: the WSOP bracelet.
I'd propose making every WSOP Circuit main event (11 in total) a sanctioned WSOP bracelet event. Whether you leave the buy-in at $5,000 or lower it slightly (to no less than $3,500), the event would be run exactly like a WSOP bracelet event held in Las Vegas during the WSOP (e.g. triple starting chips, same blind structure, noon start for Day 1, three-day event). Overall, the addition of the WSOP bracelet would drive registration numbers up exponentially by the following steamroller effect:
1. Players who covet the WSOP bracelet would come to chase the dream, including many highly recognizable players (with or without bracelets).
2. With more registrants, the prize pools would be larger.
3. Larger prize pools would attract additional players who are more interested in the money than the WSOP bracelet.
4. The larger fields and prize pools would draw interest from the poker media.
5. Players who seek and/or aspire for media attention or would like to play against poker superstars would attend, once again increasing the field size and prize pool.
Phil Gordon famously once said there are two types of poker players: ones with a WSOP bracelet and ones without. Unfortunately, Gordon currently falls in the latter category. However, if this concept went into effect, Gordon, who currently does not play in any WSOP Circuit event, "would go to five or six a year." Additionally, Gordon believes that "of the top 100 pros, 80 of them would go to every [WSOP Circuit] main event."
Michael Binger, a chronic WSOP casher and regrettably on the "best player without a WSOP bracelet" list, feels that the current WSOP Circuit events have soft fields and are a much better value than some other events.
"[The concept] would probably bring up the field size, but may also have a reverse effect and make it a tougher field," said the 2006 third-place finisher. "But the prize pool would be bigger and also add a level of prestige to the event."
Having won the 2008 WSOP Circuit main event in Lake Tahoe, Binger would have loved this concept to be in effect previously, but conceded that he would attend many of the WSOP Circuit main events if they were bracelet events.
Of course, there are critics of this concept, including 11-time WSOP bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth.
"I think it would be a big mistake for the WSOP because they would be diluting their brand and that is bad," said Hellmuth. "You have a six-week-long event during the WSOP that everyone can't wait to get to get to. There is pure excitement for those six weeks It's beautiful."
Hellmuth commented that if a bracelet were awarded for the WSOP Circuit events, "They might as well give a bracelet away every day they won't mean anything anymore." If the concept were approved, Hellmuth wouldn't be one to join these larger fields. "I would figure those bracelets would have an asterisk I know that after a few years, they would get rid of the idea."
Palansky somewhat concurred with the Poker Brat. "Sure, the easy answer is to offer bracelets, but you have to be mindful the more bracelets you put out -- across the U.S. especially -- makes the reason to traveling to Las Vegas for the annual WSOP less meaningful," he said. "And we certainly don't want to devalue the WSOP. That said, there are unique ways to accomplish giving Circuit participants a shot at a WSOP bracelet, and we are exploring those."
Let me take a moment to answer some of the criticisms before you bring them up in the comments section below:
• These would not be a legitimate WSOP bracelet if they are not awarded in Vegas: WSOP bracelets have been awarded outside of Las Vegas, as the WSOP-Europe had four sanctioned bracelets last year
• Dilution: In 2005, there were only 42 WSOP bracelets awarded, 19 fewer than in 2010 (if you include WSOP-E). There has been a 45 percent increase in bracelets awarded since 2005. Adding 11 more bracelets would be less (only 18 percent) of an increase as some might think.
• Lower attendance during the WSOP: I disagree with this as the WSOP Circuit main events are still larger buy-in (currently $5,000) events. Most recreational players would still come to the WSOP in Las Vegas to play the weekend events for only $1,000 or the $1,500 events.
Since I believe that the field sizes would be huge, I would recommend holding the first WSOP Circuit bracelet event somewhere that could handle the large numbers. My choice would be Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas since Caesar's could handle the bigger turnouts, ultimately creating a bigger buzz for the future events. After the first event of the season, Harrah's would be able to prepare the other properties for the larger fields.
This concept would not require a complete overhaul of the WSOP Circuit events either. The dependence on television coverage and/or online qualification would not be necessary. Instead, Harrah's would utilize the core symbol of the WSOP brand -- the bracelet. While this novel idea may never come to fruition, it would create excitement, debate and newfound interest in the WSOP Circuit and I would definitely add most, if not all, the WSOP Circuit main events to my playing schedule.
Bernard Lee is the official spokesperson of Foxwoods Resort and Casino. Lee is the co-host of ESPN Inside Deal, weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and radio host of "The Bernard Lee Poker Show."