Monday, Feb. 14, 2005 | 11:04 a.m.
Capitalizing on the popularity of poker and previous poker broadcasts on NBC, NBC Sports in May will air the first poker tournament to appear on a major television network.
The 2005 National Heads-Up Poker Championship, which is also the first poker tournament to be produced by a television network, will feature a $1.5 million purse and air on four consecutive Sundays beginning May 1 and concluding with a two-hour finale May 22. The tournament will take place at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.
The invitation-only championship will include poker pros such as Doyle Brunson, Howard Lederer, Johnny Chan, 2003 World Series of Poker Champion Chris Moneymaker and last year's World Series of Poker champ Greg Raymer.
Unlike most other tournaments where the winners of each poker table gather for a run-off, players in NBC's tourney will play each other one-on-one. The event will start off with 64 players who will be paired off and eliminated over time, similar to the way the National Collegiate Athletic Association structures their tournaments, NBC officials said.
"This is a unique and exciting format" that lends itself well to television, NBC Sports Senior Vice President of Programming Jon Miller said.
The tournament stems from the success of previous one-time poker broadcasts on NBC around the past two National Football League Super Bowl games, Miller said.
In 2004, NBC aired a "Battle of the Champions" poker event featuring the best players in the World Poker Tour, but the new event will be the first multi-day, tournament-style event on a major network.
This month, the network aired the Poker Superstars Invitational Tournament, an event pitting eight poker pros against one another at the Palms resort in Las Vegas. Each of the players bought in for $400,000 for a game of no-limit Texas Hold 'Em and a collective prize pool of $3.2 million. That event attracted 8.6 million viewers, Miller said.
The two events were the highest-rated poker shows of all time, he said.
Ratings were especially strong among men 18-34 and men 18-49, a "very difficult demographic to reach consistently," Miller said.
Budweiser has been tapped as the top sponsor of the event, which allows the beer distributor to feature its logo the felt poker table and elsewhere at the event, he said. Other sponsorships are still pending, he said. The cost of the sponsorship wasn't disclosed.
The tournament would compete with the World Series of Poker, a Las Vegas-based tournament owned by Harrah's Entertainment Inc. that airs on ESPN. It also would compete with the World Poker Tour, a worldwide series of poker tournaments broadcast on the Travel Channel.
Harrah's last month said it had retained the former president of CBS Sports as a consultant to renegotiate its agreement with ESPN to televise the historic poker tournament.
ESPN has aired the World Series of Poker, held at Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Las Vegas, for the past seven years and has broadcast poker on television since 1994. Harrah's took of the tournament last year, the same year of record turnout for the event as well as ESPN's highest ratings for the tournament.
The World Series of Poker championship is an open event, with entrance allowed for anyone 21 or older with the $10,000 buy-in. Miller said poker pros have said the invitation-only, 64-person field of the National Heads-Up Poker Championship will include many of the world's top players.
Miller said NBC affiliates have welcomed the high-rated poker events and don't appear to be concerned about a potential backlash from states that have fought programming and advertising featuring gambling.