During the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, televised poker was largely confined to brief highlight shows of World Series of Poker Main Event final tables.
The advent of Late Night Poker in the UK (debuting in 1999) with its innovative use of editing, commentary, and revealing of hole cards sparked a new interest in watching people play cards on TV. A few years later in 2003 came the debut of the World Poker Tour and ESPN’s expanded WSOP coverage, and soon televised poker was enjoying all-time highs in viewership.
Those audiences have waned somewhat since the mid-2000s, but televised poker remains popular both over traditional broadcasts and especially online.
Often poker television gets compared to other sports programming, although perhaps it could also be compared to “reality TV” as well. In any case, what is poker viewership compared to other sports?
At its most popular, poker’s biggest audiences ever represent a fraction of the biggest audiences for the most popular sports programs.
The largest audiences in sports programming history
The most watched sports programming has always been the Olympics, the audiences for which have numbered in the billions worldwide.
When it comes to particular live sporting events, the Super Bowl in the U.S. and the UEFA Champions League finals in Europe have drawn some of the highest sports viewership ever.
In 2015, Super Bowl XLIX in which the New England Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks drew just over 114 million viewers — the most ever for a Super Bowl.
By comparison, last month’s Super Bowl LV in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers upset the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs was the least-watched Super Bowl in 15 years, drawing about 91.6 million TV viewers in the US. (It should be noted, millions more watched around the world, including many over online live streams.)
That still seems like a lot, but it’s nothing when compared to how many watch the UEFA Champions League final every year. For example, in 2015 estimates are around 380 million watched FC Barcelona beat Juventus 3-1 in that year’s final.
Poker audiences vs. regular season sports
Let’s climb down out of the stratosphere, though, and talk about average viewership for non-championship games. What size audiences do sports typically draw?
In America, the NFL reigns supreme with regular season games tending to draw around 15 million viewers per game.
Meanwhile an average NBA regular season game draws around 2 million viewers, give or take. An average MLB game broadcast nationally will get around half that or just under 1 million.
Going back to 1999 and the debut of Late Night Poker, the first season finale reportedly drew 1.7 million viewers — a remarkable feat considering it aired at midnight on Channel 4.
In 2003 the WPT began drawing audiences of around 1 million per show on The Travel Channel, a cable network for which that represented a significant audience. People really wanted to watch poker!
That late summer and early fall saw ESPN start airing weekly one-hour episodes of the 2003 WSOP Main Event, the one everyone remembers Chris Moneymaker winning. The final show drew 1.67 million viewers, inspiring ESPN to run repeats many times which also earned decent audiences.
Those of us who were watching poker of TV back then remember the explosion of other shows that soon followed. Some of these were big hits, too.
For example, Celebrity Poker Showdown on the Bravo cable network earned 1.5 million viewers for its premiere and 1.7 million for its finale in January 2004.
These days, poker TV doesn’t have quite the same draw. However much as has happened with Esports, poker streamers on Twitch and other platforms have discovered an eager audience.
The dates for the 2021 Spring Championship of Online Poker were just announced today. Speaking of, last year Lex Veldhuis drew more than 58,000 viewers to his Twitch stream to watch both he and Ben “Spraggy” Spragg make deep runs in the 2020 SCOOP Main Event.
That represented a new record for a Twitch Poker Live Stream.
I can’t believe what happened yesterday. Two stream-related dreams come true for me.
📷Breaking the Twitch Poker Viewer Record by 20k viewers, setting it at 58.534
💫Nr 1 stream on Twitch globally.
Also winning $62.000 in the process. Dream come true. Thank you all so much ❤️ pic.twitter.com/zquO3xNLcE
— Lex Veldhuis (@LexVeldhuis) May 20, 2020
Poker viewership will never equal that of the most popular sports on television. However as streams like these show, there remains significant interest in watching poker.