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Last year was the first time since 2006 that World Series of Poker Main Event rose in attendance in consecutive years. The momentum continued this year, as 7,874 players registered for poker’s most prestigious tournament, the most since 2006, and the second highest total in the 49-year history of the tournament.
The current growth trend is a good omen for the tournament and the overall health of the poker economy. But it’s also hard to explain.
Growth used to be the name of the game at the WSOP. With only a single exception (1991-1992 when attendance fell from 215 to 201), WSOP Main Event attendance only went in one direction from 1971-2006: That direction was up. Particularly during the poker boom.
However, since 2007, attendance for the Main Event has been the proverbial roller-coaster ride.
Before the recent three-year uptick, WSOP Main Event attendance was down in 2007; up in 2008; down in 2009; up in 2010, down from 2011-2013; up in 2014; and down in 2015.
There are no shortage of reasons for the recent uptick.
The legalization of online poker in Nevada, Delaware, and New Jersey have seen the return of direct buy-in online satellites in the US. Caesars‘ US online poker partner, 888 Poker, also runs direct buy-in WSOP satellites in other jurisdictions around the globe.
It’s estimated around a hundred US players won a seat to the Main Event via online satellites at WSOP Nevada in each of the last two years.
Not only did the WSOP release the schedule earlier than usual for the 2018 WSOP (thus giving people more time to make plans) it also made an interesting scheduling decision.
Purposely running the final opening day of the Main Event on the Fourth of July seems counterintuitive. But because of the holiday, recreational players were able to play the Main Event and not have to take much time off from work (basically Thursday and Friday after the July 4th holiday.
There’s also the possibility that John Hesp and a lively final table boosted awareness and engaged some new poker fans.
Another reason is the economy. The trajectory of the attendance numbers from the Main Event and the Dow Jones Industrial Average in early July follow a very similar pattern over the past six years.
Further, the upswing in attendance this year also coincides with the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) hitting an 18-year high.
Not that it needed any help, but one of the forgotten pieces of the poker boom was the booming economy. During the peak boom years, the Consumer Confidence Index was in the 100-110 range, and unemployment was under five percent.
Main Event attendance hit an all-time high of 8,773 in 2006 and there was no reason to think attendance wasn’t going to grow again in 2007.
Then with the stroke of then-President George W. Bush‘s pen, it all came crashing down. In October 2006, Bush signed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) into law, and online poker in the US would never be the same.
Companies left the market, and without the thousands of direct online satellites, UIGEA caused Main Event attendance to plummet. Main Event attendance went from 8,773 to 6,358, despite a still stable economy.
We’ll never know if poker could have overcome the UIGEA because two years later the economy crashed. After a rebound year in 2008, Main Event attendance once again tumbled in 2009, the first post-recession WSOP.
After hovering between 100-110 for several years, the CCI fell to 25 in 2009.
Fortunately, that was the bottom, and the CCI has risen steadily ever since.
In 2016, it finally reached 100 again.
However, the effects of the recession didn’t evaporate the moment the economy started turning around. Consumer confidence remained low for several years, even when the economy entered a recovery stage. That’s typical, as consumer confidence can often lag behind other economic indicators by a couple years.
And in the middle of the recession, the poker world had to deal with its own personal economic collapse: Black Friday.
Unlike UIGEA, the effect of Black Friday is harder to quantify.
On one hand, tens of millions of dollars were zapped out of the poker economy. On the other hand, many online poker players made the move to live poker, and with Black Friday occurring in April 2011, the 2011 WSOP that started at the end of May was seen as a last hurrah for many players.
With so many moving pieces, it would be a mistake to put too much stock in the WSOP attendance numbers.
That said, there is some evidence that in the post-poker boom world, the economy (particularly the CCI) will have a strong influence on WSOP attendance.
The Main Event attendance growth trend started in 2016, when the CCI breached 100. And with the CCI now above 120, the significant growth in 2017 and 2018 (the second- and fourth- largest WSOP Main Events in history) shouldn’t be too surprising.
Even including the outlier that is the 2010 WSOP Main Event, 2017 and 2018 are well above the average attendance during the previous decade: 6,667.
The state of poker — everything from where it’s legal, to how many direct online satellite seats are being awarded, to the amount of TV exposure — will determine the floor and ceiling for WSOP Main Event attendance. The current floor seems to be around 6,000 players and the ceiling around 8,000 players.
The economy is what will determine where on that spectrum Main Event attendance falls.
Assuming the economy isn’t equipped with a hyperdrive, somewhere around 8,000 players is probably the current ceiling.
That said, if poker gets a shot in the arm — online poker returning in earnest or same major shift in popularity — the floor and ceiling will be raised significantly. But, whether it’s 8,000-10,000 or 10,000-15,000, it looks like the economy will determine if WSOP attendance is near the floor or the ceiling.