World Poker Tour Drops Season-ending Championship, Adds TOC

Seeking in part to recapture some of its former glory and open the door to former stars of its stage, the World Poker Tour has abruptly announced that its originally planned, season-ending WPT Championship has been taken off the second half of the Season XIV schedule, and replaced with a new event, the debut of the WPT Tournament of Champions.

wpt-logoAccording to a recent WPT announcement, the new WPT TOC will begin on April 21, 2016 at Hollywood, Florida’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.  The new WPT TOC will begin soon after the conclusion of the WPT Seminole Hard Rock Open — held at the same venue — and the new Tournament of Champions will be invitation-only, open to WPT Season XIV winners and WPT Champions Club™ members only, a designation that appears to be given to winners of most but not all previous WPT main-event winners.  The winners of various WPT “made for TV” events do not appear to be eligible.

According to a WPT presser on the new event, the winner of the $15,400 buy-in TOC will be crowned the “champion of champions” and will “cement their legacy on the World Poker Tour.”

It appears that 90 or so former winners of WPT tour-stop mains will have a chance to compete in addition to this year’s handful of Season XIV winners.  How many will show will remain to be seen, though the allure of a small field that’s competitively softer than other tourneys with five-digit buy-ins, plus the allure of TV time for making the final, makes it likely that a good chunk of those who are eligible will indeed attend.  The 19 Season XIV winners have all received guaranteed seats, meaning that over 100 players could attend, though the betting line might be closer to 50.

“By combining Season XIV winners and WPT Champions Club members, the season-ending WPT Tournament of Champions will truly be a championship event,” said the WPT’s President and CEO, Adam Pliska. “We will promote the ‘champion of champions’ to our millions of television viewers and to the thousands of players in the community for seasons to come, solidifying the winner’s place in the World Poker Tour’s rich history.”

Added Mike Sexton, long-time WPT event commentator and long-time public face of the WPT, “The show that started it all continues to evolve after fourteen years, with the exciting new WPT Tournament of Champions.  I love that the WPT is going to a TOC format for the season-ending event – it will be the best of the best to determine the ultimate champion!”  Sexton has always loved TOC-format events and other made-for-TV specials, and likely had a prominent role in the WPT’s switch of plans.

What’s unstated, however, in the announcement, is that the old WPT World Championship was something of an old, withered beast.  The WPT seriously trails its primary poker-series competitors on both sides of the pond, the World Series of Poker in the US and the PokerStars-associated European Poker Tour across Europe.

Evidence of the WPT’s slow decline is nowhere seen more clearly than in the attendance and prize payouts for the WPT World Championship itself.  Noting that the event has always had a $25,000 buy-in (through 2013), Alan Goehring won the first WPT World Championship back in 2003, pocketing a little over a million dollars.  Attendance peaked in 2007 at 639 players, with Carlos Mortensen’s triumph worth an event-record $3,970,415.

Since then a steady ski slope downward, albeit it with a couple of mogul bumps.  The 2013 edition drew only 149 players, and the prize pool had to be adjusted so that the eventual winner (Chino Rheem) still cashed for more than a million.  The WPT responded by lowering the buy-in to $15,000, which produced an attendance bump but no real gain in overall prize pool size.  And that’s what’s led to the creation of the WSP’s new TOC.

Will it work?  Hard to say.  The WPT is hoping to wrest a little bit of casual-poker-fan love from its viewing audience by catering to a bunch of its recognizable, “old school” former winners, and hoping that a couple or three such as Daniel Negreanu win through to the final.  Though the WPT’s early champions may not have truly been the game’s best players, as reckoned today, they still offered a notch more showmanship and entertainment than many of their younger, more current counterparts.

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