While everyone’s definition of “sport” is a little different, I think we can all agree that a sport requires the practitioner to predominately use motor skills to succeed, and to the best of my knowledge no one has ever been pushed a pot in poker based on the speed or dexterity they have employed in handling their cards or moving their chips around.
That being said, poker should be marketed as a sport, meaning in the same ways, to the same demographics, and through the same mediums. Poker might not be a sport, but it can be marketed as one, just don’t call it a sport.
Competition is the name of the game
The good news is, poker doesn’t have to be considered a sport to be on ESPN, because it contains one very crucial element that is found in all sports: Competition.
There is enough crossover appeal between poker and sports contests that even though they are not the same thing, they have the same appeal.
People who enjoy watching sports enjoy competition (the agony of defeat and the thrill of victory and all that jazz), and it’s this element that makes competitive games like Darts, Bowling, Target Shooting, and Poker viable programming for ESPN and other sports programming channels.
True sports fans will watch just about anything competitive, as long as the stakes are meaningful and the people are highly skilled. Basically, if you can become emotionally invested in something you’ll watch it.
Poker has all of that, skill, huge prize-pools, and ruthless competition.
Don’t believe me, then explain the swathes of Americans who fall in love with football (soccer) every four years but would rather watch Single A baseball than an MLS game?
But competition isn’t the only thing poker has going for it, poker also has another element of the most popular sports, and this secondary reason is why poker still has room to grow as a televised show.
Other elements of sport
In addition to being a competitive game, poker also contains many of the aspects of sporting events.
Poker has skilled, superstar players, and large amounts of prize-money to be won, and while this adds to the appeal, there is another aspect of the game that makes poker a far more popular television show than other fringe sports/competitions.
This aspect is the strategic concepts that allows the viewers to play the role of armchair quarterback.
In the same way a person can second-guess the coach of their favorite team for running the ball on third-down, your average Joe watching a televised poker tournament can do the same.
It’s hard to do this for some of the other games poker is often compared to like darts or bowling, where the action is simply repetitive and skill carries the day — nobody purposely rolls a gutterball to rattle their opponent, or fires a dart at their opponent’s mother in the stands.
Because they are simply going through the motions, it’s hard to criticize a bowler for not rolling a strike. Seriously, what are you going to do, yell at the TV that you knew he should have moved over two boards?
Bowling, Darts, Target Shooting, and even sports like Diving, don’t have the strategic component viewers love, you either hit the skeet or you miss; you wither make your dive cleanly or you don’t; you either hit the bullseye or you don’t.
But poker is different, there are right and wrong plays that can be made, there are ways to win with the worst hand, and there are plenty of opportunities for viewers to disagree with a play someone has made.
I would also posit that this is why Curling (even though it is the butt of many jokes) is such a popular TV event during the Olympics; it has a fascinating strategic layer to it.
It’s ok that poker is not a sport. This doesn’t make it boring or unwatchable, or diminish its stature, and it doesn’t mean ESPN should cancel all poker programming.
We should embrace the fact that poker is a competitive exercise and not a sport (I do like the term “mind-sport” as it signifies competition); trying to market poker as a sport is just muddying the waters –and giving the haters something to gripe about and mock poker for.
To recap; poker should be on ESPN, but poker is not a sport, and that’s perfectly fine by me.
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