The television ratings for ESPN’s World Series of Solitaire broadcasts continue to be a major disappointment, garnering ratings consistently below 1.0 since debuting in mid-April. The network outbid fellow poker broadcasters Bravo, Fox Sports, and the Travel Channel for the rights to the tournament last fall in hopes it would bring millions of viewers, dishing out rights fees of $10 million for each of the next five years.
“The popularity of televised poker tournaments really caught many by surprise and TV executives have been looking for the next phenomenon like it,” said George Lolich, a ratings analyst with TV Guide. “Unfortunately for ESPN, their gamble hasn’t paid off. It seems the public finds watching people play solitaire extremely boring.”
The biggest hurdle to higher ratings is formatting the tournament so solitaire becomes precisely what it is not – a competition between players.
“Solitaire, by definition, is a non-competitive game – it’s just the player against the cards,” said Lolich. “The struggle has been to find a way to make it into a competition among multiple contestants.”
Tournament organizers have experimented with multiple concepts, from having players compete to see who can finish a game of solitaire first to requiring them to beat the deck more than half the time to move on to the next week. But most often the broadcasts have dissolved into contestants randomly playing games on the floor or on their laptop without any relation to one another.
World Series of Solitaire officials also admit that the vast majority of their contestants do not have very TV-friendly personalities, an additional hindrance to ratings.
“We don’t have the kind of personalities that are found on the poker tours. Let’s face it, anyone who is really into solitaire is a bit of a loner – they probably smell a little bit, are homely, don’t have many friends,” said Linda Robinson, tournament director. “We’re not chock full of movie stars here, you know.”
Plus, the players are prone to shun any direction from tournament officials.
“Solitaire players don’t like us telling them what to do. They don’t really want any structure,” said Robinson. “They’d prefer to just sit in the corner and deal themselves their cards. The problem is, without structure, we can’t execute a real tournament.”
The WSOS has also struggled to get the world's best players.
"The premier solitaire players are office workers who kill their days playing solitaire and minesweeper," said Robinson. "They're the best of the best. But it's hard to get them to take time off from work to compete here. They're behind at work as it is."
Yet ESPN does not plan to pull the plug on the World Series of Solitaire just yet.And few in the industry believe ESPN made a mistake in airing solitaire.
“All the networks wanted it. There was a bidding war,” said Lolich. “I honestly can’t believe people actually sit on their couches at home and watch other people play poker, but they do, so the thinking was: ‘Why not solitaire?’”