The former president of CBS Sports, whose consulting firm has negotiated multibillion-dollar contracts on behalf of NASCAR and Major League Baseball, has been retained by Harrah's Entertainment to help renegotiate an agreement with ESPN to televise the 2005 World Series of Poker.
Harrah's, which acquired the long-standing poker tournament last year when it purchased Binion's Horseshoe, expects to draw more than 5,000 entrants to the championship event this summer.
ESPN produced 22 hour-long episodes from last year's World Series of Poker and a network spokeswoman said the 24-hour cable sports channel expects to air the same amount or more this year following the 36th annual event.
Recognizing the drawing power of televised poker and the game's signature event, Harrah's executives turned to Neal Pilson, who headed CBS Sports for 20 years, in an effort to make the most of the World Series of Poker.
Pilson Communications worked with NASCAR in negotiating a $2.4 billion network television agreement with the Fox, NBC and Turner networks and with the International Olympic Committee to structure its recent $2 billion network agreement with NBC.
"We're gaming people and we thought it was best to bring in someone who understands television and can maximize the brand to its fullest potential," Harrah's spokesman Gary Thompson said. "We wanted someone with the expertise to negotiate the greatest value for the World Series of Poker."
Pilson said interest in poker spans a variety of audiences and age groups, although he admitted it seems strange to refer to the game as a "sport" adding talks would initially be with ESPN exclusively, although he did not discount bringing other networks to the table.
"ESPN is our primary partner, and they have been a good partner in the World Series of Poker," Pilson said. "It would be premature and speculative for us to say we're looking at other partners. You look at the drawing power poker has right now and you realize quickly what a great product the World Series of Poker offers."
Last year, ESPN produced and aired 22 hours of the World Series of Poker and on Thursday they premier the first of nine hour-long episodes of its ESPN-produced drama series, "Tilt," which centres on a poker player and is set in Las Vegas.
As a precursor to the actual World Series event, Harrah's is sponsoring a World Series of Poker Circuit, with events taking place at its casinos in Atlantic City, San Diego, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and New Orleans this spring where ESPN plans to televise the championship round of each event.
"There is no question that poker is what everyone wants to play and everyone wants to watch," Pilson said. "Our responsibility is to help Harrah's maximize the exposure of the World Series of Poker."
Harrah' will hold the 2005 World Series of Poker at the Rio beginning the first week of June. The No-Limit Texas Hold'em main event will be played in the mid-July with the final two days, scheduled for July 14-15, taking place at Binion's. Harrah's sold Binion's to MTR Gaming Group last year, but retained both the Horseshoe name and the World Series of Poker.
Meanwhile, Harrah's have said they will construct a 200-table poker room in the Rio's convention area for the World Series. He said holding the final two days at the downtown Binion's was a favour to Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman to help in the city's year-long Centennial Celebration.