Gambling talk wasn’t always taboo on sports broadcasts.
People of a certain age will recall the “NFL Today” pregame show on CBS featuring Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder with Brent Musburger and Phyllis George. The bookmaker would predict the results of that week’s slate of games, in the process announcing the de facto spreads to the entire country.
The NFL, despite its public anti-gambling stance, permitted Snyder’s schtick as long as he didn’t overtly mention spreads. Snyder’s work with the network lasted 12 years, ending in 1988 after he was fired for racially insensitive comments.
In the ensuing decades, broadcasters, particularly Musburger and Al Michaels, would make reference to sports betting, but only in sly ways, practically winking at their audiences while avoiding complaints from their bosses. Michaels would note that a late touchdown was “overwhelming” news to a certain segment of the viewers (those who bet the over). He even had a name for that side of his broadcasting persona, calling it “The Rascal.”
The betting landscape shifts
Now, in the nearly four years since the Supreme Court struck down PASPA, broadcasters are far more free to discuss gambling. In fact, they are increasingly asked to dive headlong into talk of spreads, moneylines, futures and prop bets as teams, leagues and media companies line up partnership deals with legal bookmakers.
“It’s always been something we’ve been cognizant of, but for years it was kind of a hush-hush, giggle kind of thing,” said veteran broadcaster Greg Papa, the radio play-by-play voice of the San Francisco 49ers on KNBR. “Now, it’s openly discussed and actually even formatted on television to make sure we talk about these points, and the segments are often sold to some sort of gambling venture.”
Super Bowl LVI is likely Al Michaels’s NBC swan song—and his last game on traditional TV.
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) February 2, 2022
Contracts between rights holders and the leagues they cover routinely barred overt discussions of sports gambling in the past, but such stipulations could be falling by the wayside. Meanwhile, media companies, teams and leagues, looking for increased revenue coming out of the pandemic, rely on gambling advertising. Many have fully embraced the fan engagement sports betting can create.
MLB has a deal with DraftKings in which, whenever baseball games are being played again, viewers will be offered an alternate broadcast catering to gamblers. The New York Jets (MGM Resorts), Vegas Golden Knights (Caesars/William Hill) and Dallas Cowboys (WinStar Casino) are among pro teams to have announced partnerships with gambling companies.
Bally’s could lead the charge
Last year, Bally’s and Sinclair TV rolled out their deal to rebrand Sinclair-owned FOX Sports regional sports networks (RSNs). The move prompted many people to presume that Bally’s, a player in the gambling world, would make wagering talk a centerpiece of its broadcasts.
Sinclair has officially rebranded the Fox Sports regional brands to Bally’s.
You will be getting your gambling with your sports, if you like it or not.
— Andrew Marchand (@AndrewMarchand) January 27, 2021
It didn’t happen instantly, but gradually, Bally’s has increased its gambling focus on its RSNs. Last week, the company unveiled its first sports betting program, Live on the Line, in partnership with BetMGM. The show will air on all 21 of Bally’s RSNs. Hosted by Brad Evans, Dani Klupenger, and Camron Smith, the hour-long show features BetMGM celebrity and brand ambassadors, odds experts, RSN guest analysts, and other gambling talk. The Bally’s RSNs are the TV home for more than half of all MLB, NHL, and NBA teams based in the U.S.
Future broadcasts might look little like the current ones, with more graphics outlining betting odds and with more alternative broadcasts set up for gamblers. It’s about adapting to a changing sports landscape or potentially losing relevance.
“I think you’d have to be naive to think gambling isn’t coming into every facet of every sport, so that’s first and foremost,” said Dan McLaughlin, the St. Louis Cardinals play-by-play announcer for Bally’s Sports Midwest. “In terms of the broadcast, I’m not sure where this is going to take us, and I mean that sincerely. Some people who have never laid a bet and won’t ever do so just want a traditional broadcast. But, also, there are some people who have put down certain wagers on certain sports and they’ll be drawn into it in a blowout game, sometimes in a tight ending, whatever.
“It’s a way to keep fans interested. I do think it’s coming, and I do think it might be another aspect to offer fans during a game. You maybe don’t totally draw it out, but you can draw attention to it.”
Search for new revenue streams
In the 20 states without legal sports betting, the deals continue to be quietly negotiated in the background while the political process grinds on. Teams and leagues are looking to monetize their role in gambling as media-rights deals begin to plateau.
“I think we’ve come out of it pretty strong, but for a long time, you were searching for ways to increase revenue and viewership,” Papa said. “I’m not going to say it’s a necessary evil, because I don’t think there’s anything evil in it, but it’s an additional revenue source, whether it’s putting signs up on the board, selling advertisements on uniforms. There are many, many ways to increase revenue. Broadcasters and rights holders of games are always looking for ways to do that.”
Papa’s “aha” moment came when he attended a soccer game in London while he was there to broadcast an Oakland Raiders game in 2019. He went to purchase a beer and noticed a bookmaking stand at historic Stamford Bridge. U.S. sporting venues are beginning to follow suit. This week, a BetMGM Sportsbook opened at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and plans were announced for a FanDuel Sportsbook at the United Center in Chicago, home of the Bulls and Blackhawks.
One prominent national broadcaster, citing the sensitive nature of business talks involving his employers and gambling operations, was hesitant to go on the record for this story, but noted, “It comes up all the time. I think it’s going to be huge, a huge part of the broadcast. I imagine part of the experience will be represented graphically, with betting lines and all sorts of information for bettors. I have a lot of friends who are into every game because of betting, and that’s the only reason they’re into 95% of the games.”
‘Vegas’ no longer means ‘bookmakers’
McLaughlin said he doesn’t consider himself the “moral police” when it comes to deciding whether to incorporate gambling talk into his broadcasts. He said he would adapt to whatever direction his bosses at Bally’s want him to take. Broadcasters often huddle with their producers before games to script certain aspects of the broadcast, but once the game begins, the flow of the game usually dictates the conversation. Blowouts, of course, offer more opportunities to discuss things like in-game bets, a topic that could pop up more and more on baseball broadcasts, for example.
“I went to Syracuse, and the first thing they taught me is, ‘Speak to your audience.’ If that’s what your audience wants to hear, I think that’s what you supply for them,” Papa said. “I do think there’s a fine line. You can still dispense information someone gambling on the game can gain from, but it can be more covert than overt. You don’t have to hit them over the head with it.”
None of these changes figure to happen overnight. For now, many of the NFL broadcasts continue to act as if gambling doesn’t exist, or if they do acknowledge it at all, they make only a passing reference. While broadcasting the Dallas Cowboys’ 25-22 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16, Joe Buck noted on the FOX broadcast, “Vegas had the Cowboys as a big favorites. … They haven’t played like it, down by 13.”
That’s a somewhat antiquated take on sports betting considering that New Jersey, with nearly $11 billion in handle last year, has more sports betting volume than Nevada. New York has likely also passed Nevada to become the nation’s new sports betting capital, based on early figures since its Jan, 8 digital launch.
The times are changing just as fast as legalized gambling spreads across the land. The people who talk about sports on TV, radio and other media are, like anybody else, caught up in all the changes and finding the stance that feels most comfortable for them.
Photo: Kirby Lee/USA TODAY