Odds Are, Legalized Sports Betting Will Bring a New Media Monster

Odds Are, Legalized Sports Betting Will Bring a New Media Monster

Bettors on Oct. 1, 2017, at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, where wagering on college football games is rising at the expense of betting on NFL games.

SourceIsaac Brekken/The New York Times/Redux

Why you should care

Media houses and broadcasters are preparing to serve speculators what they so dearly crave: data and insights. 

So, you want to place a sports bet? Whether you’re simply an inquisitive soul, or someone who sees an omen in rapper Meek Mill going straight from prison to the 76ers’ series-clinching Game 5 in April, you’re in luck.

Traditionally, sports gambling was done one of two ways: legally, in Las Vegas, or illegally, by way of a guy who knows a guy with a name like “Tony the Hat.” Modern bettors can wager online via offshore sites and apps, and at least a dozen U.S. states have introduced legislation that will soon revolutionize the practice.

Now, as major American sports leagues prepare for rapidly approaching betting regulations, the media landscape is shifting too. Giants like ESPN still risk alienating advertisers and some consumers, but for new ventures, that’s no concern. So while traditional media scrambles to catch up, new media sharks are uniquely positioned to serve betting and fantasy aficionados with what they so dearly crave: more information.

Gambling no longer feels tawdry and in the shadows.

Chad Millman, head of media, The Action Network

The Action Network, formed last October by Hollywood executive Peter Chernin’s venture capital arm, The Chernin Group, wants to become the premier outlet for sports fans with skin in the game. Barstool Sports — Chernin has a stake in this firm too — has built a cultlike following with its “bro”-heavy content, including constant gambling banter on Barstool Radio, the company’s 24/7 Sirius XM radio station. And in 2017, Hall of Fame broadcaster Brent Musburger left behind a 49-year career to start the Vegas Stats and Information Network (VSiN).

Each has its own approach. For years, Musburger’s thinly veiled gambling references were an entertaining bonus to his broadcasting prowess, and now he spouts that knowledge from a studio inside Las Vegas’ South Point Casino. Musburger’s radio show, “My Guys in the Desert,” airs weekdays on Sirius XM — part of VSiN’s own fully loaded radio schedule. Rather than start from scratch, Chernin merged three companies offering proprietary tools to bettors and daily fantasy players: Sports Insights, SportsAction and FantasyLabs. And though Barstool’s programming — unlike Action’s — reflects the opposite of informed strategy, its passionate fan base proves that an engaged audience exists.

“Gambling no longer feels tawdry and in the shadows,” says Chad Millman, head of media at Action. Rather, technology has made sports betting a more palatable hobby. “It has democratized information, and people are thinking opportunistically because they love sports.”

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Chad Millman, then editor-in-chief of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, onstage at the American Magazine Media Conference at Grand Hyatt New York on Feb. 2, 2016, in New York City.

Source Larry Busacca/Getty

The generational shift toward gambling acceptance has been inarguably aided by the mainstream’s fantasy sports obsession: The more we play, the more we seek a deeper understanding of data and how to get an edge. As a subscription-based service, Action snuffs out any inkling of branded editorial, focused solely on serving sports junkies with in-depth reporting “to be smarter about the games they’re watching,” says Millman. And with Action’s foundation of proprietary data and legacy platforms, customers have the tools to, ideally, make more informed plays. It’s that foundation that convinced Millman, previously the domestic digital editorial director at ESPN and one of sports betting’s foremost journalists, to make the leap to Action. “It was the perfect opportunity,” says Millman. “Exactly the type of content that I was interested in doing.”

Beyond the header reflecting the key line movements of the day, Action’s site looks like a typical sports journalism hub, with features, op-eds and podcasts populating the page. But all of the editorial is engineered with gambling in mind. So, when Jason Sobel — a premier golf writer whom Millman poached from ESPN — reports on Tiger Woods’ struggles with driving accuracy, he tells readers how Woods’ betting value at the Masters could be affected.

The potential for growth in sports speculation is massive, says Jon Bales, co-founder of the daily fantasy-focused FantasyLabs now part of the Action Network. “There are so many people not betting who will bet in the future,” says Bales. “And if you do bet, you need general sports stories to make decisions too.”

Legalized betting is getting easier too. Just yesterday, on May 14, the Supreme Court struck down a partial federal sports betting ban in the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), ruling 7-2 that New Jersey could begin offering wagers immediately. Other states such as Delaware and New York are now readying to legalize sports gambling. The court’s ruling could soon encourage federal legalization, rather than the current state-by-state legalization. And since NBA Commissioner Adam Silver backed legalization in 2014, the other major American sports leagues have begun falling in line, recognizing fresh, untapped revenue — or, at least, more eyeballs — for the leagues in the form of newly legal bettors.

“Second-screen viewing has made a huge difference,” says John English, managing director at Global Market Advisors and one of the creators of the first mobile betting app to be distributed on Apple’s App Store. “Content is going to play a larger role [in the future], because I don’t know how much further we can go with actually placing bets.”

As unaffiliated third parties, Action, Barstool and broadcasters like Musburger offer a layer of trust casinos may not be able to match. In March, Awful Announcing reported that Action had 230,000 subscribers to Millman’s daily email newsletter. Millman declines to say how many of those recipients pay for full access, but he’s betting that gamblers are willing to part with the $9.99 monthly (or $90 yearly) fee. And for the rest of the sports-loving public? Millman says that editorial quality and “revolutionary” product rollouts “in time for football season” will convince even casual fans to wet their beak.

While it does present risks for companies — like building a growing staff and renting offices in Manhattan and San Francisco — the subscription model is certainly trending upward. Publishers like Netflix, Hulu and even The Athletic are proving that consumers will pay to play. But will a company built for a user base who will largely fail as gamblers have more trouble retaining subscribers than the average newspaper?

“That’s always something we have to consider,” Millman says, acknowledging the monetary risks of gambling. “But the accessibility has made it so much cleaner.”

Plus, the thrill is in the chase — right?

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