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Media’s Big Bet: Sports Wagers Will (Hopefully) Keep Viewers Watching TV

Doug Kezirian is surrounded by numbers on his new ESPN program. They aren’t sports scores.

If you want home runs, touchdowns or three-pointers, you’ll have to go somewhere else. Each weekday afternoon, Kezirian talks to people like Preston Johnson, a Las Vegas sports handicapper with a master’s in sports psychology and a beard so big it could host its own show, or Anita Marks, a former women’s football player who analyzes fantasy football. The bottom and left-hand edges of the screen during his hourlong program, “The Daily Wager,” on ESPNews, aren’t crammed with batting averages or free-throw percentages but rather with stats on oddsmaking.

“You can have a normal conversation about betting,” says Kezirian, who graduated from Brown University with an economics degree and has reported on sports betting for years. “And it will not feel dirty or shady or anything silly like that — period.”

Many of the nation’s big media companies have already started to talk about wagering on sports. Fox Sports 1 was the first to launch a daily program about gambling — “Lock It In” airs weekday afternoons. During NBC Sports’ broadcast of the Kentucky Derby in May — one of the premier events in its portfolio of sports rights — the network launched its first betting program, streamed online and via its mobile app. Handicapper Eddie Olczyk offered his picks for the race. WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports teamed up with MGM Resorts to display odds on various shots being taken in its pay-per-view matchup between golfers Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. Both ESPN and Turner’s Bleacher Report have struck deals to launch production studios at Caesars Entertainment properties to create content about sports betting.

The media companies have wanted a piece of the action ever since the May 2018 Supreme Court ruling that left individual states free to legalize sports betting. Eight states currently allow it, and if a company happens to reach viewers in one of them — two regional sports networks owned by NBCU, for example, are viewed by consumers in betting-friendly New Jersey and West Virginia — then it can run ads for apps that help roll the dice, so to speak. “We know the behaviors have been out there,” says Jeffrey Gerttula, executive vice president and general manager for CBS Sports Digital. “It can’t always be office pools.”

Gambling has rarely been something given full consideration on national TV. Sure, some fans will remember Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder predicting football scores on CBS Sports pregame shows in the 1970s and ’80s. But the subject remained taboo. These days, national sentiment is changing — just as it is about marijuana use. Many TV networks were happy to run dozens of ads for fantasy-sports sites DraftKings and FanDuel in the 2015-16 football season until legal concerns drove those two entities from the airwaves. Now, sports leagues themselves are setting up agreements with companies that consider the odds. Last year, for example, Major League Baseball struck a deal with MGM Resorts that lets the two parties share statistics and promote gaming.

Yet the big bet here isn’t just about making money from people who want to put $15 on their favorite football team on Sunday. The companies are also laying down stakes on the future of the TV business. What better way to get people to watch live TV than to give them the chance to figure out how to make money off it? “Betting is almost the ultimate expression of interactive TV, which has always been positioned as the way to get people more involved with the programming. But the applications have always been underwhelming — a poll, a quiz, some kind of interactive ad,” explains Tim Hanlon, CEO of Vertere Group, a media- and marketing-industry consultant. “Betting is the ultimate activity one can do in conjunction with content, and it can help insulate sports programming as the highest point of value in the television ecosystem.”

Sports Betting Illustration
CREDIT: Jason Schneider for Variety

Anything the networks can do to keep viewers more connected to the live program they watch is seen as healthy. Getting fans to pay more attention is the overall goal, executives say. NBCUniversal has also been testing what it calls Shoppable TV, an interactive function that can send viewers from, say, a sports match to an online store. Fans watching a May broadcast of the French Open could follow an on-screen alert telling them to hold their phone cameras up to the screen, and then be taken to a site to buy Lacoste clothing.

There are even hopes betting can move from sports to other kinds of programming — anything that people are so excited by, they will follow a suggestion to offer a response via mobile app. “Do people want to bet on an outcome of a ‘Game of Thrones’?” asks Will Funk, executive vice president of corporate sponsorships for WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports. “It’s a lot harder with a scripted show, because there are issues in terms of things getting out, but yes, I think you will see betting is something that will be integrated across other genres of programming, for sure.”

While other media outlets are creating content around sports betting, Fox is making plans to help facilitate actual wagers. The company said in May that Fox Sports would take a nearly 5% stake in Toronto’s Stars Group, an entity that makes online and mobile gaming technology. Fox Sports executives are in discussions with the NFL, Major League Baseball and NASCAR, among other leagues to which the company has rights to broadcast games and events, about what might be possible in seasons to come, according to a person familiar with the matter.

That’s a line some other companies are not willing to cross just yet. “There are certainly no plans to take bets on our platforms,” says Ilan Ben-Hanan, ESPN’s vice president of programming and scheduling. Adds Turner’s Funk: “I don’t see us being a betting operator of any sort.” NBCUniversal has been examining viewer behavior in New Jersey, a significant part of which is served by its NBC Sports Philadelphia, and believes “the market is going to be made up of more casual bettors,” says David Preschlack, president of NBC Sports Regional Networks and executive vice president of content strategy at NBC Sports Group. “We feel the big opportunity here is to use sports betting to raise the entertainment value of sports programming.”

“Betting is almost the ultimate expression of interactive TV, which has always been positioned as the way to get people more involved with the programming.”
Tim Hanlon, Vertere Group

Fox sees a chance to drive revenue through betting, says the person familiar with the matter, rather than simply running ads for other betting apps. Whether that means viewers of the pregame show to Fox’s “Thursday Night Football” can expect to see Michael Strahan talking about odds on that night’s contest remains to be seen.

Missteps are possible. No one wants to return to the days when commercial time during TV matches was all but dominated by DraftKings and FanDuel. And networks may have to worry about their credibility. “There’s already an obscene amount of money involved in sports,” says Vertere’s Hanlon. “The arrival of easy gambling and sports betting is only going to add more money — and more ethical challenges ahead.”

Part of the excitement surrounding the advent of betting is that it creates a new Wild West scenario around TV. “It will probably roll out in a way that nobody has predicted,” says NBCU’s Preschlack. “Nobody will get it exactly right, which will be fun to watch.” 

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