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A safe bet: Legal gambling could change the way we watch, talk and experience sports

A guest fills out a pick sheet during the launch of full-scale sports betting in Dover, Delaware, on June 5. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Michelle Gustafson

When sportscaster Scott Van Pelt was given the keys to the midnight edition of SportsCenter on ESPN, he saw no reason to pretend that gambling didn't exist. He introduced a segment on the show called "Bad Beats" - essentially highlighting games where late scores caused gamblers to rip up their betting slips and curse their bookies.

"I just basically told the powers-that-be that my intent was to tackle it from what I perceive to be an honest vantage point, which is that people bet on sports and it isn't this taboo subject," he said.

Turns out, he says, "Bad Beats" quickly grew into the show's most popular segment, a tacit acknowledgment that attitudes about sports betting had shifted dramatically and, for many, it was time for programming to follow suit.

"Without a doubt the most common refrain that I hear from people is that they love that segment. They don't like it - they love it," he said. "I mean, Charles Barkley will text me every Monday during the football season. He loves 'Bad Beats.' A lot of people do."

For years, sports gambling was presented in the media through sly, coded language - if it was acknowledged at all. Gambling was the taboo half of a parallel sports conversation that seemed to acknowledge an activity that was technically illegal and practically quite prevalent. Then came the Supreme Court ruling in May, effectively striking down a federal ban and paving the way for states to regulate sports betting. In the weeks that have followed, casinos and horse tracks are moving forward with plans to open sports books, states are debating the legal framework, teams and leagues are studying the ramifications, and media companies are racing to put stakes in the ground.

While no media executive is anticipating the game broadcasts to change significantly, the dialogue around sporting events could evolve. With the legality no longer posing any sort of ethical barrier, there's no longer a need to wink, and sports gambling probably will be mainstreamed in a way that will be apparent to both gamblers and fans who've never placed a bet in their lives.

Legalized gambling won't change Van Pelt's approach to SportsCenter - "I'm not suddenly going to become a 900-number and try to shill picks" - but he knows the landscape is shifting and knows everyone is trying to adjust accordingly.

"I think it's trickier than just saying, 'We'll do gambling talk.' All right, what's that look like? That's the part I wrestle with," he said. "But the content itself will include an acknowledgment of the spread, where in the past that was kind of the third rail."

Chad Millman, head of media for the Action Network, doesn't see the parallel conversations merging entirely but does see a growing audience hungry for information that finally will be catered to. His outfit launched just before the Supreme Court decision and is focused on analysis, news and discussion surrounding sports wagering and fantasy sports.

"Our goal here is to inform people and make them more comfortable with that conversation and make them armed to sort of be smarter as sports fans," said Millman, a former ESPN executive who wrote the 2002 sports betting book The Odds.

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The Action Network is owned by the Chernin Group, which is a chief investor in Barstool Sports and the Athletic, among others. Last year Chernin gobbled up three smaller sports media tech companies and merged them, and in January it formally launched the Action Network, a news site and podcast network. Millman left his job at ESPN - he was formerly the editor of ESPN the Magazine - and has made some formidable hires, including NBA reporter Matt Moore, veteran golf writer Jason Sobel and former big league catcher Paul Lo Duca.

Gambling talk was mostly verboten by traditional media and frowned upon by the leagues, but companies are suddenly angling for space. The idea is that an entity such as the Action Network or Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN) - another media company focused on sports betting - would be positioned like CNBC or Bloomberg News: supplementing more traditional coverage that's provided elsewhere with specifically focused content.

"We're explaining a market. That's what people need to understand," Brian Musburger, VSiN's founder, said. "It's just like Wall Street. People take the market seriously and view it in much the same way they would picking a stock."

Musburger is the nephew of veteran broadcaster Brent, who's a cornerstone of the fledging company and also hosts a VSiN podcast. The younger Musburger launched the network in January 2017 but says that since the Supreme Court decision, new advertisers have come out of the woodwork and the entire industry feels a sense of momentum as it crosses over from taboo to mainstream.

"It's sort of helped legitimize a very large market that's existed and had been largely ignored," he said.

The Action Network's internal research suggests between 8 million and 10 million people place a bet each week in the United States, a sizable target audience for the media company. Another 50 million to 70 million might place a bet once or twice a year.

"So we're trying to find voices and content and data and really structure all of that in a way that transcends the 8-10 million - the one percenters - and breaks it out to the next 30 or so million, the casual bettors who are obsessed with sports," said Noah Szubski, the company's chief executive. "We need to speak to a larger audience while at the same time serving the die-hards."

One upside for sports fans, Musburger notes, is an overall smarter level of discourse. One of VSiN's podcasters, Josh Towers, a major league pitcher for parts of eight seasons, says his playing career would've lasted longer had his teams had access to the same data as Vegas oddsmakers. Musburger says traditional sports TV and radio programming leans too heavily on debate, often loud, trivial and forgettable. Smart sports gamblers are analytical, armed with data and analysis and reason.

"People on these talk shows are taking opinions to be bombastic and argumentative. I think you get dumber listening to that stuff over time," he said. "I truly think I learn from the programming we put on. That's the goal of the content we're creating: I want people to feel they're walking away more informed."

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While Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder was once a staple on pregame NFL programming, gambling talk was mostly forbidden in mainstream sports television, aside from picks that might have made casual reference to favorites, underdogs or the point spread. Even before the Supreme Court decision, ESPN increasingly had allowed sports betting talk to seep into its content in recent years. There's a section of its website devoted to sports gambling, called Chalk, and a podcast called "Behind the Bets." The network started airing a show on its ESPN+ streaming platform called "I'll Take That Bet," which is produced by the Action Network. The show debuted May 31, though it had been in the works prior to the Supreme Court opening the floodgates to sports betting.

"The space is very interesting to us from a programming perspective," ESPN's new president, Jimmy Pitaro, said in May.

"We have tried to find the places where it naturally intersects with the content," Connor Schell, the network's executive vice president in charge of content, said the day after the court's decision. ". . . I think it's something that we're going to be thoughtful about and think about."

Even if announcers don't instantly start sprinkling gambling terminology into their game broadcasts, it's possible that sports betting will still be difficult to miss, even if it's only in the background.

In England, sports gambling has been legal for years, and betting parlors are as common as convenience stores. Mark Griffiths, a Nottingham Trent University professor who has studied gambling for three decades, says the game broadcasts there don't overtly discuss gambling but it's still very much a part of most sporting experience for fans, whether they're on a couch or in a stadium.

Last year, half of the English Premier League teams wore the logo of a gambling outfit on their jersey. One played home games in Bet365 Stadium, and virtually all games featured in-game advertising on stadium signage.

British media have reported that nearly every commercial break of the current World Cup broadcast has featured at least one or two gambling-related advertisements. In 11 games that were analyzed by the BBC, in fact, 62 of the 66 breaks had at least one ad.

"My kids are just bombarded with gambling adverts," Griffiths said. "It's unavoidable."

Author information: Rick Maese is a sports features writer for The Washington Post. He has written about the NFL since joining The Post in 2009, including three seasons as beat writer for the Washington Redskins.

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