Tony Kornheiser: I want to be clear on one thing: I’m gonna take the points.
Michael Wilbon: Stop it! What are you, Mr. Vegas, now?
Kornheiser: This is a public service. If you’re going to give me 5½ points and New England …
Wilbon: Who cares?
Kornheiser: Who cares? Only about 300 million Americans. So I’m going to take the points.
Forget, for a moment, that Tony Kornheiser—the onetime highly respected Washington Post sports columnist turned bombastic TV and radio personality—would be minus a sliver of his fortune had he actually put his money where his mouth is: The New England Patriots failed to cover the 5½-point spread in their 26-16 AFC Championship Game loss to the Denver Broncos. The bigger story is this: Kornheiser and buddy Michael Wilbon—who host the highest-rated afternoon program (Pardon the Interruption) on the nation’s No. 1 sports network (ESPN)—led off their January 17 show by talking about a betting line.
It wasn’t the first time, either. Kornheiser and Wilbon argued point spreads and favorites and underdogs frequently during the 2013 college and pro football season. As did their colleagues from every national media outlet. You name the platform—TV, radio, electronic, print—there’s been a recent sea change within the mainstream media when it comes to the topic of sports betting. Turns out all the cool kids have finally invited this once-taboo industry to the party.
“Sports betting has always been legitimate,” says Micah Roberts, former director of race and sports for Station Casinos who currently spreads the gospel as an analyst with TheLinemakers.com, which is affiliated with the Sporting News. “But now it’s not a hidden thing nationally anymore. We get to kind of come out of the closet.”
Let’s be clear: Man has been gambling on the outcome of competitions since we lived in caves and the currency, as Roberts puts it, “was a goat.” But with rare exceptions—Jimmy the Greek on CBS in the 1970s being the pre-eminent example—sports-betting discussions were always relegated to two places: Nevada sportsbooks and the smoke-filled backrooms at Uncle Tony’s Tavern in Middle America. Even guys like The Greek and later Chris Berman, whose “2-Minute Drill” NFL predictions segment has been airing on ESPN for decades, rarely made direct mention of the actual point spread. And while broadcasters such as Brent Musburger and Al Michaels have for years made veiled references to point spreads while calling games, the words “Las Vegas” and “betting” were always verboten.
I first remember the ice beginning to thaw a bit in the early 2000s, when ESPN.com columnist (and unabashed Vegas fan) Bill Simmons started to pen a widely read weekly column picking NFL games against the spread. That the suits at ESPN loosened the leash, however, seemed more about Simmons’ growing popularity than the sports-media Goliath adopting a relaxed stance on betting. In fact, Simmons essentially stood alone on the national stage until about 2008, when ESPN The Magazine editor-in-chief Chad Millman started writing a regular online sports-betting blog. But even then, the blog was (and still is) only available on the subscription-only ESPN Insider site.
The biggest breakthrough came a couple of years later, when ESPN Radio host—and former Las Vegas sportscaster—Colin Cowherd began talking point spreads on his syndicated drive-time morning show, including reserving a segment each Friday in the fall to give out his favorite NFL plays against the number. From there, ever so slowly, others began to take a bite of the forbidden fruit.
Fast forward to 2013, and in particular Week 6 of the NFL season. The undefeated Broncos hosted the winless Jacksonville Jaguars, and Las Vegas oddsmakers installed Denver as a 28-point favorite. It was the biggest spread in modern NFL history, and it’s all the national media wanted to talk about. Just ask longtime Las Vegas handicapper Scott Spreitzer. “Every radio show that I did that week outside of Nevada led off with that point spread,” says Spreitzer, who co-hosts Pregame.com’s First Preview sports-betting show weekdays on local ESPN Radio affiliate KWWN 1100-AM. “Every single show. It was crazy.”
A month later, Denver and New England were showcased on NBC’s Sunday Night Football, which is routinely the highest-rated NFL game each week. The line in Vegas had the Broncos as a slight road favorite, which intrigued Michaels (as most point spreads do). However, instead of his usual vague approach, Michaels came right out at the top of the broadcast and mentioned that the Patriots were a home underdog for the first time since 2005. Shockingly, NBC’s producers didn’t cut his mic.
Then in early January, on the eve of the Auburn-Florida State national championship game, the Internet was abuzz about an Auburn fan who stood to turn a $100 betting ticket into $50,000 if the Tigers prevailed. Finally, the morning after the Broncos and Seattle Seahawks advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII, no fewer than six national sports websites—ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo Sports and Pro Football Talk—had front-page articles about Denver being the favorite.
“Those of us who have been in the business, it’s something we welcome and encourage and have wanted to see for a long time,” says Art Manteris, the vice president of race and sports for Station Casinos who began his sportsbook career at the Fremont Hotel in 1979. “We think it adds excitement to the game; we think it adds legitimacy to what we do; and we think that it publicizes our industry and puts it in a positive light.”
The obvious question, of course, is this: Why, after all these years, is the national media now wrapping its arms around the sports-betting community? There is no easy answer, as the half-dozen sources I interviewed espoused multiple theories.
Start with Jimmy Vaccaro, the legendary Las Vegas bookmaker who has worked in casinos all over town for nearly four decades and now runs the South Point’s book. I ask him if this is simply a matter of national outlets being forced to ditch the morality card, lest they risk alienating a growing audience. “You’re exactly right. They were boxed into a corner. Because if they didn’t do it, the upstart [competition] would be doing it,” he says. “But the hypocrisy abounds here. The biggest March Madness contest—the NCAA Tournament bracket [challenge]—is sponsored by CBS. You’re gambling!”
Manteris offers a slightly different view than his longtime colleague. He believes professional leagues—the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, etc.—have more or less been muzzling their network partners, and those muzzles are starting to be loosened. “The leagues control the contracts. So they have a lot to say about what can and can’t be discussed by the networks [with which] they do business. The leagues have pushed in one direction, and the networks have subtly and slowly pushed in the other direction. So if those two factions were at polar opposites for many years, apparently there’s some meeting in the middle going on now. It’s obvious that there’s pressure to fill a need.”
Professional bettor and local handicapper Steve Fezzik, the only two-time winner of the prestigious Las Vegas Hilton (now LVH) Supercontest, credits such guys as Cowherd, Millman and Simmons for getting the ball rolling. But he also points to the gambling culture that permeates 21st-century America, including sports betting’s twin brother: poker. “Poker has helped immensely,” he says. “And with casinos being all over the country now, the acceptance of gambling is huge compared with 10 or 20 years ago. People don’t look at you [strangely anymore]. I was on jury duty recently and was asked, ‘What do you do for a living?’ I said, ‘I’m a professional handicapper and bettor.’ No one cared.”
And that leads to yet another theory: As Fezzik points out, casinos now dot the nation’s landscape like convenience stores. However, Nevada remains the only state in the union that permits full-scale legal sports wagering—much to the dismay of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is pushing the federal government to let his state vote on whether or not they want to join the game. The Jersey issue aside, most insiders agree that it’s a matter of years, not decades, before the floodgates open. “Money is everything,” Roberts says. “And when they start putting these pie charts in front of the senators and the people who can make things happen, and [they] think about the revenues that can be made for our country, it’s hard to ignore.”
Roberts is convinced national media outlets are now embracing sports betting because they want to be proactive and position themselves to grab a slice of what would be an enormous pie. “Eventually, there is going to be interstate wagering,” he says. “And when that happens, there are so many different factions that will want to be a part of that. Not just from a booking standpoint, but to promote it, to advertise and to be sources for [information]. ESPN has slowly morphed themselves into a spot, as a national sports channel, to say, ‘We need to be all-encompassing.’ Instead of waiting and then reacting, they’re getting themselves ready for when it happens.”
ESPN’s Millman wouldn’t speculate as to when sports betting would expand beyond Nevada’s borders—“It’s impossible to say, and anyone who tells you they can handicap this is lying”—but he did acknowledge the obvious: Sports fans are craving betting information like never before, and it’s driving the increased media attention. “Absolutely, and I think there are a couple of reasons for it,” he says. “One, it’s the accessibility to information. Two, it’s the increased influence of analytics and advanced analytics in sports and the way people are using those. It’s bringing people who might not have thought of sports betting as something viable into the arena. … Certainly, our goal at ESPN is to serve sports fans, and there are more people talking about it. So in areas where it’s appropriate, we’re doing more of it.”
No story about sports betting going mainstream would be complete without mention of RJ Bell.
Bell, who moved to Las Vegas in 1998, is the founder of the sports-betting information and handicapping site Pregame.com, and he’s become something of a mascot for the industry. If you’ve recently tuned into sports radio or viewed a sports website—be it local or national—you’ve undoubtedly heard his distinct voice and read his quotes. In addition to a regular Friday segment on Cowherd’s show—in which he offers the professional bettors’ take on Cowherd’s selection, Bell appears on dozens of syndicated national radio shows each month during the football season, including NBC Sports, Fox Sports and Yahoo; he writes a regular column for Grantland.com (a site Simmons runs); and he’s been quoted by The Associated Press, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal. In all, Bell says his media requests have more than tripled over the last year.
“As long as I’ve been in the business, there have been a lot of local radio stations and local newspapers that wanted to cover betting as a legitimate part of the sports conversation,” he says. “But this year was a real tipping point.” His rationale: In every segment of the media there have long been sports bettors and people fascinated by the industry, but the overwhelming majority of producers, hosts, editors and writers were akin to first-time cliff divers standing shoulder to shoulder on the precipice, waiting for someone else to take the first plunge. Once people finally started jumping, it became a race to not be last into the water.
“There are three groups,” Bell says. “You had the vanguards who sort of blazed the trail. Then you had the aficionados who were just waiting for it to be safe from a business sense, and you saw a lot of that in 2013. Then there was the third group that’s fearful of getting left behind, because sports betting has become such a key part of the conversation. That third group is starting to emerge now.”
I think back to Kornheiser’s snarky retort to Wilbon—Who cares? Only about 300 million Americans—and wonder: How far is the mainstream media willing to go on this topic? Is the day coming soon when Pardon the Interruption will be followed by a half-hour show devoted solely to that day’s betting lines? “Oh gosh, that’s hard to say,” Millman says. “I think we’re constantly going to pursue the places where it makes sense to [cover sports betting]. It makes a lot of sense to be doing it on radio. It makes a lot of sense to be doing it online. … And we’ve seen areas on television where it’s starting to happen a little bit more. But it’s impossible to say what direction it’s going. I don’t think we’re going to pull back on it, though.”
That’s sweet music to the ears of guys like Jimmy Vaccaro, who on the Monday morning after the NFL’s divisional-round playoff games is sitting in the South Point’s sportsbook, eyes fixated on the flat screen above him. It’s tuned to ESPN2 and displaying this graphic: Should the Patriots be underdogs against the Broncos? For more than five minutes, talking heads Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith, flanked by a female host, are debating the topic. “First of all, these three ain’t got a clue, but it doesn’t matter,” Vaccaro says. “What, 20 million people are watching this right now? Really, this is a free ad for Las Vegas, for Nevada.”
Senior editor Matt Jacob talks sports betting on 97.1 FM The Point. Listen to the broadcast below.