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Volume 21 No. 2

Media

This month’s daily fantasy advertising blitz has been so oppressive that companies now are buying ads in places that never have seen such pitches before, even in the marketing mecca of midtown Manhattan.

A DraftKings coffee cart ad in NYC
Photo by: JOHN OURAND / STAFF
DraftKings has been plastering its logo on street vendors throughout New York — many of whom said they never have sold any advertising on their carts. The daily fantasy site plastered a DraftKings sign on a cart at 45th Street and 6th Avenue, where I buy coffee when I’m in town. It also wrapped its logo on a cart a block away on 44th, where my colleague Terry Lefton occasionally buys smoothies. The vendors love the grassroots campaign, which can put between $250 and $900 per month in their pockets, depending on the size of the cart and whether it can hold more than one poster.

James Samdy has owned my favorite Manhattan coffee cart for the past 15 years. He said DraftKings pays him $250 per month to put its logo on one side of his cart. A 39-year-old sports fan from Afghanistan, Samdy has played daily fantasy once, but in late August, he saw an online offer to carry the site’s advertising message. He has never had advertising on his cart but decided to sign up. A DraftKings sales rep and installer visited him the next day.  DraftKings offered the $250 per month to put a sign on one side of his cart, $500 per month to put it on both.
Not a bad haul for a vendor who charges $2 for a large coffee.

Samdy opted to put the logo on one side, as he uses the other side to display bagels and pastries. “It took about two minutes,” he said.

A block away, Tan Van, 30, tells a different story. Van, who sells a large smoothie for $5, says he was approached on the street by a DraftKings sales rep who offered $300 per month to put the site’s logos on both sides of his cart. Having never sold advertising on his cart before, Tan eagerly accepted — though he says he should have negotiated a better deal. As soon as the signs went up, a second salesman told him that he would have paid Tan $300 per side.

— John Ourand

Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

ESPN has told college officials that it will not use the controversial “cover alerts” that it rolled out during one game telecast earlier this month.

But that doesn’t mean that ESPN is going to shy away from referring to point spreads and over-under lines on its studio shows. ESPN has allowed more gambling references on its air this season, a move that has irked many college administrators. But it was one Friday night highlight earlier this month that really generated howls of protest from university executives.

Michigan State’s 37-24 victory over Western Michigan prompted a “cover alert” on ESPN.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
On Sept. 4, ESPN broke into its Baylor-SMU telecast to show a highlight when Western Michigan scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to cut Michigan State’s lead to 17. The Spartans were favored by 18, and ESPN branded the break-in as a “cover alert,” something the network had not done before. Michigan State ended up winning the game by 13 points.

That was the only time ESPN used a “cover alert,” and ESPN executives said they made a quick decision to get rid of it even before they heard any complaints.

“We did it once. I didn’t like it, and we stopped it,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and production. “To me, it was too overt. Part of everything we do has a little bit of trial and error.”

ESPN has been upfront about its plans to discuss gambling on its shows more regularly this season, from Scott Van Pelt’s studio show to Brent Musburger’s veiled references to his “friends in the desert” (i.e., Las Vegas gamblers). Though Wildhack stressed that talk of gambling takes up a tiny percentage of ESPN’s programming (it’s around 2 percent of “College GameDay” and Van Pelt’s show, he said), the increased attention on gambling makes college officials uneasy.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was among those who took notice of ESPN’s increased coverage of betting lines during its college coverage.

Sankey was attending games on that first weekend of the college football season so he didn’t see much of ESPN’s coverage during the season’s opening weekend, but word quickly got back to him that ESPN had integrated the point spreads into its prediction segment and other aspects of its game-day coverage.

Like a football coach after a game, Sankey watched video of ESPN’s coverage to find out what the fuss was about. He wouldn’t get into the details of his subsequent conversations with ESPN officials. But his reaction to the second week of the season was that ESPN made an effort to find more balance in its use of point spreads.

Still, it is clear to him after week one that “the pendulum had swung” in the direction of point spreads.

“We certainly try to be mindful of the culture around us,” Sankey said, “but that doesn’t mean that we accept it as entirely appropriate. There is an existing concern about gambling becoming more central to the sport (and the broadcast). Although there has not been any official discussion as a conference about this issue, we need to be attentive to the integrity of the game.”

ESPN owns almost all of the media rights to the SEC, including the ESPN-owned SEC Network, and Sankey describes the relationship as healthy and “full of ongoing dialogue. … But everyone is attentive to the issues around gambling,” he said.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has made similar comments to the press this month, saying that he does not think college football shows should be discussing betting lines.

Other TV networks have different philosophies when it comes to gambling references. CBS Sports, which has the rights to televise an SEC game each week, takes a more conservative approach.

“We don’t have a policy regarding it, but we also don’t encourage it for our announcers,” said CBS Sports President Sean McManus. “We understand that fantasy and wagering is a large part of what happens around NFL football. But we’ve chosen at this point not to really highlight it or address it specifically in our broadcasts.”

Fox Sports, which carries Big 12 and Pac-12 games, has gambling segments on its studio shows, like FS1’s “Fox Sports Live.” But it hasn’t addressed the topic with any of its on-air announcers, said John Entz, Fox Sports executive producer and president of production.

“Internally, we haven’t even discussed it; we haven’t had a conversation with our announcers about it at all,” he said. “It hasn’t really been addressed previously because our guys don’t tend to discuss it on the air. It’s never been a question.”

NBC Sports Group allows announcers such as “Sunday Night Football’s” Al Michaels to make references to various odds, usually with a wink-and-a-nod. When the Steelers scored a meaningless touchdown at the end of the network’s first NFL game this month, Michaels made several veiled references to the point spread.

An NBC Sports spokesperson said Michaels’ remarks were in keeping with the way he’s called the end of games in previous seasons. He has not been any more overt about it this season, the spokesperson said.

But that’s not the case with ESPN. Wildhack pointed to several factors that caused the increase in gambling talk — from NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s call for legalized gambling to the rise in daily fantasy.

“We’ve been careful for a long period of time in our conversation on this,” Wildhack said. “There’s an increased interest in this conversation. The fact is that there are millions of people who do engage in legal sports betting. To blindly ignore that is somewhat naïve. We try to cover it in a way that’s going to be smart and somewhat entertaining.”

James Brown was chomping on brown rice crisps on “The NFL Today” set as he watched the early Sunday afternoon games during the NFL’s opening weekend. Brown, who had hip surgery in the offseason, put himself on a regimented diet as he tries to lose weight as part of his rehab — setting a goal to lose up to 60 pounds by the Super Bowl.

Brown’s public weight loss goal is one of many illustrations of the importance CBS is placing on Super Bowl 50, a game that the league and network are promising will be the biggest of big events. He spent all of August rehabbing from the surgery to be ready for the season, when he travels to “Thursday Night Football” sites during the week and New York on the weekends. Brown wants to make sure he is in good shape when more than 100 million viewers tune in to watch the game in February.

“We recognize from the top of our organization that this is a big year,” Brown said.

James Brown and the CBS “NFL Today” crew are gearing up for Super Bowl 50.
Photo by: CBS SPORTS
Brown told a story from the offseason, when he approached CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus about a plan to launch a podcast series in which he would interview athletes — a plan that he shelved after talking to McManus.

“Sean told me, ‘Look. You’re a grown man. You can make your own decisions. But this is a big year for us, so just be mindful of that,’” Brown said. “I just had hip surgery. I sat back and said, ‘You’re right.’”

The Week 1 scene at the CBS Broadcast Center showed the nervous energy that comes with being the broadcaster for Super Bowl 50. I asked McManus when he feels the pressure of handling what’s being billed as the biggest Super Bowl, and he joked, “Whenever I think about it.”

“Super Bowl 50 is always in either the back of our mind or the front of our mind, whenever we’re doing anything NFL football-wise,” he said. “During the games, we’re concentrating a whole lot more on the individual game than we are on Super Bowl 50. But it’s always out there and will be mentioned every day of our football coverage.”

Around the sports media world:

Daily fantasy with your cup of joe?

Super Bowl 50 was part of CBS’s production throughout the afternoon, starting with the opening minutes of its “NFL Today” pregame show, which opened with a voice-over saying, “There’s one goal, one night, one game that everyone thinks about all year long. In February, the biggest one of them all is coming. And here at CBS it’s been 50 years in the making.”

The opening then showed highlights from various Super Bowls. During games, the CBS on-screen score bug declared “Home to Super Bowl 50.” The pregame show had the Lombardi Trophy on set, as it will each week during the season. And each game featured vignettes of relevant Super Bowl highlights. In the Chiefs-Texans game, for example, CBS showed highlights of Super Bowl IV with Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson. It then cut to a shot of Dawson today, who was sitting in the radio booth at the Texans’ NRG Stadium.

“It’s never out of our mind,” said Drew Kaliski, producer for “The NFL Today.” “We’ve been meeting about it since the day after the Super Bowl two years ago in New York when we went out to San Francisco and started planning and preparation. For the last two years, it’s been hot and heavy. We’ve had weekly meetings to talk about ideas, everything from features and graphics to set locations. We’re full steam ahead.”

There always seems to be heightened excitement around the Week 1 schedule. But to me, the scene at CBS Broadcast Center as the 4 p.m. ET games drew to a close seemed to convey a sense of relief that the countdown to CBS’s own march to the Super Bowl had finally started.

In what CBS calls the MP room, a control room of sorts, CBS Sports’ top executives — McManus, CBS Sports President David Berson and Executive Producer Harold Bryant — erupted with whoops when Broncos safety Darian Stewart intercepted a pass at the end of the team’s first game to preserve a victory over the Ravens. The cheers were not so much in support of the Broncos. Rather, they were an acknowledgment of a thrilling finish to a competitive game.

It also marked the end of a day of NFL games where CBS left no doubt about the fact that it is this year’s Super Bowl broadcaster.

“There’s no bigger event than the Super Bowl,” Berson said. “It’s the biggest there is. Now this will be the biggest of the Super Bowls. It’s going to be the biggest event of all time.”

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.