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Volume 21 No. 22
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Media ready for pivot to digital platforms, real-time betting

When Fox Sports 1 launched in 2013, it decided to embrace gambling programming as a way to separate itself from its competitors. Its hosts were free to discuss betting lines. It gave airtime to a sports wagering expert. And during the day, it had a scrolling CNBC-style ticker at the bottom of the screen, complete with standings, statistics and, yes, point spreads.

 

The idea was that FS1 would cover U.S. sports the same way Fox Business Network covers the financial markets. The problem was that while Fox Business Network's stock ticker fluctuated throughout the day, FS1’s remained relatively stagnant. Sports statistics and odds do not change much during daytime hours, especially since most games are scheduled at night.

 

After a few months, network executives still liked having their hosts talk about point spreads. But they decided to pare down the ticker.

 

“You can only run through standings and points leaders so many times,” said a Fox Sports source who did not want to be identified discussing potential ramifications of a Supreme Court gambling case that has yet to be decided. “There’s not a whole lot of data that is being created in the daytime in sports. It’s not like business.”

 

Fox’s experience from five years ago is instructive as media companies try to figure out what changes they need to make to their programming in an environment that could become much more permissive about gambling.

 

Most media executives contacted for this story believe that if gambling laws become more relaxed, gambling segments will appear more frequently. But they do not see big changes in the way TV channels program their schedule. Linear television audiences are too big to allow niche programming, such as gambling and fantasy, to take over their schedules.

 

Platforms like Vegas Stats and Information Network could see growth if sports betting is legalized.

Rather, they predict that the biggest changes will be seen on digital platforms. Every source contacted for this story pointed to Brent Musburger’s recently launched Vegas Stats and Information Network as an example of what the future could look like if gambling becomes more permissive — a niche digital platform focused on betting lines.

 

“It’s all about the interactivity piece,” said Daniel Cohen, senior vice president of Octagon and head of its global media rights consultancy arm. “The second screen is going to offer a new way to watch TV programming that runs in real time with the linear broadcast from that broadcaster. In-game betting is going to be huge.”

 

Cohen referenced Facebook’s $35 million deal to stream 25 weekday afternoon baseball games as particularly interesting. Typically, midweek games draw the smallest TV audiences by far. But a midweek game that can be streamed in a gambling-friendly environment? That has a ton of potential, he said.

 

“When I used to work at Bloomberg, I’d go over to London and see these traders all have their trade screens on one monitor and have some sporting event on the other,” Cohen said. “They’d just be making real-time bets as the games were going on. It’s such a core fabric of the culture there. I think it will explode here.”

 

Zach Leonsis, senior vice president of strategic initiatives for Monumental Sports Network, said he expects 75 percent of gambling to occur on digital and mobile devices.

 

“Real time is one of the most exciting opportunities here,” he said. “That’s where I see interactivity in digital channels … I see us taking advantage of the inherent touchability that iPhones and Android devices give us. You can’t do that on linear.”

 

For decades, TV sports shied away from any kind of gambling references. Some play-by-play voices, like Al Michaels or Musburger, gained cult status in some gambling communities because they referred to betting lines during their broadcasts, almost always with a wink-and-a-nod, using coded language that bettors would know. Musburger, for example, would refer to “our friends in the desert,” whenever he talked about a Las Vegas betting line during a game.

 

For the past several years, that gambling taboo on television largely has gone away, as gambling talk has become much more pervasive. Today, some of the biggest sports TV stars openly discuss bets. On ESPN, one of the most recognizable segments on Scott Van Pelt’s “SportsCenter” is “Bad Beats,” when he shows a seemingly meaningless touchdown, basket or goal that affected a point spread. On FS1, Colin Cowherd spends much of his Fridays during NFL season talking about betting lines.

 

When it comes to figuring out how much emphasis networks should place on gambling should it become legalized, one network executive said TV networks will take the lead from their league partners. If a league, like the NBA, embraces wagering, networks will have more leeway to roll out gambling-related programming. If a league does not embrace wagering, networks most likely would respect those wishes, the executive said.