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RJ Bell Hasn’t Done Anything That Matters Yet

Brian Noe

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Vegas.

Millions of dollars left on the table.

Founder of a 2x Inc. 5000 company.

Being linked to some of the biggest names in sports radio.

These are just a small number of things that RJ Bell has experienced throughout his career. Although RJ is proud of the great deal of success he’s achieved, he still grades himself harshly and feels like he hasn’t accomplished anything that matters yet.

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There might be bigger successes in RJ’s future, but his resume is still very impressive. It’s easy to gather that his wins didn’t happen by accident. RJ had a long-term vision and strategically positioned himself accordingly. He’s the CEO/founder of pregame.com and hosts Straight Outta Vegas weekdays at 6pm ET on FOX Sports Radio. These triumphs didn’t magically fall from the sky without having a plan.

One of RJ’s greatest strengths is that he simply hasn’t forgetten that sports betting is supposed to be fun. The joy he gets from betting comes through in his words and actions. RJ makes a major prediction in this piece about the near future of sports betting. He also mentions what he believes to be the most valuable commodity in the betting world, which can also be applied to other industries as well as life in general. Enjoy.

Brian Noe: What’s the part of your job either with FOX Sports Radio or pregame.com that you enjoy the most?

RJ: I would say the new experiences with FOX Sports Radio are right at the top of the list. I’ve been a guest and doing 15 or so significant hits a week on various radio shows for a long time. Being a guest is a challenge — and initially it certainly was a challenge — but you don’t really have control of the content. You’re answering the host’s questions. Having a chance to be a creator, to allow my creativity to shine through with the Straight Outta Vegas show has been very enjoyable.

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It’s a new experience for me. I’ve had a podcast for a while with Podcast One that’s more of a deep dive handicapping show. It’s done surprisingly well with the listenership, but that’s a niche offering. That’s a, “Hey, you’re a handicapper or you bet and we’ve got great betting information,” and we get our listeners.

Trying to do a national radio show — and that’s something that’s important to remember, and I know you know this, Brian — is that when you’re local you benefit from a built-in interest for those local teams. When your national, you don’t have that crutch of the local teams and you’ve got to find something generally interesting for everybody. That’s been a challenge. Quite frankly it’s been exhilarating because it’s new, but it’s also so substantial when it comes to the reach with nearly 200 stations coast to coast.

Noe: Is there anything that you have tapped into as far as controlling your own show and the direction that it goes that normal hosts interviewing you don’t pursue?

RJ: Our research shows that about half the people who listen to Straight Outta Vegas do not gamble regularly. Now that number I think is going to shock a lot of people, but I’m very proud of it. I really cultivate the concept that there’s a Vegas perspective to anything. Whereas, okay, there’s a buffet and it has a lunch price, and it has a dinner price. The dinner price is more. Part of the reason for that is they bring out the lamb chops for dinner, but you don’t have the lamb chops for lunch. A Vegas guy is going to think, “Wait a second. It switches over at 4. I’ll go eat an early dinner at 3:45, pay the lunch price, but eat all of the lamb chops I want.”

That kind of value-based mentality is something — and really if you think about life — life is bets. You’re making bets if you decide am I going to drive without a seatbelt? Or am I going to drive past the speed limit? The bet might be “am I going to live or die?”. The bet might be “am I going to get a ticket or not?”, and the economics of that. The bet may be something like the clam chowder here is half price but it’s a day old. Is it worth the chance of getting sick?

The poker player, Annie Duke, wrote a book recently called Thinking in Bets and it really explores that concept that we’re all weighing odds pretty much all day. To have a group of people with me hosting that do that professionally and then apply that thinking not just to who’s going to win the game, but was that a smart trade or not? And all of the different sports topics that the talk shows discuss to me is different. I’ve been very enthused at the response to that, I think, unique approach.

Noe: How do you go about finding that middle ground where you are stimulating the hardcore gamblers, but you aren’t causing the new people to swim in details they’re unfamiliar with?

RJ: Yeah, I think there’s two answers to that question, two different facets to the answer. One is, I have zero personal interest in playing to the purist. Every industry, which is niche initially, and then becomes mainstream, has that challenge as it’s emerging into the mainstream. You’ve got the purists and they are saying, “This is how we critique and grade and validate people in our industry.” The purists usually are the ones who were the arbiters of right and wrong that led to the industry being small and niche in the first place. To apply those rules as it goes mainstream is a big mistake.

It’s kind of funny how often I think there is an analogy to professional wrestling and sports betting content. The reason being is the idea that it’s an industry that we all know people like, people do, but it’s always been on the periphery. It’s always been kind of gray. Wrestling is, “You’re dumb if you watch wrestling,” and, “Oh, if you bet you’re a degenerate,” or, “You’re a sucker.” The way that Vince McMahon came in and said listen this isn’t about any purist, this is about entertainment and how can we entertain the fan?

You had this purgatory that the WCW/NWA, those guys were like, “Hey, we’re purists. We’re wrestling and it’s not real — wink, wink — but it’s more real.” Well, no, if it’s not real, it’s not real. Here’s the analogy with sports betting. Probably the thing I say the most often is your chance of winning as a sports bettor — talking to the nation, all the listeners — is about the same as making the NBA. Some of you are going to be able to do that, just like some high school kids make the NBA, but most of you aren’t. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If you know that you’re negative EV, then you look at it as recreation. If you look at it as recreation, you don’t fool yourself that you’re in this for an investment, that this is a money-making endeavor. It doesn’t mean you can’t win in any given week or month or even year. It doesn’t mean that you might not surprise yourself and be that one in a long shot that has enough talent, willpower, discipline, work ethic to do it, but most won’t. If they’re doing it for fun, there’s no harm in that.

So, we very much strive to help people win more, but winning more is very different than winning long-term and profiting. That distinction frees us up so much. One, we can be honest. Anyone who’s not saying this is lying. I always say there’s a lot of great information providers out there. Pregame is one of them we hope, but there’s a lot of great ones. The ones to run away from are the ones that say it’s easy to win, because you know they are scamming. The ones that say it’s hard to win, but we think we’ve got the answer — okay be skeptical, but at least they’re being honest about that.

A long time ago, we freed ourselves of any thought of being anything but 100 percent honest about it’s tough to win, now let’s all have some fun. I know that’s a different audience than most of the shows, but I think that’s one of the drivers of our success. Also finally, a driver of the fact that we’re able to reach the casual better or even the non-bettor because we’re not trying to pass a purity test and we’re not trying to fool anyone that this is easy to win.

Noe: How many years have you been working in the sports betting industry and what made you initially want to get into it?

RJ: I graduated from Ohio State in 1992 with a finance degree. I did quite well in school. Now in high school I did horribly, and I grew up in a small town in Ohio — 4,000 people, zero stop lights, one fast-food place, it was a Dairy Queen, but it closed for five months of the year during the winter, so you had to get your Brazier Burger when the weather was fine. Going to Ohio State obviously was big change, going to Columbus, and I decided, hey, I think I can do this. I applied myself.

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As it was discussed — the New York Times did an article a couple of years ago that I was involved in — they really thought it was fascinating that I was accepted into Harvard Law School after. It was like, “Who’s this guy who’s in gambling who could have went to Harvard Law School?” It really was not just, hey, I hate the straight world. There’s a lot of hypocrisy I don’t like about the conventional straight world, but it was more that I thought this industry doesn’t have as many serious people in it. Maybe serious isn’t the word, but they don’t have as many corporate types in it.

My thinking at the time was, hey, I’m pretty good at this finance stuff, but there’s certainly a ton of people better than me. I also thought — and this was certainly the case at the time when I was in my mid-20s — there’s a lot of people that know a lot more about sports betting than me, but I didn’t feel like there were a lot that knew both as well as I did. As time passed, I think that’s proven out to be generally true.

Now we’re seeing with legalization some really serious players getting involved: the venture capitalists, the Silicon Valley types, and the corporate types. I very much welcome that, because it’s back to the idea of the old-timers versus the emerging new market. I believe that the hypertalented, fresh-thinking groups that come into this industry on the bookmaking side and the content side are just going to produce a better product for the gambler.

Ultimately — and I say this sincerely because I can promise you I have personal goals and personal interests, but I’ve aligned myself with the bettor. I really believe that one of the biggest mistakes the mainstream media companies have made, the ESPN’s of the world — and I very much like ESPN in many ways. I don’t like everything, but to me it’s not FOX versus ESPN. It never has been and it won’t be for me ever, but I think they make a mistake when it comes to their sports betting coverage.

Not naming names and I’m not looking to be negative about any individual, but unless I’m mistaken they don’t have one person on payroll that is full-time with gambling. To think about the concept that there’s a subindustry that’s so big and so emerging and it’s, “Hey, let’s get this part-time guy that writes about high school football for the online edition of his local newspaper.” That guy might be a great guy, he might not be. Who knows and who cares? It’s how much does he know about sports betting?

Here’s why they tend to do that. What are the credentials in sports betting? If you’re looking for a doctor, he better have an MD. You better figure out how good the school he went to was, or the specialization, or all of these other ways to be credentialed. Well, as a sports bettor you don’t get a degree. You don’t get in a Hall of Fame typically. What have the big media companies done? They’ve leaned on amateur writers who then don’t know who to go to because there’s not a credentialed list, so they go to the sportsbooks.

One of the things I genuinely believe you can be critical of the big media companies about is their coverage of sports betting is almost invariably from the sportsbooks’ perspective. I get it because, “Hey, this guy is the sportsbook operator for this big casino XYZ.” It doesn’t even matter which casino. “They’ve got a big billion-dollar brand, so I can trust this guy.” Yeah, you probably can. He’s probably not going to deceive you, but I promise he’s going to tell you a story that’s favorable for his side of the counter. To me, the bettor side of the counter haven’t really had the advocates that they need and that’s something that I pride myself on trying to be.

Noe: Why is it that the NBA is progressive and embraces the fact that many people bet on sports, where on the other hand the NFL and MLB resist embracing sports betting?

RJ: Great question. I think there’s two answers to that question. The simple answer is how much do they need the money? Meaning the NFL is king — I was on with Colin Cowherd about a year ago talking about this very topic — the NFL had the best situation possible up until legalization, which was we can be completely sanctimonious and poo-poo sports betting while collecting and benefiting from a vast majority of the potential benefits out there. People were still betting and the interest in the games and the interest in the conversation around the games — things like the NFL Network et cetera — all benefited from gambling, but at the same time the league could say, “Oh, we don’t believe in it. We don’t like it.”

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Sanctimony plus profit equals smiley face for the NFL. Makes sense. Now with legalization there’s so much more money to be made by embracing it, oh low and behold, “You know we’ve reconsidered. It’s not so bad.” With the NFL being in the driver’s seat financially compared to the other leagues, they could be a little bit more sanctimonious and a little slower to adopt something that does have it’s detractors. Certainly there are a certain percentage of people that just think gambling is wrong. They could avoid offending them without losing too much of the revenue, because the revenue was coming in in a tangential way. I think that’s answer one.

I think answer two is simpler. You’ve got legacy money, old-school money in the NFL for the most part, and you’ve got more forward-looking owners in the NBA. Let’s give commissioner Silver a ton of credit. It’s been more than a few years that he wrote the first major commissioner kind of op-ed saying in the New York Times we can’t be this hypocritical. If we’re involved with daily fantasy, it’s pretty much the same thing. Let’s be honest about it and move forward.

That I thought was a smart move, but we know the billionaires — they’re smart in a lot of ways but they’re not always smart in every way. I think that Silver has seen the hypocrisy of daily fantasy being okay but sports betting not being okay at the time. Him embracing that really tore down some of the friction to get us to where we are today.

Noe: Have you noticed any difference since legalization with how you’ve been treated in general? I’m thinking before legalization some might have looked down at you like, “Hey, here’s this guy. He’s just trying to make a buck off of these suckers.” Maybe not looking at you being as smart as you are. Now since legalization maybe that thinking has changed. Has that happened at all?

RJ: Not from individuals. I think some of that is the approach I took. One of the things on pregame.com that we really prided ourselves on, is once there was any uncertainty about online sportsbooks and the legality — and this goes all the way back to 2008 or so — we stopped dealing in any way with any online sportsbook. There was a lot of money, and I mean literally millions of dollars left on the table, but for me it was with an eye towards society is moving to embrace this and if you’re in bed with companies in Costa Rica or offshore country XYZ, it’s going to be a challenge to extricate yourself from that later.

I also think a second approach of mine personally has been understanding trust was the most valuable commodity. If you watch a movie like Two for the Money, if you watch any of the old Saturday morning touts shows on USA Network, those guys were very good at what they did. They were confidence guys. They were salesman. If you watch a movie like Wolf of Wall Street, what Jordan Belfort did in that movie and in his book – and I guess in his real life assuming that his book was a true depiction – is very similar to what a Stu Feiner did back in the day. I don’t know Stu personally. I don’t know really anything about his business except there was a group of guys that were running boiler rooms back then.

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That’s what people thought of when they thought of sports information.

Jimmy the Greek did a great job for himself, but it was such an niche. It was a, “He’s Jimmy the Greek.” Otherwise it was the guys on Saturday morning. What I figured was, well if I can get next to the ESPN’s of the world, the FOX’s of the world, the Stephen A Smith’s, the Colin Cowherd’s, how do I get next to them? Through providing them with differentiated content. Through providing them with value.

When I initially was on the Herd — I mean we’re going back eight years ago — Colin’s producer at the time, in my opinion one of the great producers in radio, Vince Kates, just a brilliant radio guy — we had a casual relationship and he’s like, “Hey, we’re going to start having a handicapper on once a week and we want you to start.” My first thought was how can I make this segment so good that Vince is going to think, “You know forget the other guys, let’s just keep RJ on!” What I came up with was the whole wiseguy grade on Colin’s picks. Luckily Colin liked it, Vince liked it, and they allowed me to continue that segment.

Now imagine it’s a year from then or nine months from then and someone says, “Oh, there’s that RJ guy. Oh yeah, he’s a pick guy,” or, “Hey, he’s a gambler,” but, “Oh, you know I actually heard him on Colin Cowherd.” Now it’s not so easy to just be prejudiced against my career, my industry, because a guy like a Colin Cowherd is involved. Luckily through a lot of effort, and it was a focus of mine, I was able to build those relationships with multiple media companies and hosts on their platforms to the point that eventually it wasn’t, “There’s RJ Bell, he’s a Vegas gambler,” but rather, “There’s RJ Bell, you probably saw him on the Herd or Stephen A Smith.”

Noe: With sports betting being legalized on a state-to-state basis, I’m thinking about new bettors that haven’t even dabbled in gambling that now will. There are a ton of things that you could say in terms of giving advice to new gamblers, but what would be the two most important pieces of advice you would give to someone who’s brand new to it?

RJ: Bet less per game and bet less games. I mean it’s really that simple because the basic premise, the founding principle of what we’re doing with Straight Outta Vegas and pregame.com is it’s hard to win. People just are shocked when they hear that because it’s like, wait a minute. Aren’t you the guy that’s supposed to be saying, bet this game and by a car and once you buy that car you’re going to have a hot girl that wants to ride in it with you?

I never wanted that, but even if I did I could never be as good as those Saturday morning guys at that. That’s in their bones it seems. What was in my bones was I love gambling. Let me try to spread the joy and the pleasure I get from it if it’s done smart and if it’s done recreationally. Really it all comes back to that. As the industry grows, the risk grows for sure of problem gambling. But I think if the mentality is it’s fun, it’s not about getting rich quick, boy you could avoid a lot of the problems.

Noe: What do you see the future being? For example, soon you might go to a game and sports betting is readily available. Is there anything that you foresee happening in the next five years that you’re positioning yourself for right now and getting ahead of the curve?

RJ: I think this is so big that I’m going to answer more toward the industry rather than my business. I think my business is going to be driven by two things — what is the objective of the content we produce? As we said with Straight Outta Vegas is we want everybody on FOX Sports Radio listening coast to coast that’s a sports fan to think, “Oh, this is different.” I tell my producer, Loren [Gardner], and he’s been with FOX a long time. I’m only interested in doing segments which are either better or different.

If you’ve got Dan Patrick, Colin Cowherd, Doug Gottlieb, and then me? Chances are I’m not doing very much better in typical sports talk. It’s like being on the Dream Team in ‘92, right? I’m not going to dunk better than Jordan. Well, this is the dream team of radio in my opinion. I am humbled to follow those three. I’m very sincere. If I’m doing the same thing as Colin, I’m done. I’m second best at best. And not even that, but I can do a Vegas perspective hopefully that’s either better or different.

Ultimately, embracing that it’s recreational and providing that audience with something better or different, that’s the business goal. I think it’s important, and I’ll keep this short, but it’s so important about where the industry is going. I think the legacy Vegas sportsbooks are in big trouble because I believe the differentiator for legalized sports betting in the future is going to be technology.

If you think about Facebook, what does Facebook do better? It’s the user experience. The ability of company XYZ to be a big player in sports betting is going to be about cultivating that user experience. I don’t think the Vegas casinos — boy when it comes to brick and mortar and gamblers they’re the best in the universe. When it comes to online? Specifically apps? I think you look at Silicon Valley. My prediction number one is that you’re going to see the sportsbooks of the future look more like Silicon Valley companies and technology companies than Vegas casinos.

The eye popper, the shocker of that — and I’m going to make a prediction and we’ll look back on it in two years and see if I’m right — I believe that the interface between smart TVs and the operating system that sits on top of the television is where the next big move is going to be. Let’s use for example Roku, or let’s say Apple TV. You might buy brand TV XY or Z, but they’re going to have apps on that television and it might be again Roku, it might be Apple TV, whatever.

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Imagine the following. Imagine an Apple TV partners with a sports betting company and they say, “Okay we’re going to allow you to have your interface” — and forget the business side of it because maybe it’s, “We take 85% of the revenue,” Apple says or whatever. In this hypothetical, Apple will keep an arm’s length from the gambling itself, but imagine if Apple says, “See that space in the right corner of the TV when the football game is on? If you want to have your in-game betting right there, then all you guys start bidding on it. Whoever gives us the best deal, you can slide in there.”

Everyone always thought it was going to be a triangle with the bookmakers, the leagues, and the TV networks to get that app in the corner of the football game. I think it’s going to be simply the software company that sits on top of the television telling the leagues, “Hey, we don’t need you,” and telling the networks, “Hey, we don’t need you.”

Now maybe they’ll pay them a percentage to make the peace, a business expense. I believe the lion’s share is going to go to the technology companies like Apple and even the bookmakers themselves that Apple might partner with are going to be a commodity. Bookmakers pretty much are interchangeable. That real estate on your smart TV screen enabled to in-game bet — will LeBron James make this next free throw? Will the field goal kicker make this next kick? That kind of stuff is the future. We see it in Europe and I think it’s the future that technology is going to own, not the networks or even the leagues.

Noe: Do you see any downside of legalized sports betting? For example, if you look at the NBA’s last two minute reports or the NFL stressing that a call was missed in an effort to disprove the outcome was fixed. Do you see leagues going overboard when it comes to being transparent to show that there isn’t anything shady about the result of a game?

RJ: Give me an example of what would be overboard.

Noe: Maybe if you took the last two minute report in the NBA and extended it to the second half report.

RJ: And why would that be a bad thing?

Noe: It could be overkill. Leagues could go so far to show they aren’t doing anything improper that fans might get annoyed and worn out by it.

RJ: If we got there I would celebrate. If the typical response of the league XYZ saying, “Hey, we want to give you more information in the spirit of transparency or more insight in the spirit of transparency,” and then if the average response was, “Enough already, we know it’s all on the up-and-up,” then I think win. We’ve won. Now we’re not as worried about legalization and corruption around that.

Here is probably the thing I pound my fist on the most because it’s so logical. Increased regulation in any marketplace leads to less corruption. Think about the SEC, not the Southeastern Conference, but the Securities and Exchange Commission. Around Roosevelt and FDR it was like, “Uh-oh, the stock market, a lot of shenanigans going on. Let’s have an oversight organization.”

Think about your wife, your girlfriend, whomever that you maybe want to hide a few things from. It might be, “Hey, I’m going to eat a Snickers bar.” Well if she’s out at the book club for the night, you’re going to eat that Snickers and you’re going to eat as many Snickers as you want. You’re going to make sure you wash your hands and face before she comes back. But if she’s got a nanny cam on you making sure you’re not eating Snickers, that’s going to be harder. I don’t care what it is that people want to do that is wrong or something that the overseeing body doesn’t want them to do. The more oversight there is, the less likely people are going to do it. The oversight acts as a deterrent.

A good friend of mine in the industry, Matt Holt, he was with CG Technology for a long time as a vice president and he started his own company. They have funding and it’s been a success so far in that it’s an integrity company. The whole business of that company, or at least the majority of it, is looking at the data as it comes in from all the different betting places and saying, “Is there anything that’s irregular here?”

To me, yeah it’s possible. We’re going to get to the point that everyone is so confident they’re going to say enough already, but that is a ways off still. There still are a lot of people thinking, “Hold on, RJ. If there was no legalized betting, there wouldn’t be any betting to fix games on anyway. To quote Michael Corleone, “Who’s being naive now?” We know the betting is going to happen regardless. If it’s regulated, there’s going to be less corruption.

Noe: Yeah, I agree with that. All the people that are envisioning point-shaving scandals or gamblers getting their hooks into a college basketball team — I don’t know what’s changed. We’re talking about legalization on a state-to-state basis. I can’t imagine the random Joe Schmo that’s now legally betting fifty bucks on a game is all of a sudden going to strong-arm some kid into throwing a game. I just don’t see it.

RJ: But if you’re willing to break the law to fix a game, aren’t you willing to break the law to bet illegally on that game?

Noe: Yeah, but if you weren’t betting illegally to begin with, then why would I believe that because you’re betting legally now, you’re going to do something way more illegal, which is to try to fix a game?

RJ: You’re exactly right. For anyone to even consider fixing a game the “illegality” in some states of sports betting is an irrelevancy. Thus, anyone who was inclined to try to fix a game in the past doesn’t care if it’s legal or illegal, so the only factor is if there’s more legal betting and less illegal betting, there’s more people like Matt Holt tracking the betting and finding out the people who are fixing the games. 

Quick story, Jimmy Vaccaro, one of the true legends and sportsbook operators in Vegas was at the Mirage when the Arizona State college basketball fixing occurred. As he tells the story, literally guys walked into the Mirage with a bunch of cash and said, “I want to bet against Arizona State.” He said, “What’s that point spread? What does that number up there mean?” The guy didn’t even know what the point spread was.

Vaccaro says, “Well,” — I’m going by memory so it’s probably wrong, the number — “that’s +6.” He said, “Okay, I want to bet against them. How much can I bet?” He says you can bet whatever the limit was. He bet it. Now he says, “I want to bet it again.” Jimmy said, “Well, we’ve got to move the line.” The line goes to let’s say 5.5. Bet it again. So he bets it a few times, max bet every time. Jimmy’s like this is weird. The guy doesn’t even know what a spread is and he’s betting it. 

He goes, “Hey, let me get your license, I want to give you a buffet. You should eat all the shrimp you want. So the guy gives his driver’s license and it’s because of that move Jimmy reported it, and they ended up catching the guys. Think about that. That’s a small example, but if that was a bookie that you met in a bar that was mobbed up or whatever, they wouldn’t have any concern, they’d be thinking, “Hey, if this game is fixed, how can we go bet it with some other bookie?” They’re not looking to get the guys driver’s license. The legalization will deter game fixing and corruption. Fact.

Noe: Is there anything that you want to accomplish that you haven’t thus far either in the industry or something well outside of it?


RJ: I feel like everything I’ve done both as a businessman — and I am proud of the fact that pregame.com is a two-time Inc. 5000 company. Multiple millions of dollars of revenue is one of the requirements of being an Inc. 5000 company — and being a coal miner’s son, quite frankly, and doing that with the help for sure of my current team and the team members of the past. I’m proud of that. I am, but to me it all has felt like a prelude to something so much bigger.

There’s an old funny saying. Joe Kennedy said the first million is the toughest. It’s like to get from nothing — and literally I moved out to Vegas in 1998 with $3,000 in cash. That was pretty much what I had out of college. To go from there to the Inc. 5000 has taken a lot of work and a long time, but the idea that in the next five years, I could 5x or 10x what we’re doing is very possible. In one way I’m proud of how hard it was to go from nothing to something, but I’m excited about going from something to something really big. That’s on the business side.

On the media side, I don’t believe I’ve accomplished anything that matters yet. I’m super critical of my work and I think that’s helped me to get better as the time has passed. When I listen to Colin, when I listen to other guys on FOX and certainly other guys on CBS and ESPN — I personally believe this is probably a controversial position that I think Stephen A. Smith is a masterful broadcaster. In a way some of the things people don’t like about Stephen A Smith is proof of how good he is at what he does. I don’t put myself anywhere in their class.

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I hope in my own way I could eventually get there. If the day came where I did a week of radio shows with my Straight Outta Vegas team that I said, “You know something, just maybe this week of shows could stand up to this week of Colin’s shows, or Dan Patrick’s shows,” that to me would be a great achievement. It’s something I really want to achieve. It’s a passion, but I know are ways from that, and thus yes, that is a grand goal I have.

Noe: I do have to ask being a coal miner’s son — is that where you developed your love for squirrel stew?


RJ: (laughs) You know I thought you were going to say where I got my accent from, but yes, my dad was a hunter. Now this dude worked — he’s retired now — he worked 60-plus hours almost every week of the year. It wasn’t 40, it was 60, but he would take off a week for deer season. Like three days for squirrel season, and three days for rabbit season. Let me tell you, he wasn’t the best shot, but when he came home with something, we were eating it the next night or you were not eating.

Noe: How would you describe the taste of squirrel stew to someone who has never indulged in such a thing?


RJ: A very gamey chicken.

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Noe: (laughs) Fair enough. Fair enough. I have to thank you because I interviewed you years ago, actually on FOX Sports Radio, and for some reason I always thought it was — what was I saying? Not wiseguys. What was the term? It was a certain term…

RJ: Oh, I think you said sharks instead of sharps.

Noe: That’s what it was! Yes, I said sharks because I thought it was like they sensed blood in the water so I thought it was the sharks in Vegas, not the sharps, and you played it off very nicely instead of calling me out on it.

RJ: Well I’ll tell you this, the first major media hit I ever did — and it was a weekly — was Mason & Ireland in LA. I consider both of those guys to be friends. I did that hit for nine years and just had to stop with the FOX deal. Mason to this day — eight years plus in — he would call them sharks. So, you were not alone with that one.

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Evan Roberts, Self-Professed Sports Maniac, Thrives at WFAN

From an early age, Roberts knew that radio was the medium through which he wanted to express his fandom, especially WFAN.

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Evan Roberts made his first appearance on WFAN at just 10 years old, filling in for NBA play-by-play announcer Mike Breen delivering sports updates on Imus in the Morning. The opportunity came after he sent a letter on a whim to the station asking for a job since he enjoyed listening to the station with his father. Desiring to become a radio host was the result of dynamic career aspirations that transitioned from wanting to work as an architect to trying to become the play-by-play announcer for his favorite baseball team, the New York Mets.

“Listening to Mike and Chris, and Benigno in the overnights and Somers – I was like ‘That’s what I want to do’,” Roberts recalled. “….It couldn’t be any more specific when I’m listening to the Fan saying ‘I want to be on the Fan.’ About a decade and a half later, I was able to get it done and I’ve been there ever since.”

From an early age, Roberts knew that radio was the medium through which he wanted to express his fandom, especially WFAN. As a native New Yorker, Roberts connected with the teams in the area and sought the chance to talk about them for a living on a sports radio station with a storied history in the area.

Since 1989, WFAN has been one of the pillars of New York sports coverage and a place that helped pioneer the sports talk radio format. Getting there, though, required that Roberts had deft knowledge of sports, an ability to connect with fans, and experience that ensured he was ready for an opportunity in the number one media market in the world.

While attending school, Roberts was hosting a radio show called Kidsports on WGBB, a radio station based in Freeport, N.Y. serving Nassau County on Long Island. He then moved to Radio AAHS to host What’s Up With Evan Roberts and Nets Slammin’ Planet, the latter with famed high school basketball player Albert King and NBA insider Brandon “Scoop B” Robinson. Aside from being able to refine his hosting skills, Roberts made valuable connections in these roles including one that would help him land his first job out of high school: Danny Turner.

Before he was named the senior vice president of programming operations at XM Satellite Radio in Washington, D.C., Turner served as the engineer for Roberts’ shows on Radio AAHS. He helped to coordinate the technology associated with broadcasting since the shows were done remotely rather than from out of a studio.

“[He] ended up working at XM Radio and heard one of my tapes as it went on and said ‘I remember him. I like him,’ and then sent it to the right person and they ultimately hired me,” said Roberts. “It was my first real, real job working out of high school, and that was about meeting someone earlier on and remembering who that person was and sending as many tapes as I could.”

As a graduate of Lawrence High School, Roberts quickly made the move from Cedarhurst, N.Y. to Washington, D.C. to begin working at XM Satellite Radio, a place he would stay for the next two years. Then, he made the move down I-295 from D.C. to Baltimore, Md. where he worked at 105.7 The Fan WJFK-AM and had to adjust his sports consumption to align with the interests of those listeners. It taught him the importance of research and preparation, important aspects of working in sports media that he still utilizes to this day.

“When I was in Baltimore, I had to be Baltimore,” said Roberts. “I had to understand what makes the Orioles fan tick; what makes the Ravens fan tick. I didn’t grow up as an Orioles fan or a Ravens fan. The Ravens had won the Super Bowl years earlier. I know nothing about winning Super Bowls; I’m a Jets fan.”

At 21 years old, Roberts made the move back to “The Big Apple” when he was hired by WFAN as an overnight host, a role he stayed in for the next two-and-a-half years. Simultaneously, Roberts was working on Maxim Radio doing a night show on the Sirius Satellite Radio channel. Balancing those two roles, while it may have seemed daunting, gave Roberts the chance to broadcast in his home market and talk about the teams he grew up rooting for; the aforementioned Mets and Jets, along with the then-New Jersey Nets and New York Islanders.

Then in 2007, Roberts got his big break when he was named the midday co-host with Joe Benigno on the program Benigno & Roberts in the Midday. Benigno, who got his start on WFAN as a regular caller, had grown a rapport with listeners since joining the station in 1995, making the task for Roberts, a 23-year-old at the time, more difficult in terms of fitting in. Roberts is grateful that Benigno, a host he grew up listening to on WFAN, was accommodating and amicable towards him – plus it helped that they aligned in their rooting interests as Mets and Jets fans.

“He was very welcoming, and he didn’t have to be because I was a lot younger; he had no idea who the hell I was,” said Roberts. “….Right out of the gate, I think he saw my passion [and] my knowledge; he saw a little bit of himself in me, and we were able to bond right away.”

To make a name for himself in the new midday time slot, Roberts stuck to the principles that had been given to him from his early days of radio; that is, to be himself. From the start of his foray into sports media, Roberts and most people around him knew that he was, in his own words, “a sports maniac”, and he needed to maintain that genuine identity on the air. His relatability and passion for the teams as a fan made him an ideal fit for the station synonymous with New York City bearing those iconic call letters and an unbeatable afternoon duo.

“I think as time [went] on and Joe and I developed even more and more chemistry, the audience knew who we were,” said Roberts. “They certainly knew who he was, but they learned ‘Evan’s a die-hard Mets fan. He doesn’t miss a game.’”

While it was important for Roberts to emulate his fandom for the teams he roots for, he quickly developed a cognizance for trying to talk about other teams impartially while on the air. It is a challenge, to a degree, to maintain objectivity daily with intrinsic fandom for certain teams, but being able to understand how other fan bases feel after monumental victories or crushing defeats renders the art of appealing to the listening audience easier. It also upholds WFAN’s commitment to serve as an outlet for all New York sports fans rather than just certain cohorts of them.

“We’re trying to appeal to everybody,” said Roberts. “We want everybody listening. Not just Yankees fans; not just Mets fans; not just die-hard sports fans; not just casual fans. How do you keep every single person wanting to listen to the radio?”

When Roberts first joined the station in 2004, most New York sports teams were rebuilding aside from the Yankees. Today, the preponderance of professional teams in the New York Metropolitan area are contending or at least have the chance to appear in their league’s playoffs, something that is exciting for fans like Roberts but presents a challenge in doing effective sports radio that accurately depicts the emotions of listeners.

“I think what’s going to be a real challenge… is [when] the Mets are in the playoffs, the Yankees are in the playoffs, the Jets look competent, and the Giants look competent, and it’s a Monday,” Roberts expressed. “You’ve got four monstrous fan bases that care about their team. How the hell do you find a way to keep them all entertained?”

To express the true extent of his fandom for niche sectors of the audience, Roberts turns to another form of aural consumption: podcasts. There has been much discussion over the ability of traditional radio and podcasts to coexist in this digital age of media; however, Roberts believes that the two mediums provide a unique combination that was previously nonexistent.

In his opinion, podcasts are a method to delve deeper into topics or teams that do not garner as much time on the radio, specifically those that do not generate as large of a market share or which are not as representative of the interests of the majority of listeners.

“I do a Mets podcast specifically – I called it Rico Brogna because I loved Rico Brogna as a kid and I figured ‘Why the hell not?’”, Roberts said. “…I do an hour breaking down the Mets in a hard-core way that I’m not going to do on WFAN for an hour. I may do it for a couple of minutes. I think those two things work perfectly side-by-side.”

Still, most listeners, according to Roberts, will likely turn to terrestrial radio to get their sports fix, especially if they do not express allegiance to solely one team. 

“The majority of people are still going to turn on WFAN and say ‘Okay, entertain me. I don’t know what I want to hear. You just entertain me’,” said Roberts. “I think those two forms of entertainment can work side-by-side. That’s why we do it.”

When Mike Francesa signed off WFAN in December 2017, the station had to make changes in the afternoon drive-time slot which it did with the debut of Carlin, Maggie & Bart. The show was eventually disbanded though when Francesa ended his retirement just over four months later, returning to afternoons. His return to WFAN did not last long though, departing the station again in December 2019. Again, WFAN had to make a change in afternoons, this time moving Joe Benigno and Evan Roberts to do a 2 to 6:30 p.m. show renamed Joe & Evan.

For Roberts, the opportunity to host in the afternoon slot that he had grown up listening to Mike Francesa and Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo make famous with their program Mike and the Mad Dog was an opportunity he did not hesitate to accept. Yet the change in time also required a change in approach regarding topic selection; after all, since the show would be starting later in the day, it was more important to preview the forthcoming action than recap that of the previous day.

“Even though you’re doing the same thing because you’re the same person, you’ve got to realize the audience is thinking about things a little bit differently; they’re not always analyzing what happened last night,” said Roberts. “I always find that interesting [trying to] balance the two [and] it’s almost like a game.”

When Benigno retired from the station in November 2020, Craig Carton made his return to the New York City airwaves pairing with Roberts to form the new afternoon duo Carton & Roberts. Carton had previously been with the station hosting mornings with Boomer Esiason on Boomer and Carton from 2007 until his arrest in 2017. He served time in prison for fraud-related charges, and ultimately sought and received help for addiction related to gambling.

Since his return to WFAN, Carton has been vocal about his struggle to overcome addiction and the lessons learned from his time serving in prison, hosting a special weekend program titled Hello, My Name Is Craig to discuss these issues in-depth. On Carton and Roberts, the duo has experienced immense success, recently topping ESPN New York 98.7 FM’s The Michael Kay Show in the spring ratings book. From the onset of Carton and Roberts working together though, there was some trepidation as to whether their personalities would blend well together on sports talk radio.

“I remember the first time I was told ‘Hey, there’s a possibility of you and Craig together.’ I was like ‘What?,’” Roberts said. “My first reaction was ‘Really?’”

Now nearly two years in, Roberts enjoys working alongside Carton and learning more about his perspectives and thoughts on the radio industry. Following advice he was given from both Russo and Esiason on working with Carton, Roberts has let him take the lead and discover how the show can effectively inform and entertain its vast listening audience.

“Let’s take a step back; don’t have an ego,” Roberts recalls thinking when he started the new show. “Watch this magician figure out how this show is going to work and then lean into it. I think that’s what I did and it has worked, and I feel very comfortable, I know he feels very comfortable and we’ve got a successful thing going on now.”

Roberts views Carton as an informed talent in the radio industry, aware of the changing nature of the medium and the potential it has to serve its audience. Roberts indeed experienced success in his previous roles, most notably when working in middays with Benigno; however, he is always willing to try new things and form new approaches towards jaded industry practices and show formats.

“I know that I have a guy who I’m working with who knows the medium as well as anybody,” said Roberts. “If he has a vision on how this could work with his personality and my personality, I’m going to listen; I’m going to follow along.”

WFAN and SportsNet New York (SNY), the flagship network for the New York Mets and New York Jets, agreed last year to simulcast Carton and Roberts from 4 to 6 p.m. on weekdays. While the move, which has been made with various other WFAN programs over the years including Mike and the Mad Dog and Boomer and Gio puts the radio program on a visual medium, Roberts’ approach to the show did not change.

The thought always was that he would be doing a radio show with the curtain pulled back, giving longtime listeners the chance to see the two co-hosts during their discussions and on-air interactions.

“They’re listening to the radio, and it’s cool sometimes when you get to peek in and say, ‘Oh, look at Craig’s expressions. Look at Evan’s expressions. Look at the way they’re looking at each other. Boy, they hate each other right now,’” Roberts said. “I think it’s people looking in on a radio show, and that’s what I always try to remind myself. It’s on TV – that’s great – but we’re a radio show first, and I think a lot of people kind of like to eavesdrop on that.”

One of the challenges of doing a radio show whether or not it is simulcast is in taking calls, and various hosts and producers have differing opinions when it comes to their value on the air. Still, while the hosts, producers, and caller themselves may enjoy their interactions, it is fundamental awareness is placed on the audience that does not call in and their enjoyment of listening to a caller.

“I think when you’re talking [to] somebody, you’re not just thinking about the conversation you’re having with them,” said Roberts. “You’re thinking about the 98% of the audience that doesn’t call in and if this is entertaining or not; if this is informative or not; what are they getting out of this?…. I love callers – it’s a big part of WFAN – but as I interact with them… I think the thought that I always try to have is ‘How is everyone else listening feeling about this discussion?’”

While Carton and Roberts continues to do well in afternoon drive among the demographic of men 25-54 years old, the way the ratings are interpreted by each person and entity in radio differs. Something the Nielsen ratings do not take into account is the number of people listening to the show on-demand as a podcast or watching its simulcast on SNY. During his time with Benigno, Roberts scrutinized the numbers, looking at copious and exiguous details, similar to how he consumes professional sports.

The difference is that while it may be good to have a complete understanding of show performance, getting caught in the minutiae of ratings and trying to improve in weaker areas can sometimes be, according to Roberts, a means without an end.

“I think I realized as time went on that’s going to give you a headache and it’s not going to really help anything,” said Roberts. “I think I learned a little more that you still look at numbers but maybe with a broader view of things; not as specific. I look at [them] a lot, but sometimes it’s tough. I don’t think you want to alter a show too much based on what you think is a pattern but may not necessarily be a pattern.”

This fall, both Carton and Roberts will be starting new roles in media while continuing to host their afternoon show. Carton is going to begin hosting a new national morning show on Fox Sports 1 with a co-host yet to be determined, a move that will place him primarily on television in mornings against WFAN and CBS Sports Radio’s simulcast of Boomer & Gio. Roberts will continue to stay on WFAN, adding a new Saturday program with his former co-host Joe Benigno beginning on September 10.

“It’s like getting back on a bicycle,” Roberts said of working with Benigno. “It’s always comfortable…. It’s going to be [like] our old show – just once a week on a Saturday.”

WFAN was the sound of Evan Roberts’ childhood, and a large reason he became as invested in professional sports as he considers himself to be today. Throughout his time at the station, he has worked with various hosts and recently welcomed new program director Spike Eskin to the station. He says the contrast between Eskin and previous program director Mark Chernoff is stark – yet they are similar in where it matters most: being able to effectively lead WFAN.

“I think they both very much understand radio, and that’s the most important thing,” said Roberts. “You’re the program director of WFAN; I think you have an idea of what good radio is… [They are] both very, very intelligent radio guys that I trust, but everything else about them is probably polar opposite.”

For aspiring professionals looking to pursue a career in sports media, Roberts advises them to take advantage of the innovations in media and communications especially when it comes to podcasts. With widespread evolution and progression in technology coupled with altering consumption habits and means thereof, putting in the time allows novices to hone their skills and position themselves well in sports media. That and always being willing to learn and study to be the most prepared and informed host as possible – especially when talking to listeners, many of whom have seen teams in their ebbs and flows.

“My wife knows that I’m going to watch every pitch of the Yankees and Mets game,” said Roberts. “I may do it on DVR, and I may do it at 2 in the morning because we need to have a life; I don’t want to get divorced, and I want my kids to love me, but she also knows that I want to be as informed as anybody on the radio and that’s not going to stop.”

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Jake Paul, Betr Pair Micro-Betting With Media

There are plenty of hurdles, though, that still need to be overcome before this takes over the betting landscape.

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I’ll be completely honest: I can’t get into TikTok. I’m closing in on 40 years spent on this planet, and it’s simply not my thing. It’s not meant to be, though. The current generation is one with shorter attention spans, the kind that wants a quick highlight of a sporting event so they can shift their focus to something else. When I tell folks a decade younger than me stories about how I–and others of my age group–would sit around and watch an entire SportsCenter, they look at me like I’m crazy. Not sure how they’d look at me if I told them we used to often watch the rerun an hour later, but that’s another discussion.

It’s a big reason why micro-betting is considered the “next big thing” in sports betting. Similar to in-game betting, micro betting goes a step further and focuses on individual events within a sporting event, such as the outcome of a drive, whether a baseball player will get a hit in his upcoming at-bat, or even something such as a coin toss at the Super Bowl. A perfect example of micro-betting is the rise in popularity of betting on whether or not a run will be scored in the first inning of a baseball game. For a generation that wants a quick resolution to their bets, it makes total sense. You place a bet, you find out how it did, and then you move on–whether that’s to another bit of action or something else entirely.

Something else I can’t get into is the whole hoopla surrounding the Paul brothers. Logan and Jake Paul have built an empire for themselves on the back of YouTube, with Jake Paul having more than 70 million followers on social media. For various reasons, I’m not a fan of either individual. Again, though, they aren’t coming after my demographic. Like them or hate them, you have to respect their grind –and you have to admire their business acumen — as they parlay their notoriety and success into sports entertainment by way of boxing and the WWE, as well as a new sports drink company that has already partnered with Premier League side Arsenal. 

Monday’s announcement by Jake Paul of a new micro-betting site simply furthers the narrative and does so in a manner that can’t be ignored by those in the sports betting space. Betr, a joint venture between Paul, sports betting entrepreneur Joey Levy, and the sports betting company Simplebet, was announced yesterday morning. Backed by a $50 million investment from multiple venture capital firms, the new company is backed by ownership groups of franchises such as the Boston Celtics and San Francisco 49ers, and also has financial backing from current and former NFL players including Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott, and Richard Sherman. Musician Travis Scott has also put his financial backing behind the product.

The other very interesting tidbit from the press release was the announcement of a media company that would feature, among other shows, “BS w/ Jake Paul”. Their new YouTube channel, which already has over two million subscribers despite not a single video being posted as of Monday afternoon, will feature sports-betting content from Paul and other content creators and will focus on micro betting. In an interview with Axios, Levy said that consumers can “expect 10+ videos a day from emerging content creators we’ve brought into the company,” but that things would begin with a focus on “premium content natives, starting with Jake’s show.”

Sports radio and television have long been focused on making their products more appealing to younger generations. Just take a look at ESPN, where they’ve long been doing “SportsCenter” episodes on Snapchat. This could be a game-changer, provided they can help drive micro-betting into a wider market. 

There is plenty of potential in the space, a big reason Paul was able to acquire such high amounts of funding. Just last year, JP Morgan estimated that more than $7 billion per year would be wagered on micro bets by the year 2025. And earlier this year, the CEO of Oddisum stated in an interview that micro-betting would account for the majority of wagers placed on sporting events within the next three years. Even DraftKings CEO Jason Robins has talked about plans on how his company expects to embrace the trend.

There are plenty of hurdles, though, that still need to be overcome before this takes over the betting landscape. The biggest one is the delivery of data. As we move more towards a society that streams sporting events and other digital content, the delay between real life and what shows up on your mobile phone can be the difference between placing a wager or not. For some services (I’m looking at you, Peacock) there’s often a delay of more than 90 seconds, which means the play I want to bet on is still two or three plays away from being seen with my own eyes. That makes it difficult to place a bet with any sort of confidence.

The other major obstacle will be getting their gambling service legalized. In their press release, Betr stated they will start as a “free-to-play” app in all 50 states, and eventually they will add real money gambling services as they become licensed to operate within individual states. That’s not going to be so simple, though, as gambling addiction concerns continue to rise and multiple state legislatures are already having discussions regarding the matter. 

As addictive as betting on sporting events can be, micro-betting is often exponentially more. A study last year from CQ University in Sydney, Australia indicated that micro bettors are more likely to be younger players and that they usually “have high trait impulsivity”. An author of the report also stated, “there’s a very strong link between micro betting and gambling problems”, and pointed out that the short amount of time between placing a bet and having it resolved leaves little time to evaluate performance or track one’s bankroll. 

Whether or not those things are overcome in every state possible is a discussion for another day. The fact is, micro-betting is more likely than not to become a huge growth market for sports betting companies over the next two to three years, and Paul and Levy have become the first big players to jump into the media space. It’s not a question of if, but when, others will follow them into the realm of micro betting sports content, but their announcement on Monday raises the stakes. It also reminds those of us in business, especially sports media, that while we may not fully understand the allure of what the younger generation enjoys, we ignore it at our peril. 

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