If you’ve ever consumed gambling related content on ESPN, there is a good chance Ben Fawkes had something to do with it. The Brooklyn native first started working at ESPN the Magazine as an intern during his Junior year of college. During his internship, Fawkes appreciated ESPN’s family atmosphere, got to meet Michael Jordan (more on that later) and loved going into work, so when the opportunity came along for him to get a job there post-college, he jumped at the chance.
Since 2010, Fawkes has worn multiple hats at ESPN, including general editor of their sports betting product, ESPN Chalk, which was founded in 2014. During his tenure there, Fawkes oversaw the planning and execution of the editorial content for their sports betting vertical, including the ESPN show Daily Wager. He also contributed content and provided editorial direction across ESPN’s sports betting platforms, including digital, broadcast and print. He was a part of every ESPN sports betting property, including recently helping to manage ESPN’s partnership with Caesars Entertainment’s sportsbooks. That all changed this year, when VSiN, who is in the middle of an expansion, came knocking.
Fawkes has now moved to Las Vegas to join VSiN as vice president of digital content. His duties will include overseeing the written and digital content, special issues, their daily e-newsletter and VSiN’s subscription-based publication, Point Spread Weekly. Fawkes will also contribute on-air and help with content strategy across VSiN’s multiple platforms.
I spoke with Fawkes about his journey, his move to VSiN from ESPN and his thoughts on the future of the industry.
How did you get your start in the gambling industry?
I started in 2010, when I was editing Chad Millman’s blog at ESPN, the Behind the Bets blog. Chad was also doing a podcast, so I was also editing his audio podcasts, and I think he was writing five days a week then. That was kind of the introduction just to the sports betting world, and I think it was cool from multiple perspectives.
One was that, I know Chad has touched on it before, but just the language. It’s almost like it’s just a little different world, a kind of an “in the know”. We’re not even just talking parlays and money lines, but taking juice. And, everyone has some cool or weird nickname, or everyone knows a guy, and there’s a wink-wink and a nod to all this stuff, especially back then. It was not necessarily shady, but a little bit kind of the, “Oh, you do gambling?”
It certainly is very, very far from where it is today, just both in the legal standpoint, and then just from a public perception standpoint and how legitimate it would seem. So, really doing that kind of piqued my interest into this world, and I think that the Westgate SuperContest which Chad had done some content on, was something that was similar to a contest that I had started doing a couple years before where you’re picking five NFL games against a spread. Those things got me interested in the industry.
Why did you make the jump to VSiN from ESPN and what will your role entail?
It’s really hard to find a ton of sports betting talent. Once you start looking at who is reputable, who knows their stuff, who has been in the space for a while, who can write and who can actually be on TV, you start narrowing down the list quite a bit. And, when you start knocking those things off as well, as who doesn’t have any skeletons in the closet, the list shrinks.
I really think VSiN has the best collection of that talent. Coming at it from the media perspective and being on SiriusXM Radio, now on MSG and NESN, sports betting is only going to get bigger and bigger, and I appreciate the way that they, and I guess now I should say we, are attempting to deliver it in a smart way that’s not completely over the top. And, isn’t strictly picks-based.
You’re really trying to make yourself smarter, obviously, if you’re going to be giving out picks, but really, you’re dealing with a large audience because of the most programming rights. So, the downside of let’s say an ESPN show like Daily Wager is that you can have only one hour, in that you really have to figure out what segment of the sports betting population am I targeting?
So, that’s an advantage VSiN has is that there are a wide variety of shows and they somewhat cater to different audiences and different bettors.
My job is to basically make sure we’re hitting the right topics on those shows and staying up-to-date on news as well, both from a legalization standpoint, and now there are all the different business deals that different companies have, so making sure we’re hitting on all of that. Some of the, “On this Date in Sports Betting History” too. That’s something I want to try and push more as well. Then just kind of making sure we’re making fans smarter and being a little bit more ahead on the digital side.
On the TV side, there is so much, that’s a day to day grind, and how do we get through today’s show? You’re really thinking about today’s show and maybe tomorrow’s show and the rest of the week, but you’re not necessarily looking ahead to the following week, month, etc., so both of those things. And, then I’m also in charge of the website and Point Spread Weekly, our digital subscription products, so just trying to grow subscribers and grow the business on that front as well.
Last week I actually talked to Mitch Moss and he said the ceiling for VSiN was ESPN. What are your thoughts on his statement?
Look, ESPN is a lofty goal certainly, and I think that’s where you want to aspire to be in terms of brand recognition, and brand loyalty, and all of that. I think the biggest thing is the future is really bright and there is so much talent here. We have a great studio at South Point and now we’re going to be opening the big studio at the Circa in a month. That property just looks phenomenal, so you have two state-of-the-art studios.
On top of that, we just had a show from BetMGM in the lounge at Empower Stadium for the Broncos. We’re doing a show from the BetRivers Sportsbook in Chicago. Michael Lombardi is at the Borgata in New Jersey. So, we have all of these different areas that no one else can really hit. And so, when we have a show that’s called Betting Across America, we actually are betting across America.
So, being able to have all those different perspectives and then hit on all those different story lines is also going to be big in the future because there is also going to be a movement towards localization of content. Ultimately, if I live in Chicago, what do I care about? The Bears. Who are they facing? The White Sox, the Cubs. Right now, that’s what I want to know.
Am I betting the over, the under? Should I bet on The Bears? Should I bet against the Bears? And so, you’re going to have the ability to produce specific content for all of those different States, as well as the larger betting content. That’s kind of the great thing about sports betting and why I agree with Mitch on the ceiling.
When it comes to the future of the gambling industry, do you see anything new on the horizon? For example, a 24/7 TV channel with non stop gambling odds or a NFL Red Zone of gambling channel?
What would be interesting to see is how integrated the sportsbook apps can get and whether the leagues will go down that road. By that, I mean, I think FanDuel basically had picture in picture on the app that allowed you to watch a tennis bet on your phone while placing other bets.
I think ultimately that is going to happen for the NBA or the NFL. I guess if you’re going to pick between those, you think probably the NBA would be first instead of the NFL given it’s been surrounding sports betting for so long.
You should also look out for who can have the best in-game experience. And, by that, I mean essentially a Sunday gambling RedZone like you said. I think that a company like ESPN with their rights has the largest potential advantage for something like that because you can show the games.
Obviously, NFL RedZone is immensely popular just for people watching the games and for people both in a gambling and fantasy perspective, but they’re going to hit on everything from a fantasy perspective, there is no gambling mentioned in NFL RedZone.
People have started to dabble with it on the NBA side and other places, but that will be interesting to see who really attacks that and tries to corner that part of the market. That’s where everyone’s watching the games and then they have some second screen experience, whether that’s Twitter, hopefully VSiN, other places, that’s what people are looking at potentially, now the third screen experience.
Let’s say there is a company like Comcast that offers RedZone and then you can actually bet through your TV, so you’re watching RedZone and you can actually place a bet in a State where it’s legal. I think that those are the types of innovations that will take the industry to the next level.
It seems silly to say now in 2020, but it seems like so long ago in May of 2018 when sports betting wasn’t legal outside Nevada. It has come so far so quickly and I think that the technology will be a compelling thing to catch up.
We’ve seen that some in the app space with DraftKings and FanDuel, where we are really seeing that the best technology is going to win, and it’s going to be where people want to place their bets. Most consumers are less price sensitive and more technology sensitive. So if it’s good technology, they’re going to bet on the Steelers minus 120 as opposed to minus 115, that difference doesn’t matter that much to them.
Coolest moment you’ve experienced working in sports?
It came at a Derek Jeter Shoe Party. I forget the name of the club, I think it was Marquee in New York. We were there and I remember waiting for Jeter and he was one of the last guys to show up, but before he did, MJ showed up.
That event really stuck in my mind just because after that I realized there were levels of celebrities. Many were there and came through, but, Michael Jordan, he was just on a completely different level, even from Derek Jeter.
MJ actually was nice enough to fade into the background a little bit because it was Jeter’s night, but he was very nice.
My brother actually got to come along for that one, so it was a really cool experience. I think from that, my takeaway was, I think I’d like to work in sports.
Looking back on your journey, is there a moment that sticks out to you where you realized you are now a real part of the industry?
I don’t want to say in the industry, but a moment that was most surreal was a couple years ago working with Chris Berman on his Swami Sez segment. I had the idea to take his Swami Sez segment and make it a digital free piece and it ended up being by far the most trafficked free piece we had all year.
Friday afternoon and evenings, I’d go over to the studio and we’d both run through every single game, he has the gold sheet, he makes his lines and he’s comparing those lines, he knows everyone in the NFL, and I think just working on that was such a surreal experience. We text every week before the NFL games and go like, “hey, what games do you like this week?”.
For an 11-year-old me, who obviously grew up watching Chris Berman on Sports Center, and he’s just the guy to be, to be someone that worked with him and to get to know him was great. It was kind of an honor that I’d probably not appreciate until things slow down at some point, but it was definitely one of those things where you don’t know how good you have it till it’s gone.
Jimmy Pitaro Deserves Some Credit For Monday Night
“Pitaro and ESPN’s executive team had to sign off on a broadcast in which Peyton and Eli were in separate remote locations, without a host to play traffic cop and guide continuity between plays. This all could have blown up in ESPN’s face.”
Over the last several months, Jimmy Pitaro and ESPN got raked over the coals after the New York Times story on Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor and the subsequent fallout that was effectively a mushroom cloud and the talk of the industry. Ultimately, the buck stops with the leader, but fairness should dictate that leaders also receive accolades for great accomplishments. After just one episode, we can confidently say that landing Peyton and Eli Manning for Monday Night Football qualifies in that regard.
Every TV network executive would have walked from Alaska to Omaha to land Peyton Manning. Andrew Marchand has accurately referred to him as the “white whale of sports TV”; he was so sought after that CBS, who has arguably the best color commentator in all of sports in Tony Romo, tried to lure Manning to the booth before ultimately reaching a new deal with Romo. Any way you slice it, getting the Manning brothers for 10 episodes of Monday Night Football on ESPN2 was a major coup for Pitaro, ESPN, and Disney.
Nonetheless, it was not without risk. Pitaro and ESPN’s executive team had to sign off on a broadcast in which Peyton and Eli were in separate remote locations, without a host to play traffic cop and guide continuity between plays. This all could have blown up in ESPN’s face. Imagine the chatter if the Manning broadcast was a dud, which it easily could have been given their format is unlike anything that has ever been tried before.
Instead, Peyton and Eli were a revelation. Peyton, with his combination of star-power, personality, and brain processing, is remarkably unique. During the fourth quarter of a close game between the Raiders and Ravens, he was somehow able to simultaneously interview Russell Wilson while immediately breaking down the film of all 22 players from key plays of a game he wasn’t even there for. Eli didn’t get as many words in, but when he did speak he had funny deadpan humor.
Full disclosure: I was traveling during the first half, which by many accounts was not as well executed as the second half, after they settled in.
There will undoubtedly be a number of attempts to replicate this announcing format, but it’s unlikely that any of them will work as well as this one, because none of them will have Peyton Manning. Remember how excruciating it was when TNT tried to do Players Only broadcasts for the NBA? Kevin Clark, speaking on The Ringer’s Press Box podcast with Bryan Curtis, called this a “Black Swan” event — it’ll never happen again because Peyton is one of one.
Anyways, back to Pitaro and ESPN: They’ve certainly taken their lumps and that’s life when you lead an organization that is the bellwether of the industry, facing myriad challenges, some of which are structural (cord-cutting eating into hefty subscriber fees) and some of which are self-inflicted (if you’ve read this far you already know what many of those are and there’s no need to re-hash).
However, it bears mentioning that in addition to making the content compromises — and opening up the checkbook for millions of dollars — to land Peyton Manning, Pitaro and ESPN have had a lot of big wins over the last several years. They locked up a monopoly on SEC football rights (in a deal so substantial the conference lured Oklahoma and Texas to join), expanded their NFL deal to get into the Super Bowl rotation, bought up all the UFC rights (which, more than anything else, has propelled the growth of ESPN+ to 15 million subscribers), and brought back the NHL. Sure, all of these wins probably came as a result of bidding the most money, but I’m old enough to remember when ESPN was supposed to be on a death spiral. Reports of ESPN’s demise — at least in live rights; talk programming and journalism have not remained the priorities they once were — were premature.
ESPN has been described as an ocean tanker, which turns very slowly. Jimmy Pitaro deserves some credit for his steering, in the macro, through some turbulent waters.
Did The Manningcast Work?
“The first show was great, but as is the case most of the time, there is room to grow.”
Is it a variety show? Is it a podcast? The first of 10 scheduled Manning MegaCasts, hosted by Peyton and Eli Manning, on ESPN2 proved it was a little bit all of the above. It was almost like Beavis and Butthead meets Statler and Waldorf. It was fun to watch the Manning brothers poke fun at each other and at the same time, criticize some of the action they saw on the field.
The show debuted as an alternative to the regular Monday Night Football broadcast and was met with rave reviews. To me, there was some great, some not so great, and definitely some room to grow.
I love the concept, providing an alternative for those that would rather be entertained than tune into a traditional broadcast. Now, as a play-by-play broadcaster, it makes me pause to think about what the future may hold. There will always be a spot for a traditional broadcast, especially with viewers that have a rooting interest in the game. I’m not sure that hardcore fans of the Ravens and Raiders were tuned in for more than a passing glance. Those folks want to see the game, not the fluff or interviews and the like, offered on the alternative broadcast. That fluff though is what will earn ESPN those fringe viewers that are curious and intrigued by what a “ManningCast” might have to offer them.
Sitting down to watch the game, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I know that Peyton has a personality that in some cases is larger than life. I was pleasantly surprised to see what Eli brought to the table as well. The guys played off each other well, each taking a turn to take a shot at the other. I’ll get into some of the best of those barbs a little later.
Peyton is comfortable in front of the camera and has no trouble talking. That was the issue I had early in the game. The elder Manning really dominated the conversation. There were no times in the first few minutes of the first quarter that I felt I could take a breath because so much was coming at me. They really didn’t allow the game to breathe at all. The constant conversation while entertaining at times just kept on coming. Peyton was talking fast and once in a while he was talking over Eli.
It didn’t help that the Manning’s were in different studios. I wondered if there was a “delay” in their feeds and if that was the reason for talking over one another at times. The delay was quite evident when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson joined the brothers for the later stages of the game. Wilson seemingly couldn’t get a word in, because Peyton and Eli were talking over him.
Peyton has that quality to be able to teach the game in a way that it’s understandable. Some of his commentary was a look behind the curtain at how he played and viewed the game. Knowing what to expect when coming to the line of scrimmage, understanding the coverages and realizing what teams are trying to do to disguise things. It was fascinating to hear the brothers go through play calls and how it is relayed from the coordinator to the quarterback and finally to the team. You aren’t going to get that on a traditional game broadcast.
It was also impressive to hear the guys interview both former players, current players and Charles Barkley. It so often is the case that the current athletes are very guarded in what they say to a regular ole member of the media. That was not the case in the Manning Cast. From Travis Kelce not knowing who the Chiefs were playing next, to Russell Wilson calling out the NFL overtime rule. Ray Lewis was a fascinating guest, providing some great stories and terrific insight into the game he once played at such a high level. Charles Barkley, well, he’s Charles Barkley. In other words, he was as fantastic as you’d expect.
The guests added to the broadcast and made me realize that if this Manningcast actually had a host, it wouldn’t have worked as well. A broadcaster would have gotten in the way to me. Yeah, they could have used a professional at times. Maybe someone to get them into and out of the commercial breaks, because that was a little rough early in the game. But that’s the only a host could have fit in.
The first show was great, but as is the case most of the time, there is room to grow. I really think the Manning Cast would be so much better if the guys were actually in the same room. The dynamic between them, which was already great, would be that much better. Imagine them demonstrating plays on each other. Both putting on helmets and doing what they probably did as kids in their basement, roughing each other up.
Ok, so they’re a little older now, but I seriously think having them in the same place would make things much smoother. With all the technology out there, eliminating that dreaded delay between the Manning’s and their guests would improve the telecast as well.
This alternative broadcast would be a great place to teach some casual fans all about the great game of football. Not sure why this came to my mind, but like the old days of the NHL, when “Peter Puck” an animated hockey puck would teach you the game. “Peter” was part of the NBC game of the week broadcast. An animated Peyton and Eli teaching those that need to know the finer points of the game, would be spectacular.
I can’t wait to see how they improve from last week to this week and who the guests will be this time around. Hopefully, they iron out some of the small issues that plagued them in the first telecast and continue to improve. I realize that this show is unscripted and it’s supposed to be a little looser than a normal show might be, but there are some slight fixes as I’ve pointed out that will make it even better.
With all the success the Manningcast had, I can’t help but wonder how all of these accolades are being taken by the regular MNF booth. ESPN in effect has promoted and created competition for its own product. Perhaps the novelty will wear off? Maybe, but it almost seems like the Manning’s are being groomed for a possible move to the main booth. I’m not sure what the feeling is amongst all the parties, but it’s certainly a dynamic worth watching.
Here are some of my favorite moments from Manningcast show number one, in no particular order:
- Derek Carr with an overthrow on the Raiders first play from scrimmage, leading Peyton to say about the Raiders season, “Lookin’ at ah 6-11, 6-11 right now.”
- Raiders’ fans were loud during an offensive series leading to a bad snap and a few false start penalties, leading to this exchange:
“They aren’t used to it”, said Eli Manning. Then Peyton responded, “Drink your beer, quiet down and let [Derek] Carr play quarterback.”
- Peyton putting on a football helmet to demonstrate the calls at the line for the Ravens. The helmet was way too small. “Helmet doesn’t fit”, Peyton said. “Shocking that a helmet doesn’t fit you”, Eli commented. “They didn’t have a XXL helmet for that forehead.”
- With Charles Barkley as a guest, Peyton asked him what position Michael Jordan would play if he were in the NFL, “Tight End”. Then Barkley was asked about Larry Bird playing a position, “there’s no place for no slow 6’10” guys in the NFL”, said Barkley.
Charles: “that’s about it…”
- Also, with Barkley on the show…
Peyton: “Hey Charles, you ever get booed at home? Never happened to you, right?”
Barkley: “I played in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. That was a regularity.” “You were lucky, Peyton. Everybody liked you. Eli knows what it’s like to get booed at home.”
Eli: “He had that stadium trained. The fans would get fined if they talked when the Colts were on offense. If a guy was trying to order a beer, everyone would tell him to quiet down until the defense was on the field.”
Eli’s fire alarm goes off in the middle of the show.
Peyton: “Eli what’d you do?”
- With Ray Lewis on the show, the trio recalled a game where the Giants played the Ravens in Eli’s rookie season as the starting QB. The younger Manning leading the team to the line of scrimmage, calling out the defense…
Eli: “Hey #52 (Lewis) is the Mike (linebacker)”
Lewis: “No, I’m not the mike. He’s the Mike!”
Eli: “Yeah Ray’s right, the other guy’s the Mike”
It was also revealed in that game in 2004, Eli had a quarterback rating of 0.0 and of course Peyton pointed out, “the same GPA Belushi had in ‘Animal House.’”
- Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce on the Manningcast
Kelce: “[Watching this game] I’m not trying to get too technical because I think we’re playing the Chargers this week. Oh wait, maybe we’re playing Baltimore. I don’t even know — I’m getting lost in the season already.”
- Peyton about 5 minutes later: “Hey, Travis, just so you know, you do play the Ravens next week, so make sure you don’t fly to Los Angeles to play the Chargers.”
What Is The Next Advertising Money Cannon?
“In states where betting is legal, stations are having to squeeze live reads and segment sponsorships in wherever they can. Everyone is trying to make sure they aren’t leaving money on the table.”
If I could tell you that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I know there is another advertising revenue stream out there that can repeat what sportsbooks did for sports radio AND that I know exactly what it is, I could handpick my next employer and name my price.
A Supreme Court decision to make sports gambling a state issue and not a federal one completely changed the advertising landscape. In states where betting is legal, stations are having to squeeze live reads and segment sponsorships in wherever they can. Everyone is trying to make sure they aren’t leaving money on the table.
“There is no question about the significant impact sports betting has had on revenue, both from the station side as well as for our on-air personalities who have become brand ambassadors,” Dennis Gwiazdon, VP and Market Manager of Cromwell Broadcasting’s Nashville cluster told me.
Stations in states that are yet to legalize gambling can see the boom and know it is coming eventually. What about states where gambling is already legal? What about states like Alabama or Utah, which are routinely viewed as two that could realistically never legalize sports betting? Is there a boom on the horizon for them?
I spoke with managers in three different markets. I wanted to know where they saw reason for optimism. The answers were interesting.
Earlier this month, John Ourand of Sports Business Journal took a look at the deal FOX signed with crypto.com. The site is the title sponsor of the network’s College Football Extra. Ourand theorizes that could open the door for crypto companies eventually spending money on sports television the way sportsbooks do.
What is the outlook for radio? Jeff Tyler, iHeartMedia’s area president in Wisconsin, is intrigued by the idea, but he isn’t telling his sellers to go rushing out to make deals.
“There are a lot of variables around crypto,” he told me via email. “So as a company we have a plan to work within this category but not put the company at risk or do anything that could negatively affect our listeners and partners.”
Ken Brady, the sales manager at 1010XL in Jacksonville, knows that cryptocurrency has a buzz around it right now. He is not sure what the appetite for it is in terms of an ad market or what the industry’s appetite is for radio advertising.
“There is little chatter about cryptocurrency in our market or with partners,” he says. “This is something we need to understand and explore better.”
I asked all three men if there was a sector where they saw potential. Tyler had an interesting answer. He sees potential in eSports. He thinks teams and companies could benefit from connecting with stations with a dedicated listener base.
“Our brands could help them grow their fan base and activate them to attend more events in person and online.”
Gwiazdon has his eye on another vice. Just like gambling came out of the shadows and now functions under government regulation, it is only a matter of time he thinks before marijuana does the same.
“What immediately comes to mind is the legalization of marijuana at the state and, eventually, federal level,” he says. “There’s so much money in that industry – as evidenced where it has already become legal – that it could easily equal or surpass what’s happening with sports betting right now.”
What is interesting is that amongst this trio, Gwiazdon is the only one that lives in a state where there is absolutely no legal marijuana. What he sees as a potential boom for Tennessee is already legal in both Wisconsin and Florida, albeit exclusively for medical purposes.
A lot of sellers have big plans for pot and cannabis products where they are legal. Very few of them know all the answers though. That is why the RAB has a marijuana FAQ section on its website and advertising agencies specializing in marijuana have sprung up.
For 1010XL, the boom never really materialized according to Ken Brady.
“We have had little success with this category, the players who have come in seem to be interested in demos outside our strengths or have been flakey with no real appetite for a solid campaign that will work.”
Businesses built by someone following their passion for marijuana are flaky? Well, color me shocked!
Jeff Tyler told me iHeart is looking at this on a market by market basis. Wisconsin has made medical marijuana legal. Tyler can’t have his sellers approaching businesses the way sellers in neighboring states like Illinois or Michigan, where it has fully been decriminalized can.
“Until it’s fully legalized the advertiser revenue is very limited,” he said. “We have a team that leads this vertical for iHeartMedia and have states like Colorado that already have fully legalized marijuana so we have a solid plan and guidelines to follow with these advertisers. CBD is a small category with some hit spots in some markets.”
There may never be another category like sports betting. The money cannon that industry was ready to fire was unpresedented. You can’t bank on it happening again.
I asked Dennis Gwiazdon if it was possible that the radio industry will have to play a very proactive role in creating the next boom. He told me that may be the best way to think about it. What he is sure of is that no idea can be dismissed as the industry looks to find another stream of revenue that has the potential of the sportsbooks.
“We definitely have to get smarter at how we generate revenue. Relying on the old, tried and true ways won’t hold up forever. The good news is our business model is already undergoing a sea of change in terms of how we scale our radio/digital/entertainment assets for wider distribution and access. But some of us are further down the road than others. The audio industry is still the ultimate personal experience. How we continue to maximize – and monetize – our relationships with fans is the key to our survival.”
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