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Ben Fawkes Came To Take VSIN to the Next Level

“I think the biggest thing is the future is really bright and there is so much talent here.”

Vik Chokshi

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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.

Ben Fawkes, VP Digital Content VSiN | VSiN

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?”

Sports Gambling Evolves: A Bookie Nears the End of the Line - Bloomberg

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.

Feder: The Score to air VSiN sports betting reports

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.

Michael Jordan - Michael Jordan Photos - Air Jordan XX Launch Party - Zimbio

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.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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