When we talk about powerhouse brands in the sports talk format, we tend to gravitate towards names like WFAN, 98.5 The Sports Hub, 97.1 The Ticket, 670 The Score and Sports Radio WIP. Some of that’s a testament to their success, but it’s fair to suggest a little bit of East Coast bias may come into play. Look, it makes sense. Most of the country’s population is in the East. So too are most media corporations, money and power. Notable brands and high profile individuals are connected to business and politics in this region, an area where radio stations begin with the letter W.
But just because the attention in our industry shifts first to the east coast, doesn’t mean Arizona Sports 98.7 doesn’t belong in the same category of the aforementioned stations. Go to Phoenix, and you’ll find the market’s sports leader routinely delivering revenue far beyond what the general anonymity of the city’s teams may lead you to believe is possible.
The man responsible for guiding Bonneville Phoenix’s building which houses two of the nation’s top sports (Arizona Sports 98.7) and news/talk brands (KTAR) is Scott Sutherland. The longtime Phoenix market manager joined me for a conversation which covered a number of topics including how his two dominant spoken word stations were once a single “super brand,” the changing demographics and dynamics of his market, and how he sets a value for his product and never wavers from it.
Demetri Ravanos: Let’s start with Arizona Sports being on the FM dial under the 98.7 frequency. I know that happened with the guidance from Nielsen and seeing greater potential to expand your audience, but at the time, the music station that you had on that frequency was previously successful. What did you uncover during that process that gave you the confidence to shift away from music and move your sports talk product on to FM?
Scott Sutherland: That was a whopper. It was the end of 2013 and the AM radio market in Phoenix was compromised. Our music station was called The Peak. It was adult hits and very successful. We were billing a lot of money, but we had already moved KTAR to FM in 2006 and subsequently at the same time launched KTAR Sports, rebranding it later in 2011 to Arizona Sports.
We were doing so well on the sports and the news side that I think we looked at the format of adult hits and not to speak ill of the music format, but it was sort of an amorphous format where we didn’t really have a position, we were just billing. And you could just see the results that we could deliver on the on the news and sports side with KTAR. There just wasn’t that that same sense with The Peak.
We then looked at the landscape and said, “You know, we’ve done some damage to the AM band by pulling KTAR off of it. Two iHeart stations were the only real AM stations at that time. We looked at it like Arizona Sports is a great store, but in a mall in a compromised area. So we thought that putting all of our chips on the table and going all in on sports alleviated some of the play-by-play issues because at that time we had everybody, Suns, Coyotes, DBacks, Cardinals, ASU. We saw it as a chance to go all in on FM and 620 is the best signal in the state, so that allowed us to put ESPN Radio there. We could put a lot of the games that run prior to 7:00 pm on 620, so it enabled us to stay in format longer.
I think, if we weren’t a small company like Bonneville, I don’t think it would happen because I remember going up to the board and saying, “We’re basically going to be financing this deal through ourselves instead of taking whatever a stick would cost. We’re just going to have less cash flow in our operations for a time,” but it’s been the best decision we’ve ever made. I think it’s been a game changer for our format. That and I would also say rebranding in 2011 from KTAR Sports.
Ryan Hatch and I took a trip to ESPN in 2011, and met with John Kosner, who ran ESPN Digital. This was at the time when ESPN was launching all of their digital sites, ESPN, Chicago, Boston, etc.. We made our case to be the first non-O-and-O and build ESPN Phoenix. That initiative obviously didn’t gain any traction, but that was sort of the impetus for us to say, “Alright, let’s rebrand it as Arizona Sports. Let’s take that model, a digital and an audio strategy to own Arizona, not just have Phoenix call letters. So I would say that was was a game changer for us in 2011. And then moving to FM at the beginning of 2014 has also been huge for us.
DR: My understanding is that the move to FM didn’t immediately pay off for the station the way you were told it might. I’ve heard a story that Ryan Hatch put on a Celine Dion song to show a Nielsen rep what was showing up as the top station in Phoenix with Men 25-54.
SS: When we launched in January of 2014, the first few books, according to Nielsen, we had less audience than we did when we were AM only. We had added FM and Nielsen said our ratings declined. We went from like 5th to 12th. I remember Rick Scott saying it was statistically impossible. Nielsen told us our cume had dropped exponentially.
Here we are landing vehicles on Mars and we’re still stuck with 1980s beeper technology. It’s unbelievable and somehow they are convinced that sampling methodology is the best that we can do. Now we’re going to have wearables where we move to, the same technology as Fitbit. Well, I don’t see people wearing Fitbit anymore.
It’s tough in Phoenix when essentially you have 200 meters that comprise basically all of our sports listening. We’re just saying nothing makes sense. We literally have millions of people on our website. We have hundreds of thousands of people on our stream. We have hundreds of thousands of downloads monthly, even in the millions on audio downloads, and Nielsen says we have a cume of below 75,000. It’s just maddening and it makes no sense.
DR: Now that KTAR and Arizona Sports are two separate brands, what differences have you noticed between the dedicated sports audience and the dedicated news/talk audience?
SS: Well, I would say a lot of similarities. We obviously have high income and high education in both audiences. I think I can make a case in Phoenix that maybe there’s a correlation with a lack of people wearing meters.
The goal is to be number one and number two in billing. It’s just a high qualitative audience and from an advertiser perspective, it just works.
DR: During the 2020 election cycle, there were a lot of news stories about Arizona as a state largely going blue because the population got younger and Browner. I wonder what you think the implications of that might be for broadcast radio.
SS: I think it’s good, frankly, and again, whether this appears in Nielsen, I think last year was a really good year for us, even in a pandemic. We stepped back, especially on the news side, and just said “Is Arizona a swing state?”. I’ve lived here for a long time, and to see that was interesting. The political money was obscene last year.
But I think, again, for our brands, it’s a couple of things, not only more diversity. We have a ton of people coming in from California with obvious tax implications, so Phoenix is booming. House prices are at record levels. We have more and more people moving here. It’s considered one of the best places to be right now. The tax situation is good. We think with all these folks moving in, it’s wonderful for our brands. We’re fortunate to work for a company where at Bonneville whether it rains or shines, we market. We’re very bullish on our brands.
DR: It’s interesting to talk about the population shift. Going back to a conversation we had before I started recording, I see a lot of people pointing this out when it comes to college football recruiting. All of the sudden, Arizona has become a destination to find a quarterback because families are moving out of California and Phoenix and Las Vegas seem to be the top two beneficiaries of it.
SS: You see, obviously, Spencer Rattler at Oklahoma. You’ve got Jack Miller at Ohio State, whether he gets the nod or not. But this was never the case before. The issue for us, frankly, it’s how can we keep some of these kids? For the top kids, there’s obviously more of an allure going to an SEC school or Big Ten school, and that’s been problematic here in the state for a while. However, seeing what its done for local kids has been fantastic.
DR: You guys have three pro teams and Arizona State on your station. You mentioned earlier that when the Suns or Diamondbacks are on the East Coast and airing in what would be afternoon drive in Arizona, those games go to 620 and regular programming remains on 98.7. Is there a part of those negotiations or an aspect of massaging those relationships to make it possible to do that? Something maybe folks that have only ever worked in the Eastern or Central time zones wouldn’t be familiar with?
SS: I think so. Our proposition is that we want our afternoon show to not be interrupted. At times we’ve had all four teams and ASU. We also carry the Phoenix Rising, which is the soccer league that we have here. When you’re dealing with local teams, everyone wants to be the highest priority. We just say to them on conflict games, the earlier game always goes to 620. That way we can put our afternoon drive in content and make sure that on the revenue side, there’s better implications for us because we’re not giving up afternoon drive revenue.
The play by play world has changed immeasurably. What makes for a good play by play deal? I always say it depends. All of our partnerships are different. I think the models are changing. There’s revenue shares out there. There’s teams which carry inventory. There’s stations that own some inventory. I think the technology has changed the right fees and the streaming implications. Hopefully the leagues are moving back to giving stations the right to stream the games. I know MLB is moving that way. It’s becoming more complicated, and I think the station’s perspective is we’re unwilling to lose one dime. The days of coughing up a big rights fee to try to take on third party sales and not break even? It’s a thing of the past.
DR: So I want to explore the idea of everybody wanting top priority. Tell me a little bit about the conversations that are had when you have the Diamondbacks playing on a Sunday afternoon as the NFL season is kicking off and one game is going to the AM dial and the other to FM. How do you make sure everybody feels like they’re getting your best?
SS: I would say the most important thing is communicating that up front to take it off the table. We write in our contracts, sort of who has precedent. The NFL obviously is king, so they regardless, would always go to the FM band.
I think the other teams appreciate all that we bring to the table. We like to talk about that it’s not just an audio rights fee, especially with our digital assets that we have, with the audience that we’re generating off of our website. So I think you have to take that question or disagreement off the table upfront or else it could be a nightmare. I think every team would like to be first priority, but I think we do a pretty good job of conveying the benefit as to why the structure we decided on is important.
I think they get it. We’ve been doing this for a long time, so I think it’s a no surprises strategy which has worked well.
DR: Is there an established priority or hierarchy among Phoenix sports fans or is it the NFL and then depending on which one is hot: Suns or Diamondback?
SS: Phoenix is tough, and it’s getting more native, if you will. It’s embarrassing. If you go to any of the teams, Diamondbacks are playing the Dodgers? There’s a lot of blue. With all the Midwest transplants, if the Cardinals are playing the Packers, there’s certainly a lot of yellow and green. But I think it’s coming around.
The Cardinals now have been here since 1988. So I think the kids now have teams to root on. The Diamondbacks since 1998. So it definitely is changing, but I think the NFL is the NFL like it is in all the markets.
The one original team that we do have are the Suns. So when the Suns are winning, and obviously this is the first year in quite some time they’re doing that, the bandwagon is very, very quick to come back as it relates to the Suns. The D-Backs, when they’re winning and doing well, then it’s hot too. It’s just when the teams records start to go south, that’s where all of the implications begin for all the teams in a way that you may not see in the other markets. It definitely is growing into a little more native and tribal as it relates to fandom.
DR: Arizona had a real rollercoaster ride with Covid-19. The state tried to reopen very quickly and become a hub for Major League Baseball. Then all of the sudden, it was one of the hottest spots in the country for outbreaks. Did that disrupt things for you just in terms of day to day operation of the station?
SS: Timing, of course, was terrible. But for a sports station, when Spring Training was rolling, it was very difficult. With Bonneville, it’s very people oriented. We told our folks to go.
Arizona was probably slower than some other states where the governor never had a mask ordinance. We did have the two stop downs. Our numbers at one time in August were the worst Covid rates in the world per cases and deaths. It was rough.
We hadn’t concluded selling our Diamondback inventory, so that was tough. Then of course, you’re going into the Cardinals season so it was a rough summer. On the content side, God bless Ryan Hatch and Rod Lakin for trying to come up with any kind of content. They did a wonderful job. I think the creativity that our guys showed was phenomenal and they just kept fighting the good fight and reminding people that sports is a good place to be in. I think that’s one thing that’s lingered probably for all the stations. Because there aren’t any fans at an NBA game, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to talk about. I will say, I think we weathered the storm better than most.
I was on one of our meetings with our corporate officers two months or so into the pandemic. They asked “what’s the biggest lesson that you learned?”. And I said, “For us, it was that it’s validated our business model”. I think when you’re based in local, original content, all about ubiquitous distribution, your sales structure is based on local solution-based sales, and four years ago we moved to a sort of account executive, account manager, a sort of hunter/farmer sales structure, those are the areas where it just validated all the work that we put in for our business model to work. We surprisingly, had a great year last year for both news and sports.
DR: How much of that do you think can be attributed to the fact that, air staff-wise, you guys haven’t had a lot of turnover? There have been years, if not decades, for many of your hosts to develop relationships with listeners and clients, and for your clients to be able to trust that they know who it is that is delivering live endorsements that connect with the audience.
SS: No question. The relationship that all of our folks have from Ryan and Rod, to the talent, to the sales team matters. At Bonneville, we talk a lot about trusted voices. Having Doug and Wolf, Bickley and Marotta, Burns and Gambo, all of our bellcow hosts, they’re trusted voices in the market. I think we we stayed away from politics as the summer went on on Arizona Sports. It wasn’t the Covid hotline. Our news station took care of that. We really focused on the community. We focused on what’s to come with sports. And I think, to your point, the trusted voices that we talk about so much, were a huge part of helping us get through until training camp opened up. That’s when the game changed for us, the third week of July.
DR: You call them bellcows, which I think is a great way to describe the nature of the lineup, because every single day, somebody been there to serve your audience and partners. But I do want to take this back to our earlier discussion of the way Arizona is diversifying. I wonder maybe not in the way that somebody ends up losing a job, but do you see a way that the station’s lineup will have to diversify at some point?
SS: For sure. There’s no question. As we work on succession planning, we’ve brought in female voices. We’ve brought in younger voices. We’re trying to bring people from Max Starks to Lorenzo Alexander, who can bring a different perspective. It’s a huge priority for us without a question.
DR: So I want to ask you about working for Bonneville. You are working for a group owned by the Mormon Church. How is that different than working for a group owned by shareholders and investors?
SS: I’ve worked for both. I came from the AMFM, Chancellor and CBS prior to when I joined here. I will tell you that I can’t imagine working elsewhere after living through different companies and the Wall Street world, not that that’s a good or bad thing, but our company is all about people. It’s about making a difference in the communities that we serve and delivering a profit. From Darrell Brown to our executive team, I think there’s more strategy from some of my experience in the Wall Street-owned world. Everything is not about re-forecasting for next week. I don’t get calls on Friday asking why do we have 16 morning drive units next Thursday? There isn’t this myopic, incessant looking at stock prices. Again, there isn’t any company that I can imagine working for that would just say, “Sure, you can blow up one of the most successful music stations we own because we want to go all in on spoken word” and they hold us accountable. The focus is always how do we recruit and retain and grow great people like the Rod Lakin’s and the Ryan Hatch’s and how do we make them feel valued?
With Bonneville, what they want us to do is make sure that we’re improving the community. Our give-a-thon for Phoenix Children’s Hospital, our two stations raised almost two million dollars, which is the largest fundraiser for a children’s hospital in the nation. That’s one where I always speak to, “Nielsen says our audience is X? Great. You know, in a day and a half, we’re raising two million dollars with almost three thousand phone calls and people donating. It’s engagement!” Engagement is what we talk about.
DR: The values of the company are always going to be important to the way you’re able to do business. One issue the Church has been pretty clear about is its stance on sports gambling. Has that affected your ability to do business with those companies? As we’re talking, Arizona is pushing a bill that would legalize sports betting in the state.
SS: That will be a category obviously, that we would not be able to participate in.
DR: As you know Scott, that is a category where revenue is rapidly growing, especially in the sports space. Do you worry that not being able to accept that type of business could have an affect on your sales staff?
SS: No, because I think there’s so many other things. Obviously, we’re not going to get that money. I get it. There’s a lot of categories here that we are penetrating though and I think it’s more important to look at the categories that we can have success in instead of the ones that we can’t touch. If we can’t get that money, it is what it is. If that’s the worst thing in my job, that we’re not going to participate in sports gambling, then life is pretty dang good.
DR: I was told a great story about the naming rights to your studio. Legend has it that years ago, you had a big client who was spending high six figures but had to move on. When big deals like that go away, pressure increases to get something back on the books to make up for the loss. Another client then made an offer for the studio rights which was significantly less. Their brand name wasn’t exactly the best fit either. Rather than run to the dollars, you passed on the deal. The way I was told the story was that Scott really understands the value of his product and cares about the integrity of his brands.
I wonder how you got to that point, believing in brands like KTAR and Arizona Sports so much that you were willing to accept nothing for a sponsorship opportunity rather than take a deal that didn’t meet your expectations. Do you ever consider what it might cost you to give up a quick and easy sale to maintain your standard?
SS: We wouldn’t even sell a studio sponsorship for news. Frankly, it wouldn’t be something we’d ever consider. We did do it on the sports studio. We had University of Phoenix, which was the Cardinals’ stadium, which is now State Farm Stadium. We had a huge sponsorship we took to them that we thought would would make sense. That was maybe a four or five year deal, and then typical in that world it went away. We established a value for it, and probably went three years before even consider doing another deal. For a lot of the music stations, it’s more of an added value play. For us, I think it’s important that it’s treated properly. It’s the Ak-Chin Community Studios. It’s one of our Native American partners that’s with us on this now.
We know the value of our studio. We had offers for 80 percent of what we set the price at, and just felt like we’d worked so hard to establish these brands that accepting less felt wrong. I was here when we launched it in 2007, and then got shipped up to Seattle for 2 years. There’s so much sweat equity that we put into building these brands, and we’re proud of the work that we’ve done. We refuse to offer key associations with our brands at discounted prices. It’s the same thing with where we are on the sales side with the pandemic, average unit rates, and sell out percentages. I think people would be shocked to learn the implications of how it can hurt you. We held very, very strong, which is why I think we had a really, really good year last year.
Demetri Ravanos is the Assistant Content Director for Barrett Sports Media. He hosts the Chewing Clock and Media Noise podcasts. He occasionally fills in on stations across the Carolinas. Previous stops include WAVH and WZEW in Mobile, AL, WBPT in Birmingham, AL and WBBB, WPTK and WDNC in Raleigh, NC. You can find him on Twitter @DemetriRavanos and reach him by email at DemetriTheGreek@gmail.com.
Who Handled the Tua Concussion Discussion Best?
Rex Ryan, Rodney Harrison, and Boomer Esiason stood out with their commentary on the Tagovailoa story.
The major story going into the bulk of Week 4’s NFL action on Sunday was the concussion suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in Thursday’s game versus the Cincinnati Bengals.
Amazon’s Thursday Night Football telecast, particularly its halftime show, faced heavy criticism for neglecting to mention that Tagovailoa had been tested for a concussion in his previous game just four days earlier. Additionally, the NFL Players Association called for an investigation into whether or not the league’s concussion protocols were followed properly in evaluating Tagovailoa.
In light of that, how would the Sunday NFL pregame shows address the Tagovailoa concussion situation? Would they better inform viewers by covering the full story, including the Week 3 controversy over whether or not proper protocols were followed?
We watched each of the four prominent pregame shows — ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, Fox NFL Sunday, CBS’s The NFL Today, and NBC’s Football Night in America — to compare how the Tagovailoa story was covered. With the benefit of two extra days to research and report, did the Sunday shows do a better job of informing and engaging viewers?
Here’s how the pregame studio crews performed with what could be the most important NFL story of the year:
Sunday NFL Countdown – ESPN
ESPN’s pregame show is the first to hit the air each Sunday, broadcasting at 10 a.m. ET. So the Sunday NFL Countdown crew had the opportunity to lead the conversation for the day. With a longer, three-hour show and more resources to utilize in covering a story like this, ESPN took full advantage of its position.
The show did not lead off with the Tagovailoa story, opting to lay out Sunday’s schedule, which included an early game in London between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. But the Countdown crew eventually got to issue on everyone’s minds approximately 28 minutes into the program.
Insider Adam Schefter provided the latest on the NFL and NFLPA’s investigation into the matter, particularly the “gross motor instability” Tagovailoa displayed in stumbling on the field and how the Dolphins initially announced that the quarterback had suffered a head injury, but later changed his condition to a back injury.
Schefter added that the NFL and NFLPA were expected to interview Tagovailoa and pass new guidelines for concussion protocols, including that no player displaying “gross motor instability” will be allowed to play. Those new rules could go into effect as early as Week 5.
“This is an epic fail by the NFL,” said Matt Hasselbeck to begin the commentary. “This is an epic fail by the medical staff, epic fail by everybody! Let’s learn from it!”
Perhaps the strongest remarks came from Rex Ryan, who said coaches sometimes need to protect players from themselves.
“I had a simple philosophy as a coach: I treated every player like my son,” Ryan said. “Would you put your son back in that game after you saw that?
“Forget this ‘back and ankle’ BS that we heard about! This is clearly from head trauma! That’s it. I know what it looks like. We all know what it looks like.”
Where Sunday NFL Countdown‘s coverage may have stood out the most was by bringing injury analyst Stephania Bell into the discussion. Bell took a wider view of the story, explaining that concussions had to be treated in the long-term and short-term. Science needs to advance; a definitive diagnostic tool for brain injury doesn’t currently exist. Until then, a more conservative approach has to be taken, holding players out of action more often.
Grade: A. Countdown covered the story thoroughly. But to be fair, it had the most time.
The NFL Today – CBS
CBS’s pregame show led off with the Tagovailoa story, going right to insider Jonathan Jones to report. He cited the key phrase “gross motor instability” as a significant indication of a concussion.
Jones also clarified that the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant who helped evaluate Tagovailoa made “several mistakes” in consulting with the Dolphins’ team doctor, leading to his dismissal by the NFL and NFLPA.
The most pointed remarks came from Boomer Esiason, who said any insinuation that the Dolphins, head coach Mike McDaniel, or the team medical staff put Tagovailoa back in the game in order to win was “off-base.” Phil Simms added that the concussion experts he spoke with indicated that Tagovailoa could miss four to six weeks with this injury.
Grade: B-. The opinions from the analysts were largely bland. Jones’s reporting stood out.
Fox NFL Sunday
The Fox NFL pregame show also led off with the Tagovailoa story, reviewing the questions surrounding how the quarterback was treated in Week 3 before recapping his injury during Week 4’s game.
Jay Glazer reported on the NFL’s investigation, focusing on whether or not Tagovailoa suffered a concussion in Week 3. And if he did, why was he allowed to play in Week 4? Glazer noted that Tagovailoa could seek a second, maybe a third medical opinion on his injury.
Jimmy Johnson provided the most compelling commentary, sharing his perspective from the coaching side of the situation. He pointed out that when an injured player comes off the field, the coach has no contact with him. The medical team provides an update on whether or not the player can return. In Johnson’s view, Mike McDaniel did nothing wrong in his handling of the matter. He has to trust his medical staff.
Grade: B. Each of the analysts shared stronger opinions, particularly in saying a player failing “the eyeball test” with concussion symptoms should be treated seriously.
Football Night in America – NBC
Sunday Night Football was in a different setting than the other pregame shows, with Maria Taylor, Tony Dungy, and Rodney Harrison broadcasting on-site from Tampa Bay. With that, the show led off by covering the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, its effects on the Tampa area, and how the Buccaneers dealt with the situation during the week.
But after 20 minutes, the show got into the Tagovailoa story with Mike Florio reporting what his peers told viewers earlier in the day regarding pending changes to the NFL’s concussion protocol and “gross motor instability” being used as a major indicator.
Florio emphasized that the NFLPA would ask how Tagovailoa was examined and treated. Was he actually examined for a back injury in Week 3? And if he indeed suffered a back injury, why was he still allowed to play?
When the conversation went back to the on-site crew, Dungy admitted that playing Thursday night games always concerned him when he was a coach. He disclosed that teams playing a Thursday game needed to have a bye the previous week so they didn’t have to deal with a quick, four-day turnaround. That scheduling needs to be addressed for player safety.
But Harrison had the most engaging reaction to the story, coming from his experience as a player. He admitted telling doctors that he was fine when suffering concussion symptoms because he wanted to get back in the game. Knowing that was wrong, Harrison pleaded with current players to stay on the sidelines when hurt because “CTE takes you to a dark place.”
“It’s not worth it. Please take care of yourself,” said Harrison. “Don’t depend on the NFL. Don’t depend on anybody. If something’s wrong with your head, report it.”
Grade: B+. Dungy and Harrison’s views of the matter from their perspective as a coach and player were very compelling.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Barrett Podcast – Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt, BetRivers
Sportsbooks are creating their own media now, and no company is doing that using more guys that have made their names on sports radio than BetRivers. Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt talk about the strategy behind that decision for today and for the future.
Jason Barrett is the owner and operator of Barrett Sports Media. Prior to launching BSM he served as a sports radio programmer, launching brands such as 95.7 The Game in San Francisco and 101 ESPN in St. Louis. He has also produced national shows for ESPN Radio including GameNight and the Dan Patrick Show. You can find him on Twitter @SportsRadioPD or reach him by email at JBarrett@sportsradiopd.com.
Joe Rogan Betting Admission Reveals Gray Area
Rogan’s admission raises a question as to just how ethical it is to place bets with insider information, and whether it should be legal or not.
For nearly a decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover the football and basketball programs for the University of Kentucky in some form or fashion. Whether writing for blogs or working with ESPN Louisville as co-host of the post-game show, I’ve gotten to know people around the program I grew up supporting, and other individuals in the media doing the same. I’ve made some terrific friendships and cultivated quite a few relationships that provide me with “inside information” about the teams.
As an avid sports bettor, that information has sometimes put me into some difficult personal situations. There have been times when I’ve been alerted to player news that wasn’t public, such as a player dealing with an injury or suspension. It’s often been told to me off-the-record, and I’ve never put that information out publicly or given it to others.
I wish I could also say I’ve never placed a wager based on that information, but that would be a lie. While it’s been a long time since I’ve done so, I’ve ventured into that ethical gray area of betting on a team that I’m covering. I’ve long felt uncomfortable doing so, and I’d say it’s been a few years since I last did it.
At least I know I’m not alone. On his latest episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, Rogan told guest Bert Kreischer that earlier in his UFC broadcasting career he regularly bet on fights. He claims to have won nearly 85% of the time (which I highly doubt but that’s another discussion for another time), either via bets he made or ones he gave to a business partner to place on his behalf.
From his comments, Rogan doesn’t seem to have been using sensitive information to gain an edge with the books, but he also didn’t state that he didn’t. He indicates that much of his success stemmed from knowing quite a bit more about fighters coming from overseas, and he said he “knew who they were and I would gamble on them.”
But Rogan undoubtedly has long been in a position where he knows which fighters might be dealing with a slight injury, or who are struggling in camp with a specific fighting style. It’s unavoidable for someone whose job puts him into contact with individuals who tell him things off-the-record and divulge details without perhaps even realizing it.
But let’s say Rogan did get that information, and did use it, and was still doing so today. The fact is…there’s nothing illegal about it, not in the United States at least. While it’s against the rules of some entities — the NFL, for example, has stated they could suspend or ban for life individuals who use inside information or provide it to others — it’s not against any established legal doctrine. Unlike playing the stock market, insider betting is not regulated by any central body or by the government.
However, Rogan’s admission raises a question as to just how ethical it is to place bets with insider information, and whether it should be legal or not. Many of the after-the-fact actions that have been taken in the realm of legalized sports betting in this country, or those being discussed currently (such as advertising limitations), fall in line with changes made in Great Britain following their legalization.
One of their big changes was making it illegal to utilize insider information, with very specific definitions about the “misuse of information” and what steps the Gambling Commission may take. It lays out what information can be used, the punishments that may be levied, and at what point it might venture into criminality.
Sportsbooks do have recourse in some instances to recoup money on insider betting, but not many. If they can prove that a wage was influenced, they can cancel the bet or sue for the money. The most well-known instance is the individual who bet $50,000 at +750 odds that someone would streak on the field during Super Bowl LV –which he did– and then was denied the payout when he bragged about his exploits. But unless someone foolishly tells the books that they’ve taken them with information that the public wasn’t privy to, they have little to no chance of doing anything about it.
There are ramifications to insider betting that raise truly ethical dilemmas. Just like stock trading, information can be immeasurably valuable to those with stakes large enough to change prices. If I’m placing a $20 prop bet with the knowledge that a team’s starting running back might be out for a game, or dealing with an ankle injury, I’m not going to harm anybody else playing that line. But if I give that information to a shark, who places a $20,000 wager on that same line, I’ve now enabled someone to move a line and impact other bettors.
Online sports betting in this country continues to grow, and every day we are reminded that there are still aspects of the space that can feel like the wild west. As individuals in the media, we have to decide personally what our ethical stances are in situations like this. We also have to keep in mind the impact that betting can have on our biases–especially if we’ve bet using inside information. A prime example is Kirk Herbstreit, who won’t even make a pick on College Gameday for games he is going to be doing color commentary for lest he possibly appears biased on the call.
At one end of the spectrum, you have someone like Herbstreit, and on the other end, you have folks like Rogan who, while he no longer does so, was more than happy to not only wager on fights himself but gave the information to others. And in the middle, you have hundreds of people in similar situations, who might lean one way or another or who, like me, may have found themselves on either side of that ethical line.
There is no black or white answer here, nor am I saying there’s necessarily a right or wrong stance for anybody in the sports media industry to take. I would say that each person has to take stock of what they’re comfortable doing, and how they feel about insider information being used. Rogan didn’t break any rules or laws by gambling on the UFC, but his admission to doing so might be the catalyst towards it no longer being accepted.
Jason Ence resides in Louisville, KY and is fully invested in the sports betting space. Additionally, he covers Premier League and Serie A soccer, college football, and college basketball for ESPN Louisville 680 including serving as the station’s University of Kentucky correspondent, and co-host of the UK football and basketball post-game shows. He can be found on Twitter @JasonUK17 and reached by email at email@example.com.