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Sports, Media And Gambling: Where Is Congress?

Three mega-industries that should be ethically separated have jumped into business bed together, a devil’s triangle that should be addressed on Capitol Hill amid the likelihood of scandals and a lack of investigative watchdogs.

Jay Mariotti

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My friend covered the Detroit Pistons. He called me in distress one day, asking to borrow money. His gambling habit was so toxic, he said, that he’d broached the topic with Isiah Thomas, the team’s star player and a hard-ass not to be messed with. Aghast, I told him to make an appointment with the editor, beg for mercy and seek help for his problem if he wanted to save his writing career. He took my advice and moved on to a college beat.

This is why the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies is a bad idea.

Media Giants Go All in on Sports Gambling Frenzy | Hollywood Reporter
Hollywood Reporter

The public relations director of the Chicago Bears, Bryan Harlan, was privy to inside information on a daily basis. He was fired after federal investigators found his phone number in a bookmaker’s records and concluded he had bet on NFL games, including those involving the Bears. His father, Bob, was president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers at the time, and his brother, Kevin, has been broadcasting NFL and NBA games for years. The feds also linked calls made to a bookie from team-assigned portable phones belonging to Ken Valdiserri, the Bears’ vice president of marketing and broadcasting, who claimed never to have called a bookie but that he often allowed — ready? — Bears players and Chicago media people to use his phones.

Said Paul Tagliabue, then the NFL commissioner: “Harlan acknowledged he violated our league policy on gambling. It’s the integrity of the game. When we have the kind of competition we have and competition that features integrity, we have to enforce it strictly.” The setback didn’t stop Harlan from becoming a sports agent — and to this day, according to his agency website, he represents “coaches at all levels of collegiate and professional football, as well as sports broadcasters at major outlets in Chicago and across the country.” 

This is why the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies is a bad idea.

My colleague covered the Denver Broncos. During one of those Super Bowl losses that got ugly early, he began to pound the table where he was working in the main press box. He wasn’t doing so because he was a fan of the team. Days later, another Denver sportswriter, Teri Thompson, was busted by police in a bookie’s house with cocaine in her purse. Suddenly, it made more sense why her tone had been over-the-top savage in certain game columns.

This is why the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies is a bad idea.

My former radio boss, who had moved on to sales at a TV station, asked to borrow $3,000. He didn’t say why, but did I have to ask? Reluctantly, I gave him the money and issued a one-month deadline. Many months later, my attorney confronted him at their country club in Chicago’s northern suburbs, demanding the money be repaid in increments. Later, I discovered he’d made similar loan requests of another radio host and a producer.

This is why the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies is a bad idea.

I could go on. Instead, I choose to look ahead in mortified fear, wondering how many other scandals await — uglier, larger and of a more damaging scope — now that the $300 billion U.S. sports industry has opened the devil’s door to a gambling free-for-all. When the Supreme Court authorized states in 2018 to legalize sports wagering, the justices couldn’t have envisioned the immediate, untamed threat to the very integrity of which Tagliabue spoke. In one swoop, the NFL, the NBA and other leagues that long had viewed gambling as sinful and corrupt embraced the new financial possibilities, less concerned about game-fixing and inside-information-sharing amid their greedy, insidious money grabs. In the all-time hypocritical stinkbomb, Major League Baseball is all-in on gambling, too, even as Pete Rose remains banned for life. The NFL, which once routinely suspended players for gambling associations, now has a partnership with FanDuel and a stadium and future Super Bowls in Las Vegas.

Allegiant Stadium - Wikipedia

The leagues have dirtied down, you see, striking deals with casinos and companies that include the omnipresent DraftKings, which has encountered issues with the law. And with furious, slobbering zeal, powerhouse media enterprises such as ESPN, Fox and Turner followed the money and jumped right into bed with their league partners, also inviting the gambling bigwigs onto the mattress for a mass wagering orgy. Next thing you knew, so-called journalists were leaving crumbling mainstream outlets for betting information sites while John Skipper, dumped as ESPN president after a cocaine scandal, was teaming with another deposed Bristol personality, the once-esteemed columnist Dan Le Batard, to form a media company that signed a lucrative sponsorship agreement with DraftKings.

Suddenly, sports is not sports anymore. It’s a gambling-centric feast that has reduced the actual result of a game — the sacred competition between athletes who are expected to remain honest and above-board — to a sidebar. The fact the Milwaukee Bucks might beat the Boston Celtics, 113-111, doesn’t mean as much anymore as the Celtics covering the point spread, or Jayson Tatum winning the prop bet. The sports industry has allowed this freak-show collaboration to create a tawdry alternate universe that, by and large, reduces a legitimate championship season to background noise.

All of which invites the likelihood of rampant manipulation of games — and an inability to investigate the wrongdoing because many elite reporters work for the very media companies that, directly or indirectly, are attached to the leagues and gambling initiatives. The leagues and odds shops say otherwise, claiming sophisticated monitoring apparatus is in place, but they’ve yet to explain any security plans in elaborate detail. It reminds me of Big Tobacco. In this case, the objective is to induce bettors — at least 15 million of whom are problem gamblers in America — to spend their money without any warning of consequences. The betting lines are nicotine, and cancer is diagnosed when people lose jobs and families and end up broke. Have the leagues, media and gambling companies at all considered the lives they’re putting at risk? Do they care that they’re contributing to the demise of society?

Nah. They’re too busy bidding up, cashing out and bastardizing the purity of athletic competition. Never mind that there are many more sports observers in America who don’t gamble — such as me — than those who do. Every sports visual, from a game broadcast to an ESPN “SportsCenter” update to a stadium advertisement, must include references to gambling. Inevitably, this alliance will lead to sweeping in-house scandals. The more prevalent gambling is, the more likely an athlete, coach or referee will be tempted to fix a game or a prop bet. What prevents a talk-show personality with a gambling-house relationship from devising a scheme, via an active athlete, to throw a point spread? What if the personality’s producers get wind and spread the word?

And we might never know it’s happening. That’s because too many former journalists already are on the payroll at gambling sites or eager to work for them. Ask DraftKings and FanDuel. Ask Barstool Sports. Ask Action Network and Vegas Stats & Information Network. They already view themselves as mainstream media companies, with FanDuel executive Mike Raffensperger telling Front Office Sports that he’s seeking to poach content creators from mainstream outlets. “We are looking to evaluate ways to improve our portfolio through pulling people into the fold,” he said. “We’re actively looking into the marketplace now. It is absolutely part of the strategy if we want to continue to grow the No. 1 sports book in the country.”

Meaning, the media people he hires must be gambling experts more than traditional sportswriters, as seen at VSiN and even The Athletic, which ask writers to break down games against spreads while ignoring the basics of who might win or lose a game. Just as Le Batard, while apparently maintaining his editorial freedom on political issues, will relinquish his journalistic values by reading relentless gambling spots during commercial breaks, as required by Skipper’s $50 million DraftKings deal. I’m still flummoxed by a recent remark by VSiN chairman Brian Musburger — whose famous sportscasting uncle, Brent, has sold out as a grinning front-man tout holding $100 bills on the company website — that legitimate journalists can be hired by gambling sites to dish inside info about athletes, teams and games to readers. My God, how poisonous could this Bermuda triangle become?

Uncle Brent and South Beach Dan used to investigate sports stories and break news. Now, they’re taking gambling fortunes and leaving themselves vulnerable to investigations. Clay Travis once had journalism in his blood, then opted to lean conservative even when his Nashville-based site, Outkick, was covering sports. Fox acquired his anti-woke site last week amid a flurry of media-meets-gambling transactions, with Fox executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch sounding thrilled to have found a brand aligned politically with Fox News. Travis has bigger ideas, writing of the gambling craze, “Over the past several months many companies put in bids to buy Outkick. That’s because our business is thriving, particularly our sports gambling business, where we are one of the largest affiliate sites in the country, signing up customers in all ten states where online gambling is legal. Sports gambling is poised to explode in the years ahead and I wanted to make sure whichever partner we picked fit our company’s direction.”

Clay Travis

You could say sports is run by The Mob, a new sort of organized crime.

And if you think that’s an overstatement, just wait for the fallout. Congress is busy, but the last time it was asked to clean up a historic moral unraveling in sports — baseball’s steroids scandals — the 2005 hearings were successful in embarrassing the likes of Bud Selig, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, which led to the Mitchell Report and a cleansing of the game. Given the staggering amounts of money in this triad, the responsibility of sports as a public trust and the potential bilking of gamblers, damn right a committee should prepare another spectacle and grill Roger Goodell and other commissioners, ESPN’s Jimmy Pitaro and broadcast executives and whoever represents the gambling companies. Could you imagine Dave Portnoy, the bad-boy face of Barstool, being interrogated on Capitol Hill?

We’ve already seen a naked conflict-of-interest on display at the NFL Draft. When the San Francisco 49ers played a guessing game with the No. 3 pick, I wondered if a week of indecision would spark a flurry of prop-bet activity. Of course, it did. Trey Lance, once a 15-1 underdog to be drafted third, improved to 3-1 on the morning of the draft and to a -180 favorite as the show began. Most of the action at No. 3 was bet on Mac Jones, and when FanDuel and other sportsbooks say the 49ers’ mystery produced the Draft’s highest betting numbers … how do we know the NFL, to appease its gambling partner, doesn’t encourage a team or two to inject doubt throughout the day and keep the casino cash flowing?

And what planet has Colin Cowherd relocated to? Among the national talk-show hosts now immersed in gambling, he revealed in March that Lance, a friend of Cowherd’s 20-year-old daughter, had been hanging out at the family home. That wasn’t an issue … until Cowherd contacted 49ers general manager John Lynch and suggested he draft Lance, the details of which were sent by Cowherd’s publicist to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio in an email titled, “Did Colin Cowherd help 49ers draft Trey Lance?”

Spilling the details on his podcast, Cowherd said, “So, long story short, I live in L.A. Trey Lance was working out in L.A. about three weeks ago for the draft. Ran into Trey Lance. Really, really impressed with him as a kid — good size, looks you in the eye, really humble, really thoughtful. And after meeting him, it’s funny. I sent a text to a couple of GMs that I thought may have the chance to get him, one of them John Lynch. So I text John, I said `Hey, I just met Trey Lance … I don’t know what you’re doing with the No. 3 pick, but totally impressed, so humble, what a great kid.’ And John’s like `Thanks, Colin!’

I don’t hear anything. Then after the third pick, I get a couple of fist bumps texted to me by John Lynch. So I know I had no influence, but nonetheless, it made me laugh. John’s a great guy and I actually think it’s the right pick.”

Problem No. 1: Cowherd, now a gambling-influenced host, texted an NFL executive with draft suggestions.

Problem No. 2: The same NFL executive texted fist-bump emojis to a gambling-influenced host after the pick, fully recalling his advice about Lance.

Problem No. 3: Cowherd’s team took credit for the pick, as if it was some valiant deed.

As one of the biggest names in sports media, Cowherd should steer clear of such conflicts. But in this emerging Wild Wild West climate, all semblance of independence is lost. Any reliable, self-governed watchdogs out there? ESPN, NBC, Fox, CBS, Turner — LOL, all bedfellows, forget it. Legacy media? The Boston Globe is owned by John Henry, who owns the Red Sox; the Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, who wants to own an NFL franchise; the Los Angeles Times is owned by Patrick Soon-Shiong, a part-owner of the Lakers; the Wall Street Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose son acquired Outkick; and the New York Times reportedly is examining whether to invest in The Athletic, a struggling sports site that openly promotes a sports gambling component.

With nine of 10 sports media employees worried for their jobs these days, how many will follow the money and bail to gambling sites? How many league insiders, such as Adam Schefter and Jay Glazer, will bolt for bigger money now that the NFL is directly linked to gambling? Beat writers, columnists, editors — will everyone jump to the dark side and focus on over-unders? We’re just now emerging from the worst of the pandemic. People are desperate. Anticipate musical-chairs madness.

In that vein, how many more Bryan Harlans are out there, ready to exploit information? How many media professionals will use such information to bet themselves, recalling my Detroit, Chicago and Denver stories? You might ask, what’s the big deal about a media person gambling legally? Answer: It will skew his/her coverage of a game and taint objectivity, along with the prospect of becoming addicted. As for executives, Skipper once stood up to Goodell when ESPN broke exposes about concussions and rallied to the side of Colin Kaepernick. Now, they are partners in gambling smut.

More than ever, investigative reporters are needed to keep three mega-industries honest in their new sandbox. Unfortunately, most sleuths work for ESPN or other aforementioned outlets. So when a betting scandal happens, who will dare probe it and risk being railroaded from a job? Jeremy Schaap is too comfortable in his gig to pound on C-suite doors, preferring easier stories on mascots these days.

I am fortunate. I’ve made a great living as a columnist while battling editors who didn’t want me immersed in the Rose scandal in Cincinnati, or didn’t want me explaining to a Chicago audience why Michael Jordan’s gambling problem left him exposed to extortion. I usually found a way to get necessary columns into print and commentary onto radio airwaves.

Michael Jordan's Gambling Exemplified America's Lust for Private Vice from  Public Figures – OutKick

Today, you’re reading one of the few industry sites that would publish this column. We are covering sports here, not trying to make bushels of money off sports. I used to appear regularly on “Around The Horn,” ESPN’s banter show. There’s a better chance now of ATH debating the color of Pitaro’s underwear than discussing the scummy intersection of sports, sports media and gambling companies.

At least I still have my bullhorn, prepared for the oncoming shitstorms. In gambling parlance, I’m the longest of longshots, but I’m also the rarest of rarities. No one can call me a sellout. 

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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