The below article is the first in an occasional series on sports betting and broadcasting.
Jon Anik always wondered why the sports world was so hesitant to acknowledge the obvious: Sports fans bet on sports.
The current UFC commentator certainly does. He’s placed bets since he was an 18-year-old freshman at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.
He placed bets when he was an ESPN anchor and an ESPN Radio host. The bets kept coming after he signed with the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2011 to serve as a play-by-play man and host for the world’s most prominent mixed martial arts promotion.
“I’m old now. I’m 40,” Anik said. “I just feel like my whole generation, we’ve been betting on sports. I’ve been scratching that itch for 22 years. Once some of us got into (the) position where we could affect some change, I think we did.”
After Anik took his place cage-side, he helped champion that shift. With the UFC headquarters in Las Vegas, fight promotion was always a little more willing to acknowledge betting lines on pay-per-view and cable partners such as Spike, Fox Sports and now ESPN. To Anik, relaying that betting information before a big fight was a no-brainer.
“I think if you pare it down to the core, it’s another lens through which to look at these fights,” Anik said. “I always thought we weren’t leaning on that angle enough – not necessarily in terms of dollars and cents and winning or losing — but just in terms of why does Vegas feel that there’s a -600 favorite in this fight?”
The real turning point came in 2011 when the UFC signed a landmark deal with Fox to give fight promotion – and the once-fledgling sport as a whole – its biggest platform to date. When Anik told his new broadcast partners that he wanted to make the UFC betting odds a bigger part of pre-event programming and fight-night broadcasts, he surprisingly got no pushback.
“We were always encouraged to do that, and at Fox, when I just started reading lines and just made it part of just my flow and my style, George Greenberg, an executive at Fox at the time, was like, ‘Hey, I want you to say the odds for every main-card fight going forward,’” Anik said. “And I was like, ‘You are f’ing right! I will, you know?’
“And that was sort of my first inkling that George was all in and that Fox was all in and obviously the UFC was on board. And the snowball keeps going.”
Fox in front
When the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) in May 2018 and opened the door for states to join Nevada in legal sports betting, broadcasters saw an opening. And Fox was again at the forefront.
But according to Charlie Dixon, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of content and original programming, conceptual discussions for the daily Lock It In sports betting show on FS1 began a few months even before the PASPA repeal.
“I’ve been taking pitches for as long as I’ve been in sports television about gambling in this space,” said Dixon, who previously produced poker broadcasts. “The two biggest pitches I’ve got in my career are gambling focused and ‘I want to do The Daily Show for sports.’”
Lock It In hit the airwaves in September. It wasn’t the first sports betting show, but it certainly had the biggest platform.
Brent Musburger’s VSiN network has streamed online and on SiriusXM since 2017. The TVG Network, a small cable and satellite channel owned by FanDuel Group and dedicated to horse and greyhound racing, partnered with Barstool Sports in September to launch a series of Sunday morning programs devoted to sports betting.
Additionally, CBS Sports’ streaming service CBS Sports HQ hopped on the betting bandwagon that same month with its launch of Sportsline Edge. Sportradar and SportsGrid even recently announced a partnership to develop a 24-hour network on a proprietary platform dedicated to sports betting.
But Fox Sports’ Lock It In was the highest-profile project of its kind upon its launch.
The studio show airs on FS1 daily at 4:30 p.m. EST and features host Rachel Bonnetta, as well as panelists “Cousin Sal” Iacono (of Jimmy Kimmel Live! fame), analyst Clay Travis and former oddsmaker Todd Fuhrman. They focus on the biggest games and biggest sports, with each panelist wagering virtual dollars. That way, Dixon said, there’s a winner and loser – some friendly competition. And who doesn’t like bragging rights?
“The goal of the show and the talent we chose was basically – the analogy I always use is I want it to be like a blackjack table when you’re in Vegas, but the hang is so fun that you stay for one more buy-in,” he said. “That was the goal of the show.”
While Lock It In focuses on the fun, ESPN went with the stats- and information-heavy approach when it launched its program, Daily Wager, in March.
Shortly after the PASPA repeal, ESPN teamed up with the Action Network to roll out I’ll Take That Bet. Former ESPN Editorial Director Chad Millman hosts the sports betting show, which is focused heavily on giving out picks, on the ESPN+ streaming platform. But with Daily Wager, the worldwide leader gave sports betting a home on regular cable TV.
Doug Kezirian hosts the studio show, which airs daily at 6 p.m. EST on ESPNews. It features dozens of ESPN staffers and contributors and focuses heavily on data and analytics. The go-to descriptor for Daily Wager is that it’s SportsCenter through a sports betting eye.”
“I think the biggest compliment I could pay Daily Wager is I feel like it’s been on the air for a long time, even though it’s only a couple (of) months old at this point,” said Ilan Ben-Hanan, who oversees sports betting initiatives as ESPN’s vice president of programming and scheduling. “It feels smart, it feels engaging, the graphic-look is really interesting, and the information is top notch. I think, really, while it’s information for those who engage in sports betting, I think it’s good information, in general, if you’re a sports fan and want a different kind of lens to view an upcoming game.”
However, perhaps the biggest thing Daily Wager has going for it, Ben-Hanan said, is Kezirian, the network’s resident gambling expert and analyst.
“I think sports fans can always sense authenticity, and sports betting fans are no different,” he said. “You know that Doug knows what he’s talking about. You know that he is comfortable in his space. He knows the people he’s talking to. He knows the right kinds of questions to ask.”
What viewers want
Both Fox and ESPN executives downplayed the significance of ratings, especially this early in the shows’ runs. Producers are making small tweaks as they build up an audience because the program is in mostly uncharted territory. Shows such as Lock It In and Daily Wager could eventually mature with its audience of gamblers. However, Joe Lucia, managing editor of Awful Announcing, which covers the sports media space, said casual gamblers will probably always be the focus.
“The current shows have been very – I don’t want to say amateurish, but they’ve been a little geared toward more the casual fan that walks around with a little bit of extra money, and not the hardcore gambler,” he said. “And I think that’s the audience they want to attract right now. They don’t want to attract a guy that listens to eight gambling podcasts a day and has betting accounts at multiple (sportsbooks). They just want to kind of get in with the guy who is interested in gambling but doesn’t do it too often.”
Take for instance Anik, the UFC’s self-proclaimed gambling “degenerate.” You can talk about stats and trends and line movements, but ultimately, he knows what his fellow gamblers want.
“I think free picks will always be king,” he said. “If I’m watching a credentialed sharp – a Vegas-based handicapping type (which) a network is paying to go on their air and give out a free play – more often than not for me as a square better, I’m going to make that play. So, for me, free picks will always be king.”
Giving pickers a platform
However, when it comes to giving out picks, the potential downfall is obvious: What if you’re wrong?
Showtime’s recent four-part docu-series, Action, found that out with dramatic results. The series focuses on folks from all walks of life in the multibillion-dollar sports betting world: professional gamblers, handicappers, content creators and even an illegal bookmaker.
But no one in the series was more of a lightning rod for criticism than “Vegas Dave” Oancea. The social media savant calls himself a “sports information consultant,” but most folks in the industry refer to him as one of the dirtiest four-letter words in sports betting: tout.
Oancea boasts about a completely unrealistic 75% win rate, though even the best handicappers can’t top 57-58% long term. But unlike those free picks you find on shows such as Lock It In, the media-savvy Oancea brags about the millions he makes by giving out picks to his paying customers. Throughout the series, we see his expensive cars, gaudy jewelry and villa in Cabo San Lucas.
When the show aired, sharps and other sports betting proponents decried Oancea’s involvement, with vitriolic tweets often directed at Action producer Bradley Jackson.
“We kind of got that criticism – like, ‘How dare you give him a platform?’” Jackson said. “It’s like, well he’s part of that sports betting industry, whether you like it or not. The more you talk to him, the more you kind of, I guess – I don’t want to say we exposed him.”
However, there’s no other way to put it. Oancea recently avoided 19 felony charges by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor following allegations he used other people’s Social Security numbers to open accounts at various casinos. Producers didn’t shy away from that storyline on Action. They also concluded the series with Oancea’s picks losing badly in the NFC and AFC championship games, as well as the Super Bowl, for customers who paid hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
“The gambling gods were good to us in a way,” Jackson said. “We captured — on camera — him losing several bets that he said were guaranteed wins.”
Bet on future sports betting programming
So, what does the future hold for sports betting programming?
ESPN and Fox Sports executives said they’re open to additional programming but currently focused on their existing shows. Although, smaller players are also likely to continue entering the space.
Additionally, with PASPA repealed and sports betting no longer such a taboo topic, even non-betting programming is likely to have more betting references. A few regional NBC Sports affiliates, for example, have offered alternative, gambling-focused feeds of NBA broadcasts.
Currently, only nine US states have passed legal and regulated sports betting, although legislation is underway in many others. Awful Announcing’s Lucia is optimistic about the future of sports betting programming, though he’s not sure it’ll ever reach its full potential until legal sports betting is nationwide.
“I’d say I’m pretty bullish, but I need more of a nationwide-unified system as opposed to a state-by-state thing,” he said. “Because in the UK, they have betting in like every daily newspaper. They have live specials and offers and all that kind of stuff for soccer. It’s over the top. Whereas here, you can cross state lines and have to deal with a totally different way to bet and places to bet — it can just be so different.
“I would be more optimistic if, nationally, everyone (was) on the same playing field.”