LAS VEGAS, Nevada, USA—When the U.S. Supreme Court speaks to advance social change and justice, people listen: first, the question of medicinal marijuana (2005), then gay marriage (2015) and now sports betting (2018).
When the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Murphy v. National Collegiate Athletic Association on May 14, 2018, it was a shot heard round the gambling world. As the Los Angeles Times reported that day, “the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for an explosion in legalized sports betting across the nation.”
The May 14th Revolution means that no sports news organization is going to remain relevant without addressing sports betting journalism.
Imagine new, perhaps parallel, broadcasts for the NBA that help fans bet “props,” or make special bets, on second-half scoring totals or even on who is going to make or miss a free throw.
What once was an ethical question that kept sports reporters from even mentioning gambling now has become a practical question of how journalism can be valuable to sports bettors.
So how does a journalism school with aspiring sports writers deal with that?
It’s the question that brought me to Sin City for a month and three days to work as an intern at the Vegas Stats & Information Network, or VSiN, a pioneer in sports betting journalism founded 15 months before the Supreme Court ruling.
VSiN is based in the South Point Hotel Casino and Spa “at the tip of the Strip.” If that sounds like paradise, you’re close. Little in Vegas is what it appears to be.
The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, McCarran International Airport and most of the partygoers on the Las Vegas Strip are really not in Las Vegas, but in an unincorporated town called Paradise, created as a tax dodge.
Historical note: mobster Bugsy Siegel of the Flamingo Hotel was friends with U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran, for whom the airport is named.
My Vegas tour of duty brought me full circle to my early days as a journalism professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in the 1980s.
I applied for the VSiN internship to Bill Adee, VSiN’s chief operating officer, who was my student at Medill 35 years ago.
He introduced me to broadcasting legend Brent Musburger (CBS Sports, ABC, ESPN), VSiN’s lead anchor and managing editor, who attended Medill 60 years ago.
All three of us knew and admired Medill professor Ben Baldwin, my faculty colleague, who helped Musburger break into his Chicago journalism career in the ‘50s. Baldwin earned his Medill master’s degree in 1946, the same year the Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants for the NFL Championship.
The highlight of my internship was an 8-minute, 16-second interview by Musburger on VSiN’s signature program, “My Guys in the Desert.” The program’s title is a sly reference to bookies in Nevada, which until the May 14th Revolution was the only state to allow single-game wagering on sporting events.
As much as VSiN provides curriculum-in-the-making, universities are just beginning to explore what to teach about sports betting journalism and how.
One professor wrestling with the issue, another Medill grad, is John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Pennsylvania State University. He was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press for 22 years after earning his master’s degree from Medill in 1991.
The AP “has long provided point spreads—the number of points teams are expected to win or lose by—to its clients,” Affleck wrote in The Conversation (“As states legalize sports betting, will sports media go all-in?”), an article picked up by the wire service. “But expect its offerings to expand.”
COLLEGE RECRUITING: Number Rises for Sports Majors
If the AP is going to expand sports betting coverage, then the issue becomes even more pressing for university programs that increasingly cater to their students’ interests in sports careers.
Here’s a glimpse at 15 universities with significant sports journalism programs in 15 states:
- Alabama (20 professors and instructors)
- Florida (9 courses)
- Georgia (certificate program led by ex-USA Today Olympics correspondent)
- Illinois (3 classes)
- Indiana (3 classes)
- Kansas (2 key classes, plus electives)
- Maryland (Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism)
- North Carolina (Sports Writing, plus 2 or 3 courses)
- Ohio State (2 courses)
- Oklahoma (3 courses)
- Ole Miss (3 courses)
- Penn State (Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society is director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism)
- UMass (4 faculty)
- University of Southern California (8 featured faculty)
- West Virginia (minor, 1 Sport Journalism class)
Mississippi became the third state—after Delaware and New Jersey—to legalize sports betting on Aug. 1, 2018. VSiN began selling two sports betting stories a week in July to the Sun Herald newspaper in Biloxi, Mississippi.
ESPN’s sports-betting bill tracker puts West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and New York in the “on-deck circle.”
The only state considered off the board is Utah, where its constitution prohibits gambling, whether it be lottery tickets, table games or sports betting.
No coincidence that U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, responded to the May 14th Revolution with a shot of his own: the threat of federal legislation to turn all this into a house of cards.
The Supreme Court’s ruling made it clear that Congress could regulate the sports betting industry if it chose to do so.
Vegas is not shaking in its cowboy boots for three reasons: Hatch has announced his retirement, cash-strapped states see tax revenue in legalized sports betting like what they saw in legalizing recreational marijuana sales, and Congress’ record of doing anything has casino owners betting the under.
Too much money is flowing, and in Nevada the wave peaked again last year. Total revenue from sports wagering in 2017 — $248.8 million — set a record topping $231.8 million in 2015. About 5 percent of all wagers last year went to the “sports books,” or the establishments that take bets and pay out winnings.
That’s legal sports betting. The American Gaming Association estimated that Americans wagered more than $4.6 billion illegally on the 2018 Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles.
If you think that’s big, try college basketball. AGA estimated more than $10 billion was bet on the 2018 NCAA March Madness tournament, only 3 percent, or $300 million, legally.
VSiN: “We Change the Way You Watch Sports”
You can bet journalism schools need to do something. But what exactly?
The answer lies somewhere in the VSiN Graduate School of Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship. One of my three days in June gave me the best example of VSiN’s motto, “We change the way you watch sports.”
At a packed outdoor arena, across from The D Hotel on Fremont Street downtown, I witnessed the last heroic gasp of the upstart Golden Knights in Game 5 of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals on June 7.
You may remember this moment: A Golden Knight goes flying into the goal along with the hockey puck, and the home crowd freezes around a central question: goal or no goal?
“No goal,” says Adee, VSiN’s COO and former sports editor at both the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune.
“That’s a goal,” says his old professor, a former assistant metro editor at the Tribune who handled a lot of crime stories. “That man was a victim, not a perpetrator.”
Endlessly, review after review, the crowd waits. Then the former student teaches his old professor a lesson.
“In Europe they would be betting right now on whether it’s a goal or not,” he says. “The future is in-game betting on an app.”
Imagine the quaint old days when you bet your team to win, a straight bet, before the game started.
Or maybe you didn’t care who won. You bet a prop, the over/under, on the total number of goals scored in the Golden Knights’ game against the Washington Capitals regardless of who won (7, as the final score was 4-3).
Or maybe you bet another proposition, that the first goal would be scored by the Capitals’ captain, Alexander Ovechkin, “the Great 8,” one of the best players never to win a Stanley Cup (until this night). Sorry, his teammate Jakub Vrana scored the first goal.
But now the question is about the fourth goal of the game: did the Knights’ Tomas Tatar score or not?
Goal! If you bet on the old professor, you won.
Now think of what all this gambling talk means for the hockey play-by-play announcer. What does he say, or does he just ignore it?
What if his “color” analyst is green? Imagine a sideline reporter who keeps the bettor’s money in mind.
In Las Vegas the dean of sports betting journalists is Matt Youmans, VSiN’s senior editor. Youmans joined VSiN after 24 years in the newspaper business. He started in Chicago and Indianapolis, then worked for 16 years at the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
He was the sports betting columnist, the beat writer for UNLV basketball and a reporter who covered the NFL, including the Oakland Raiders’ planned move to Las Vegas in 2020.
“Matt was the first guy we went after,” said Brian Musburger, VSiN’s founder and CEO and a veteran Chicago media and sports agent.
Brian had encouraged his uncle, Brent, and father, Todd Musburger, a Chicago attorney who once worked the murder unit in the public defender’s office, to join him in the VSiN startup venture.
Brian’s vision is to have VSiN cover the markets of money wagered on sporting events like CNBC covers the stock market for investors.
Brian’s wife, Michelle, runs her own public relations agency. As she tells it, VSiN is “the first multi-channel sports media company dedicated to providing news, analysis and proprietary data to the millions of Americans who bet on sports and make gambling a multibillion-dollar industry. … A dedicated SiriusXM Radio channel is among the platforms on which VSiN is available, which also include live video streaming, web, mobile and social.”
Todd Musburger called VSiN a “pup tent without a rain flap” when it launched with a Super Bowl preview on Feb. 5, 2017.
That’s when the Musburgers turned to Adee for his expertise and lured him away from Chicago and Tribune Publishing, once named Tronc.
“There is no one better at monetizing digital content or creative dealmaking than Bill,” Brian Musburger told Robert Feder, a longtime Chicago media beat writer. “His understanding of the digital landscape and background in sports journalism make him the perfect choice to guide a sports gaming startup.”
Adee brought in his former Sun-Times boss, Rick Jaffe, as VSiN’s executive producer. Jaffe was a sports editor at the Chicago Sun-Times and the Los Angeles Times before becoming senior vice president for news at FOX Sports overseeing broadcast and digital operations.
BREAKING NEWS: A Day in the Busy Life of VSiN
Every day, maybe every 30 seconds, is a juggling act at VSiN to present “The News You Need to Win” on satellite SiriusXM radio and live video streaming on the website.
During a live broadcast of “My Guys in the Desert” on Aug. 1, 2018, the producer, Greg “Hoops” Peterson, broke the news that Ohio State’s football coach, Urban Meyer, had just been put on administrative leave.
Immediately VSiN special contributor Chris Andrews, the South Point’s sports book director, excused himself in mid-interview to leave the VSiN studio to suspend wagering on Ohio State.
On July 4th “Hoops” quietly dealt with a holiday near-death experience in the studio after successfully completing the second-annual VSiN Great Hot Dog Eating Contest by downing five hot dogs in five minutes.
When he pointed in distress to his throat, as the last dog didn’t sit well, producer Brian Rogers deftly performed the Heimlich maneuver, then returned to work.
Hoops and his accomplishment paled in comparison with another VSiN story: a “bad beat.” Judges choked and miscounted at Nathan’s Famous July Fourth hot dog eating contest on Coney Island, New York.
A bad beat occurs when a bettor instantly goes from winning a bet to losing the bet.
Joey Chestnut set a record, downing 74 wieners and buns in 10 minutes, but he was originally credited with eating only 64. Then, ESPN reported, someone realized two empty plates of Chestnut’s were not counted.
Mistakes mean money in the world of sports betting.
On a typical day in the Vegas studio, lights brighten the anchor desk for hosts and guests as graphics specialists, producers and technicians work quietly alongside or behind a glass partition. Here’s a sample daily rundown:
4 to 7 a.m.: “Follow the Money” with Mitch Moss and Pauly Howard, seasoned radio personalities who provide drive-time coverage (7 a.m. to 10 a.m.) to New York City radio listeners.
7 to 9 a.m. PT: “A Numbers Game” with Gill Alexander, a lone wolf sports handicapper steeped in analytics.
Noon to 2 p.m. PT: “The Edge” with veteran Matt Youmans and Sam Panayotovich, a Chicago sports blogger and radio personality, or analyst Jonathan Von Tobel.
2 to 3 p.m. PT: “Between the Sidelines,” a specialty program on college and pro football, with Youmans and Panayotovich. In July this specialty slot was filled with World Cup, golf and NASCAR coverage.
3 to 5 p.m. PT, prime time 6-8 p.m. in New York City: “My Guys in the Desert,” starring Brent Musburger with oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo and senior analyst Amal Shah along with the legendary bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro and other guests, including Josh Towers, a journeyman right-hander who pitched for the New York Yankees in 2009 when they won the World Series.
Weaving in and out of the studio is broadcast veteran Ron Flatter doing live 1-minute reads of the VSiN Action Updates. Such updates, with setups by Brent Musburger, air on terrestrial radio stations, and VSiN has partnered with Cheddar Big News, the Arena Football League and other outlets to provide content.
With rebroadcasts VSiN aspires to air 24/7 on radio and on its website with video streaming.
Outside the small, glass-encased studio you can see a massive lighted sports book, listing bets by numbers, as multiple TV screens show games or matches over the heads of ticket writers. Big comfortable seats can accommodate hundreds of bettors with a bar on one side and a $1.25 hot dog stand, usually with a long line, on the other side.
Passers-by stop to look into the studio while a VSiN program airs on one of the big TV screens. A nickel ($500 bet) for every time you can read their lips: “That’s Brent Musburger.”
INVESTORS: Laying a Bet on VSiN
VSiN is a big bet itself. It is built on a subscription revenue model, whether listeners are tuned into SiriusXM radio on Channel 204 or whether readers are subscribing to Point Spread Weekly for one issue ($9.99) or for $249.99 a year, which includes NFL and college football guides, also sold separately ($14.99).
Subscribers get a daily newsletter, and on the website (vsin.com) you can find podcasts, news stories and advertising, including VSiN merchandise with slogans like: “It’s Not Under Until It’s Over.”
Both high rollers come from the East, where the dominoes began to fall in VSiN’s favor three weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
On June 5, 2018, Delaware became the first state beyond Nevada to legalize full-scale sports betting with Gov. John Carney placing a winning $10 bet on the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team to defeat the Chicago Cubs.
National Public Radio ended its news article on Delaware with this:
“Some gambling-addiction researchers are worried about the consequences of legalizing sports gambling. If you or a loved one have a gambling problem, consider calling the National Council on Problem Gambling’s hotline.”
That didn’t stop New Jersey, which followed within days to become the second state, behind Delaware, to legalize sports betting, “opening a new market of state-sanctioned gambling expected to lift the fortunes of racetracks and increase the allure of Atlantic City as a destination.”
In July the FanDuel Sportsbook, allowing betting on all major U.S. sports, opened at the Meadowlands Racetrack near where the NFL’s New York Jets and New York Giants will play.
Football is king in sports betting in Nevada (nearly 37 percent) with wagers on college football now rivaling pro football.
Vaccaro, VSiN’s senior linemaker, told the New York Times that last year for three consecutive weeks, for the first time that he could remember, betting on college football at South Point surpassed betting on the NFL by as much as $400,000.
Legalizing sports betting across the states raises fears of point-shaving scandals in college where Brent Musburger believes the students are more vulnerable than the pros.
More scrutiny of injury reports, especially at universities unaccustomed to pro-like reporting measures, are expected this fall. That’s one way sports reporting will change.
In July Brent Musburger, at 79 years old, signed a three-year contract to be the new play-by-play voice on radio for the Oakland Raiders, which will move to Las Vegas in 2020.
For aspiring sportscasters in the era of legalized sports betting, Musburger will be the one to watch, given his VSiN connection and his pioneering work at CBS Sports as host of “The NFL Today” with Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, sports commentator and Las Vegas bookmaker, dating back to 1976.
“You are looking live …” is a catchphrase that Musburger coined at CBS as a way to tip gamblers to weather conditions in live shots at football stadiums a half-hour before kickoff.
Betting “the under” for total points scored in a game looked better to those gamblers, who couldn’t otherwise see a snowstorm in Chicago for a Bears game or a thunderstorm in Tampa Bay for a Buccaneers game.
SUPREME SUNSHINE: Bringing Betting Out of the Dark
In those sly days, when sports betting was in the shadows, Jimmy the Greek was a “prognosticator,” Musburger told the New York Times.
“It’s more fun to watch the game if you have a few bucks on it and in this day and age of information, it’s time to bring it in out of the dark,” Musburger said. “Gamblers are smart people. Let’s treat them like it.”
“Touts” sell betting tips to gamblers and operate on the shady side. VSiN aspires to operate in the Supreme Court sunshine as an independent voice like CNBC.
Just as CNBC’s Jim Cramer offers stock picks, VSiN publishes stories daily in the New York Post with headlines like, “How to bet on the Jets if you really must.”
Journalism is all about finding the right angle to interest readers, viewers and listeners, and delivering news in the proper voice. The value of journalism, just like with betting, comes when people put up their money, whether they be investors, advertisers or subscribers.
When CNBC covered Delaware’s jump into legalized sports betting, the story was written under “Personal Finance,” focused on tax implications for winnings and included a sidebar interview entitled, “Here’s why sports betting won’t be beneficial to state economies.“
So be warned, you state lawmakers. Nonetheless, a study by Eilers & Krejcik Gaming suggests that 32 states will likely have sports betting within five years, and of those, 14 would have some form of sports gambling within two years.
VSiN’s motto is, “We change the way you watch sports.” Now the challenge for journalism schools is to teach aspiring sports reporters and editors how to change the way sports are covered with the bettor in mind.