Sports Media’s Big Gamble on the Betting Industry

With the gambling websites DraftKings and MGM Resorts adorn the Green Monster scoreboard in left field as Boston Red Sox Rafael Devers (11) warms up before a baseball game at Fenway Park.
( Charles Krupa / AP Photo )

Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.

Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. This weekend will mark the grand finale of College Basketball's biggest event.

News clip: ESPN, NCAA College Basketball Action.

Brooke Gladstone: The big dance, as it's known, is also the biggest in terms of money expected to change hands.

News clip: The American Gaming Association predicts an estimated $2.72 billion will be wagered on the tournaments.

News clip: An estimated 68 million Americans wagered on March Madness last year. That number is expected to soar.

Brooke Gladstone: All this because in 2018 the Supreme Court overturned the 1992 law banning state-regulated sports gambling. 38 states and counting legalized sports betting and the industry exploded. You've probably seen the ads.

News clip: You think life is short, football is short. The regular season is just 18 weeks so cherish every over and under before it's over on FanDuel.

News clip: Looking for jackpots? Right this way.

News clip: The DraftKings new sports book app. It's easy. All you have to do is download it, make a deposit, pick a sport, place a bet. Boom goes to dynamite, out comes the cash. Simple.

Brooke Gladstone: Online sports books, the standard of 21st-century bookmakers aren't the only kind of business taking advantage of the legal gambling market.

News clip: CBS sports is making a big move into sports betting.

News clip: All have media partners. DraftKings has Turner, BET MGM has Yahoo.

News clip: Starting this September, Disney is relaunching Penn's Barstool Sportsbook as ESPN Bet.

Brooke Gladstone: Almost every major national sports outlet, ESPN, The Athletic, Bleacher Report, NBC, CBS, The Ringer has partnered with at least one of the four major sports betting companies in the country, FanDuel, DraftKings, MGM, and Caesars. Big money is changing hands. What does that mean for sports journalism? On the Media producer, Rebecca Clark-Callender has that story.

Brian Moritz: There are two top-of-mind ways that I think a sports journalism gambling scandal could erupt.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Brian Moritz is an associate professor and sports media scholar at St. Bonaventure University.

Brian Moritz: First one is like journalism insider information. When as a reporter you find out somebody's not going to play, somebody is injured. You grab your phone and there are two apps next to each other. One is Twitter, the other one is FanDuel.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Moritz says this particular scenario is unlikely because major sports leagues are monitored constantly. An MLB or WNBA or NFL Player can't twist an ankle without everyone knowing, and a reporter would lose credibility for a gambling-first approach. Improbable but not impossible. Then there's scenario number two.

Brian Moritz: A reporter working for a media outlet that has a partnership with a sports book reporting information that directly influences a betting line.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: This actually happened just before last year's NBA draft.

Brian Moritz: One of the things that you can bet on is who is getting drafted in what position. Who goes first overall, who goes second, who goes third? What happened in the summer of 2023 was Shams Charania, he covers the NBA for the Athletic and he's one of the top insiders in this realm. He also has a partnership with FanDuel.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Charania has 2.2 million followers on X. His ESPN counterpart, Adrian Wojnarowski has 6.3 million. NBA insiders raced to get news first, and when they tweet something, it's gospel. Moritz said when he first heard rumors about the death of Kobe Bryant, he didn't really believe it was real until Wojnarowski tweeted it. Anyways, back to Shams.

Brian Moritz: What Shams did was he tweeted out on draft night that Scoot Henderson was gaining serious momentum to go number two with the Charlotte Hornets. That went against what was the accepted wisdom. That report from Shams shifted the betting lines.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Henderson went from an underdog to a heavy favorite for the second pick, and people bet on it because you can still make money on favorites as long as you're willing to put up big bucks. Not to mention some who gambled on other prospects going third, and then.

Announcer 2: With the second pick in the 2023 NBA draft, the Charlotte Hornets select Brandon Miller.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Shams was accused of intentionally warping the betting lines and he was hit with a wave of criticism on YouTube and X. FanDuel had to publish a statement saying they didn't have access to Shams' reporting before he shared it.

Brian Moritz: Shams has denied this and there's never been any reporting to suggest that this was motivated by the gambling line.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Since Shams had only said Henderson was gaining momentum, the scandal petered out, but Moritz said credibility as an insider comes down to perception. Journalists who gamble on their beat or enter partnerships with sports books are taking a risk. How sports reporters should manage the relationship with an industry so closely tied to their profession has been a question from the start.

Danny Funt: At the very first pro baseball games, there was very active, enthusiastic betting in the stands with people taking bets on whether the next pitch would be a ball or a strike, whether the wind would change directions.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: That's Danny Funt, a contributor to the Washington Post who has written extensively about the gambling world. In 2021, he penned an article for Columbia Journalism Review titled All In, Detailing the History of the Media's Relationship with Sports Betting. He says the story begins with 19th-century baseball

Danny Funt: When the National League was formed around that time, its founders were adamant that this was an opportunity to stamp out sports betting so that you could go to a game and just be a casual fan without having betting rubbed in your face.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Despite best intentions, some 40 years later, they still hadn't eradicated the scourge. The Black Sox scandal, where eight members of the Chicago White Sox were accused of taking bribes to lose the 1919 World Series scarred major league baseball for decades, but intentionally losing games for kickbacks wasn't limited to baseball. Las Vegas started taking bets in the late 1940s. Just two years later, Max Case, sports editor of the New York Journal American won a Pulitzer for uncovering college basketball players taking bribes.

The bad press motivated Congress in the 1950s to enact a 10% tax on sports gambling revenue and in 1961 to pass the Federal Wire Act criminalizing the use of wires to place bets or share gambling information across state lines. While plenty of investigative work shone a light on gambling's dark side, media also benefited from the action.

Brian Moritz: People who gamble are like your best readers.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Brian Moritz.

Brian Moritz: They care about everything. What is a gambler's edge? It's information.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Studies have shown sports betters watch significantly more games than non-betters do, the kind of devoted audience a news outlet would go to any lengths to lock in. In 1976, CBS hired Jimmy the Greek Snyder for their NFL pregame show. Jimmy, a Vegas odds maker and columnist was just freshly pardoned by President Ford for a felony conviction under the Federal Wire Act. He was known to drop some not-so-subtle hints.

Jimmy Snyder: -feel about that without Darrell Green to watch Mr. Carter or to return those punts. He's a big man out of the lineup, offensively and defensively. It would make a difference of at least two points.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Jimmy eventually got fired for making racist comments. Over on NBC, there was Pete Axthelm, who tried to split the difference between light-hearted gambling reports and darker ones.

Pete Axthelm: We've had some fun trying to pick winners, maybe even bet on them. There's a side to gambling that can be as bleak as this New York winter day outside this betting parlor.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Mickey Charles, who wrote a gambling column for the Philadelphia Inquirer and correctly predicted the Super Bowl final score on The Today Show in 1978. He later became a broadcaster on a brand-new channel, ESPN.


Rebecca Clark-Callender: Launched in 1979, the fledgling sports channel broadcast a gambling show from Caesars Palace during the NFL playoffs.


Danny Funt: The exact same thing happened with HBO soon after its founding.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Danny Funt.

Danny Funt: They were airing a show explicitly catered to sports betters.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Newspapers, along with television, were taking notice of gambling customers. In a report released in the late '80s, an associated press survey found that between 1982 and 1984, the number of papers running betting lines jumped 20% for college football and 10% for the NFL. Altogether, three-quarters of the 125 papers surveyed had football spreads. Then in 1992, Congress flipped the table.

Dennis DeConcini: The Professional Amateur Sporting Protection Act.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Arizona Senator Dennis DeConcini.

Dennis DeConcini: States would not be allowed to sponsor, authorize, or license sports lotteries or any other type of sports betting that is based on the outcome of professional or amateur games.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: PAPSA, as the bill was known, brought sports gambling, along with its growing presence in sports media, to an abrupt halt for nearly 30 years. Slowly, in its absence, a new business sprung up.

Albert Chen: FanDuel and DraftKings. They were two very small startup companies, one founded in the UK, one founded out of a townhouse in Boston.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Albert Chen worked at Sports illustrated for nearly 20 years, and he's the author of Billion Dollar Fantasy: The High Stakes Game Between FanDuel and DraftKings That Upended Sports in America.

Albert Chen: They grew over a handful of years because of an absolute avalanche of advertising which caught the attention of a lot of lawmakers and prosecutors who thought, "What are these companies? They sure sound like gambling companies," when in fact these ads were about fantasy sports.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Fantasy sports were legally classified as games of skill, not chance, meaning they escaped the regulations.

Albert Chen: By 2015, these two companies were advertising so much that on an NFL Sunday in September of 2015, there was an ad from one of these two companies on TV every 90 seconds.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Wow.

Albert Chen: They were the biggest advertisers in America, bigger than any car company, bigger than Geico.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: DraftKings and FanDuel allowed people to put money on sports from their couches and across state lines without catching a flight to Vegas. Casinos felt unfairly restricted and left out of the profits, leading New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to bring a suit.

Reporter 10: Breaking news, the Supreme Court this morning striking down the federal ban on sports betting. Now it leaves it up to the--

Albert Chen: When that moment happens in 2018, these two companies already have a leg up. Their actual products were very good. When you're an MGM or Caesars, those are legacy casino gambling companies that have to build up infrastructure for the tech. It takes a long time and you almost have to reinvent yourself as a company.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Reinvent they did. Everyone had an app, a casino in your pocket where the house is a computer. Now they were all competing for new features, not a neon-lit promenade or velvet-covered lounge, but micro bets, which looked a lot like what was happening in those 19th century baseball stands.

Danny Funt: It's funny. We've come full circle in letting people take bets in the stands.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Danny Funt.

Danny Funt: Full circle and letting them bet on all sorts of ridiculous minutia whether the runner on first will try to steal second or whether this next play in a football game will be a run or a pass.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Like the final play of this year's Super Bowl, Kansas City Chiefs are lined up eight seconds to go in overtime. They're down by three points. I can bet on whether or not the next possession results in a touchdown.

Danny Funt: Not just the biggest play of the Super Bowl, but literally every play of every game just about. It's really turning sports betting into like pulling the handle on a slot machine. Instant gratification. If betting once every few hours is addictive, imagine what betting once every few minutes is.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Coincidentally, around the late 2010s, sports media needed cash. Between 2011 and 2017, ESPN lost nearly 13 million television subscribers as Holmes cut the cord. Time Warner parted ways with Sports Illustrated in 2017. Of course, there was 2020.

News clip: This astounding and unprecedented story continues to evolve at halftime with Adrian Wojnarowski. He has just tweeted within the past two minutes that the NBA is suspending the season.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Media companies in need of a revenue boost found saviors in gambling companies with ad dollars to spend. Meanwhile, DraftKings is paying the Chicago Cubs $100 million over the next 10 years to open a betting parlor adjacent to Wrigley Field. FanDuel is the official betting partner of the NBA and the thin veil, broadcasters like Jimmy the Greek sat behind, dropped.

News clip: An 11-point difference which is a very significant number to a few of our friends.

News clip: A few, indeed.

News clip: Since games don't end with a 10 and a half point difference, and you know what I'm talking about.

Bomani Jones: It's one thing if we're playing a game on television or we're watching it and they're like, "Hey, you can do this, hey, if you want to gamble or whatever."

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Sports commentator Bomani Jones on CNN last month.

Bomani Jones: The crux of the broadcast now seems more and more geared toward making people gamble than it is talking about the games.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Now, some reporters had long argued that gambling was worth coverage, like Chad Millman, former editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine, who established a gambling beat filled with actual reporting on the industry.

Danny Funt: He was pushing the boundaries at ESPN to take it seriously as a coverage subject. Then he broke off and helped found a site called The Action Network that provides a lot of betting analysis and content for mainstream publications across the country, all sorts of newspapers from the New York Post to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: The Action Network has contracts with sports books. When you read their content on a newspaper's website and click a link to place a bet, they and the paper receive a one-time fee for directing you there, or in some cases, they get what they call a revenue share.

Danny Funt: Which is essentially a cut of our lifetime losses betting on sports.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Wow.

Danny Funt: You've got these outlets presenting themselves to readers as, "We're going to help you beat the sports books." Then behind the scenes, they're profiting on the money we lose betting on sports. It's something I think a lot of people, even hardcore sports fans, are oblivious to.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: When gambling companies and the media companies that are in bed with them are making money off of our losses, it's not in their best interest to address the elephant in the room.

Danny Funt: There are people who say you should never write about sports betting without saying it's an addictive product with deceptive business practices that's hurting millions of Americans' health and financial well-being. I get that. It's something I grapple with in my work.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Something else to grapple with is that doing a deal with a betting site isn't without risk.

News clip: Sports Illustrated has laid off most of its employees. That's according to a union for the magazine's workers and the News Guild of New York.

Danny Funt: Sports Illustrated is a great example of why sports betting cash isn't a panacea. Just like ESPN, they licensed their equally storied name to a sports book. In a number of states, you could bet on the Sports Illustrated app. That wasn't enough to right the ship.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: After Funt and I spoke, Sports Illustrated's publishing rights were acquired by Israel's Minute Media. He says the magazine's woes should be a warning shot for everyone else.

Danny Funt: There's a very aggressive push to acquire customers when states legalize. In a place like North Carolina now, their airwaves are blanketed with ads. New players like Fanatics and the British company Bet365, when they enter the picture, they advertise extremely aggressively. That's going to dry up and they're going to want to be profitable before too long and be a little stingier with their advertising dollars.

Brian Moritz: Gambling gets legalized, it becomes accessible. Money floods the market. There's a lot of genuine interest about it. All right, cool.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Brian Moritz.

Brian Moritz: Now let's take a breath. Let's start putting up our walls here. It comes back to the audience and making sure that when we report something about their favorite team, they can trust that it's being reported to them, not to get them to bet on it, but to inform them. I think framing all of our ethical guidelines from that perspective, that's the path forward for sports journalism.

Rebecca Clark-Callender: Without that, sports media is gambling with its own reputation with its journalists and with consumers' money. Who knows, maybe it will all work out, but rule one of sitting down at any table is never bet more than you're willing to lose. For On the Media, I'm Becca Clark-Callender.


Micah Loewinger: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Candice Wang, with help from Shaan Merchant.

Brooke Gladstone: Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week are Andrew Nerviano and Brendan Dalton. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger.



Copyright © 2024 New York Public Radio. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use at for further information.

New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.

WNYC Studios