Old ESPN Stars Sign On With Gambling Ventures in New Media Push

Old ESPN Stars Sign On With Gambling Ventures in New Media Push

For the past several years, sports-betting companies have been gobbling up commercial time during the breaks in all manner of sports programming. Now the sportsbooks are trying a new tactic — taking over the programming too. 

“Rather than buy media or rent media, they’re saying, ‘Let’s create media,’” said Chris Grove, a partner at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, an independent research firm.

As a result, a growing wave of veteran sports media personalities are leaving behind traditional outlets — at a time when many are looking to cut costs — and creating video segments, streaming shows, radio programs and podcasts directly on behalf of sports-betting companies.

Old ESPN Stars Sign On With Gambling Ventures in New Media Push

In August, Caesars Entertainment Inc. announced it was hiring Trey Wingo, a former, longtime on-air personality for ESPN, to serve in a newly created role as “the chief trends officer and brand ambassador” for the company’s sports betting operation. Wingo now anchors a series of web videos in which he analyzes the potential outcomes of upcoming NFL games, using the same rapid-fire cadence and stinging one-liners that once made him a longtime fixture on ESPN. 

The concise, punchy segments, heavily branded with the Caesars name, are posted on YouTube and other social media networks. In the fine print at the bottom of the screen, there’s a number for a hotline that gambling addicts can call to get help.

“What’s that old line from Watergate? ‘Follow the money,’” Wingo said in an interview. “This is where everything is headed.”

Since 2018, when the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban, some 30 states have legalized sports betting, touching off a fierce competition for customers among a crowded field of companies, which includes rivals DraftKings Inc. and FanDuel, a division of Flutter Entertainment Plc. According to research firm Kantar Media, DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesars Sportsbook spent $236 million combined on TV ads from January through September of this year, compared with $119 million during the same period a year ago. 

Amid the deluge of ads, the companies are also searching for additional strategies to mint loyal customers. Sharon Otterman, a former ESPN executive who is chief marketing officer of Caesars Sportsbook, said that hiring on-air personalities from popular TV networks helps people develop an “emotional connection” to the brand and better understand the complexities of placing bets. 

“We’re trying to make it easier for people to begin,” Otterman said. “Sports betting is a new language and a new way of thinking about sports. When it’s all data and numbers that can be overwhelming.”

In September, in addition to Wingo, Caesars hired Kenny Mayne, another former ESPN star. Mayne now hosts a series of Caesars web videos in which his cartoon avatar explains the basics of sports betting.

Recently, sportsbooks have shown a willingness to write big checks for popular personalities. Last week, Pat McAfee, a former NFL punter who has worked for ESPN, struck a deal with FanDuel in which his company will be paid a reported $30 million per year. Since retiring from the league, McAfee has built a following through his satellite radio show. Under the new deal, FanDuel will make special offers to McAfee’s listeners, and its name will appear on a complex that will house his redesigned production studio, a lounge, a basketball court and a golf simulator.

Some betting companies are going one step further and scooping up entire media outlets. This past spring, Better Collective A/S, a European sports betting media group, bought the Action Network, a site devoted to betting news and analysis.  Last year, Penn National Gaming Inc. purchased a stake in online publisher Barstool Sports. Earlier this year, DraftKings acquired the Vegas Sports Information Network Inc. (VSiN), a media company focused on sports betting with a lineup that features longtime sportscaster Brent Musburger.

Musburger left ESPN in 2017 to help his nephew, Brian Musburger, launch the company. He says that making the jump was easy.

“The old school media landscape in which I worked has changed completely,” said Musburger. “The money is over on the sports betting landscape.”

Musburger now lives in Las Vegas, where he starts his days checking point spreads. He regularly goes to VSiN’s two broadcast studios, one of which is located inside the South Point Hotel & Casino, a sprawling resort not far from the Las Vegas Strip that features an equestrian center, a bowling alley and, per its website, a vast all-you-can-eat buffet featuring “six live cooking stations” and weekend prime-rib brunches with bottomless mimosas. Musburger appears across VSiN’s betting shows, which are distributed via streaming video, audio services and cable-TV.

All of which may feel a galaxy away from the storied traditions of the gilded, East Coast, broadcast and cable TV sports divisions, which have ruled over the American sports universe for the past half century or so. But Wingo, for one, said his new job isn’t all that different from what he did at ESPN. It’s just that now, as sports betting has become more widely accepted, he can be more candid on the air about something that long required coy intimation. 

“We used to say, ‘This field goal is really important for some people wink wink, nudge nudge,’” Wingo said. “We’re finally not pretending anymore.”

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