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Frustrations Grow In Sports Radio Markets Without Legal Sports Betting

“Every other radio station and media entity in states where it’s legal, the minute it goes legal, are asking how quickly they can get in and how much money can we make off it.”

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When I was growing up in central Kentucky, I lived for two years in what was known as a “dry county”. That is one where alcohol could not be sold. The financial impact on local stores and restaurants was significant. The county eventually was forced to relent and allow sales in certain areas.

As a sixteen-year-old, it made no sense to me that people were allowed to drink alcohol and bring it home from neighboring counties, so long as they didn’t purchase it in the one we lived in. The way I saw it, they were going to drink one way or another–you might as well benefit from it financially. 

Now as an adult, I am having the same thoughts regarding sports betting. With 34 states having legalized wagering on athletic events and states such as California and Missouri possibly doing so this calendar year, it makes little sense to me that multiple states refuse to allow their citizens to do so. They are ceding millions of tax dollars to neighboring states every month. 

While an annoyance to the individuals who are unable to place wagers when they choose to, there is a tangible impact on the bottom line of businesses around the country. One of the hardest hit is the sports radio industry, which is unable to reap benefits from the windfall that comes along with legalization. I spoke with multiple individuals in the industry last week from states that have yet to pass legislation, despite multiple efforts, to gauge how they view the situation.

“It is bad for business what the state of Kentucky is doing,” says Andy Sweeney, program director for ESPN 680 WHBE in Louisville and host of The Take with Andy Sweeney.

Kentucky is in a truly unique situation. The state shares a border with seven states, more than any other in the union. It will soon be an oasis of no sports betting.

“All the states around us have passed it once Missouri is done, and some of them have been gambling for years, like Indiana. Our advertising and marketing would go up substantially.”

Sweeney is not the only person who knows there would be a tsunami of advertising dollars flooding their market. The Adam Gold Show, on 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh, North Carolina is syndicated across the state, and host Adam Gold says the legalization of sports wagering in the state would be game-changing.

“BetMGM, Caesars, DraftKings, FanDuel; there’s probably a dozen reputable gambling entities that, as soon as it became legalized, would be throwing money at sports radio stations hand over fist, and honestly, it might be the total-game changer when it comes to sports radio advertisement.”

Gold recalled how much money was thrown their way a few years ago when daily fantasy sports became legal in the state, laughing as he pointed out he was doing ads for DraftKings while his then co-host was doing the same for FanDuel. 

David Schultz echoed those thoughts when I spoke with him regarding efforts in Alabama. The program director of 105.5 WNSP in Mobile is also the host of The Game Plan. He knows the money is there to be made.

“I’m sure we’d get DraftKings and other sportsbooks involved,” he said, “so it’s a loss of revenue for the station, that’s for sure. And that’s a frustration. We’re all looking to profit from it.” 

Schultz also lamented the tax dollars being allowed to leave one of the poorest states in the country, with his listeners driving an hour away to Mississippi to place wagers while they listen to his show.

“I think it’s sad they didn’t take advantage of Florida screwing it up,” he said. “I think it’s foolish that everybody’s got it, and some people don’t want it for whatever reason. It seems to be good for the state.”

However, he pointed out that many opposed to gambling were doing so for selfish reasons. “When it comes to sports gambling, greed is going to be involved.”

In Florida, sports wagering was actually allowed briefly in the fall of 2021 on a trial basis, but it quickly was shut down after a court ruled against its legality. While the Seminole Tribe is appealing the decisions, many doubt it will be a settled issue until 2023 at the earliest.

For John Mamola, the program director at 95.3 WDAE in Tampa, the entire situation even tempted him to try it out a bit. While not a gambler himself, he attests to the appetite in his state for its legalization. 

“They know this is the golden goose,” Mamola said regarding the growing partnerships surrounding sports betting. “Every other radio station and media entity in states where it’s legal, the minute it goes legal, are asking how quickly they can get in and how much money can we make off it.”

He also pointed out that DraftKings has a partnership with his parent company iHeart Radio, and legalization would immediately lead to additional advertising opportunities for his station. 

While some of the arguments against sports gambling are valid, such as the threat of addiction, there are others based on awful rationale. Last Friday, Sweeney was joined by Kentucky house representative Al Gentry, after legislation failed, despite having enough votes to pass it, due to the Republican super-majority refusing to allow it to come to vote without “a majority of the majority” being in support of the bill.

Gentry addressed concerns from fellow state senator C. B. Embry, who claimed legalizing sports gambling would lead to college players throwing games.

“Let’s face it, he’s a little bit ignorant on some of these issues,” Gentry said, “but unfortunately, you run into that in Frankfort on certain issues. When you deal with these individuals that just don’t keep up on modern times, it’s frustrating.”

Sweeney echoed that frustration, borne in part by his unique situation of being an Indiana resident who works in Kentucky. Given his station is located less than five miles from the Indiana border, advertisements for legalized sports wagering play daily on his airwaves. While it only inconveniences him while he’s inside the state border during weekdays, he knows that is not the case for much of his listening audience.

“I live in a situation where it doesn’t affect me personally as much,” he pointed out, “but if you live in the middle of the state it absolutely does. There’s no doubt about it that our relationships with those online books and our advertising would be improved substantially, and that is why it’s so frustrating to us.”

He went on to point out that legalization wouldn’t impact his station nearly as much as it would others in places such as Lexington and Bowling Green.

“We can still have the fun because we are so close to Indiana. If we were 45 minutes from Indiana, like some of our listeners, they’re unable to do so.”

As for whether legalization would take place in their states, three of the four individuals I spoke with had hopes that it would–but not anytime soon.

“The earliest I think people in Kentucky can look at it is 2025,” Sweeney said, “and by then they will have been three, four, five years behind these surrounding states. Some of these politicians are uneducated on the subject and I think that’s what’s being fought.”

Gold strongly believes it should be up to personal decision, not the North Carolina government.

“We all know if you want to gamble, you’re going to gamble. People are going to use an illegal bookmaker like Bovada,” he said. “My line has always been, ‘If you’re anti-legalized sports gambling, then you are pro-organized crime’.”

He added that every major game-fixing scandal has been rooted out by the casinos, further reason to allow the professionals to run the show.

“Being anti-sports wagering makes no sense to me; it’s puzzling why we’re taking this long.”

Nearly everyone believes that Florida will eventually get it figured out, especially as Mamola points out that governor Ron DeSantis is up for re-election in 2022 and legalization would help his chances. To that end, Mamola knows how important it is for fellow program directors to have a plan for if, and when, legalization happens in their state.

“I think the biggest key for when it does go legal is to find interesting ways of really dumbing down the basics of wagering and trying to make that as entertaining as possible for those that don’t gamble, like myself.”

Mamola continued, “It’s going to be a combination of really coming up with some programming, crafting it right to where it caters to the long-time gambler but at the same time it’s welcoming to the person who’s interested but hasn’t done it yet, and finding those voices to really drive home the message, those trusted resources for our listening audience.”

That said, perhaps the most frustrated voice of all belonged to Schultz, who pointed out Alabama is one of just five states without a lottery system. He also stressed that the legalization of sports betting, which is heavily supported by governor Kay Ivey, would require an amendment to the state’s constitution.

When asked when he thought it would happen in Alabama, Schultz was very direct in his answer. “Never,” he said emphatically before following with, “Not only will we be the last state without it, we won’t get it. Not until February of 2024 at the earliest, and I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one either.”

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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