Nearly two months after COVID-19 forced major sports leagues to shut down, ravaging industries nationwide, radio brands are still unsure when the upturn is coming.
It’s something radio companies couldn’t have anticipated and it’s especially frustrating when your operation was running as a profitable business before the pandemic hit. It took just two days for the world to stop, but it could be closer to two years before things get back to where they were, with no guarantee of impacted industries ever making a full recovery.
Galaxy Media’s ESPN Syracuse was one of the first brands to make programming cuts when the sports hiatus began. Interestingly enough, the changes had less to do with the financial impact of COVID-19 and more to do with the end of the Syracuse University athletic season.
Still, the locally owned sports radio station went from having a great year, to now being in the midst of their worst year. I spoke with Galaxy Media CEO Ed Levine and ESPN Syracuse afternoon host Brent Axe about managing the pandemic’s current and lasting impacts.
Brandon Contes: How has ESPN Syracuse been impacted by the pandemic, in terms of losing revenue?
Ed Levine: Obviously with sports being on pause, most sports related marketing has also gone on pause and the revenue is way down. Our sports focus is very much controlled by Syracuse University athletics. During baseball season, we do a good amount of business with the Yankees, but once the Syracuse University athletics season is over, we typically put most of our shows on pause and this year we did that a little sooner.
BC: ESPN Syracuse cut some of their local weekday programming in March, but those shows were going to be paused soon regardless of the pandemic?
EL: Yeah and realistically, we only shut them down about three weeks early.
BC: So the lineup change was more about the sports shutdown than it was an immediate reaction to losing advertisers?
BC: Obviously we can’t predict how quickly things will bounce back, but is there hope that you’re able to bring back some of those paused weekday shows?
EL: Absolutely. We’re in contact with most of them and I think it will happen sequentially over time. We’ll need to make some different financial arrangements because it’s hard to accept the revenue hits we’ve taken and then put everyone back to where they were, but I think most people understand that.
We have a great group of hosts, but we make our money talking about local sports and without that, there just isn’t enough revenue to pay local hosts. But the idea is, once Syracuse University is back in full swing, our local content will return. We also launched a 24/7 streaming network on Twitch and expect that to come back as well. But much like the revenue will come back in phases, we’ll add expenses back in phases, so we don’t get ahead of ourselves.
BC: Locally, ESPN Syracuse kept SportsZilla going, as well as Brent Axe, has it been beneficial to have some local voices still on-air even though there isn’t much Syracuse sports to talk about?
EL: Absolutely, Axe is without question the premiere sports journalist in the community and he’s done a phenomenal job of creating interesting shows without having obvious content and I give him a lot of credit for that. The SportsZilla shows have also done a great job and they have the ability to branch off into topics outside of sports, but as a sports talk host, you earn your chops by continuing to entertain in this environment.
BC: You mentioned car dealerships reopening and hopefully returning as clients, I’m sure it helps to have local voices on-air when you’re trying to get sponsors back.
EL: Right, in retrospect, it was a good thing that I anticipated the advertising would dry up. We had a very good 2019 and great start to 2020. We went into March at 90% of budget, we finished the month at 75%, which basically means for every dollar we added in March and April, we took $1.50 off. But the state is now allowing car dealerships to operate again, so our sense is that April was the bottom, it was a dreadful month, but I’m optimistic we’ll see improvement in May.
We’re the only major local broadcast company in central New York and certainly, the only one doing sports. We’ve been doing recovery packages, where we run some free advertising because if we have the ad inventory, we might as well help. I own a local business, I’m in the same boat as them and that’s our calling card. We compete with iHeart, Cumulus and Townsquare and they do a good job for who they are, but they’re not local and you can’t pretend to be local when you’re a nationally traded company.
BC: Have you had to layoff any full-time workers?
EL: That’s the thing I’m proudest of. We’ve all shared responsibilities and sacrifices throughout the company, but none of our full-time employees have been laid off, they all have jobs still. Our sports talk hosts all mostly have other jobs away from the radio station, we’re their side hustle. But we haven’t had to layoff any full-time employees and we hope to keep it that way.
We also have an event division which has been shut down and it would’ve been an easy decision to shutter that. But the event division has been our secret sauce and it’s what separated us from other local media companies, so I didn’t feel it was right to put them on the unemployment line.
BC: What kind of events does the division handle?
EL: Everything from the “Taste of Syracuse” which is the largest festival in the community, drawing 200,000 people. We do wine and chocolate events throughout the state, we have our holiday festival “Lights on the Lake” which draws 40,000 cars to the light display. We’re in every area of New York State from Buffalo to Long Island. The division contributes about half of the company’s revenue, so it’s been a huge loss to have that shuttered.
BC: My wife works in the corporate event industry, global and domestic and that industry was hit before sports came to a stop. Canceling travel, canceling events, employees being furloughed, losing revenue, each step happened shortly before it hit sports radio.
EL: I’m hoping that 12-15 months from now we can get back to where we were and what’s maddening about this is, we were on a tremendous roll from 2019 into 2020. Usually, when you’re going to hit a downturn you can see it coming, but this literally happened in 48 hours. I’m optimistic we’ve hit the bottom, the question now is, how quickly does the recovery happen? While the radio industry has struggled in the last ten years, our events division was able to help fuel our company’s growth. They’re brainstorming some great events right now and as soon as we get the go ahead, we’ll be back stronger than ever.
BC: What about across your different radio brands, have you seen one format be less impacted than another?
EL: Our sports talk stations have clearly been the most impacted. The music stations have also taken significant revenue hits, but people emotionally still felt those brands were a more viable place to advertise after sports were shut down. If we were down 50% overall, it was probably down 70% on the sports talk side. But once everything gets running again, we’ll go from having nothing, to having everything at the same time which will present a challenge in itself, but one we’ll certainly look forward to.
Brent Axe hosts weekday afternoons on ESPN Syracuse and has been a local sports radio and journalism fixture since 2002.
Brandon Contes: You’ve been doing sports talk in Syracuse for about two decades now, how important do you think it is for the city to still have a familiar voice on-air during a difficult time?
Brent Axe: The feedback I’m getting from listeners is that they enjoy the break from what’s going on out there. We’re all in the same boat and it’s been helpful for me too. I really enjoy being able to come in every day and keep a similar routine, so it’s been great to stay on-air from all angles.
BC: What are you doing now without live sports, are you still able to find local sports stories to discuss?
BA: There has been some great local content in terms of what local athletes are doing to stay in shape. Recently, there was a celebration of the 2003 Syracuse men’s basketball national championship team and Jim Boeheim and a bunch of former playoffs did a Facebook Live event where they watched the game and reacted to it. Recruiting stories have popped up, discussing players like Elijah Hughes entering the NBA Draft, so there have been a lot of local stories and a lot of nostalgia with people looking back and watching old games.
BC: People love reminiscing, even before sports stopped, there’s been a big emphasis on the ‘90s, just look at the amount of TV shows and sitcoms that have returned in some way.
BA: Everyone’s watching The Last Dance, so I look for a local connection. Syracuse played Michael Jordan and North Carolina at The Dome twice. Jordan’s longtime agent David Falk is a Syracuse grad, you can take what’s hot nationally and find the local angle because there are so many connections if you know where to look.
BC: Do you enjoy having the blank slate of topics every single day, or do you prefer having some direction of knowing what you’re going to talk about tomorrow?
BA: I don’t like having this much freedom, because sports is naturally something you react to, but I do enjoy the challenge. When the NFL Draft came, it was a relief to be able to react to fresh news and it gave a glimmer of hope for what’s to come. I still enjoy the challenge, because anyone can watch the games and react to it, but I’ve always said you learn how to do radio during the summer when there isn’t a lot going on. It’s like going to the grocery store right now, some aisles are more full than others these days, so you get creative with what you can make.
BC: Have you been able to try new things on-air?
BA: We do segments in different ways. Every day I do a segment called ‘Hot Takes’ and it’s my way of touching on national topics at a rapid pace. That segment has become a daily discussion of what we’re hearing in terms of when and how will sports return? I used to do a segment called the ‘Blind Side’ where my producer would hit me with five questions about anything. I don’t have a producer right now, so I might have my listeners ask questions. They’re not necessarily new segments, but it’s doing what we do differently.
BC: How is that aspect of doing your show without a producer?
BA: It reminds me of my college radio days, doing everything myself. Booking guests, doing all of the prep, it’s been interesting and a learning experience. It makes me appreciate the job my producer and our support staff do at the station that much more because you kind of take for granted being able to focus only on content and being on-air.
BC: Without a producer, who do you bounce ideas off of, especially with a blank slate of topics, I’m sure it’s helpful to have someone to discuss ideas with before the show starts.
BA: Absolutely, I talk with Paulie Scibilia, our operations manager. I’ll text him ideas, he’ll offer suggestions for guests as well. My normal producer, Seth Goldberg is home in New Jersey right now, but I still talk to him all the time. And even my other colleagues at Syracuse.com, who aren’t in radio, but I get feedback and input from them as well. There’s a definite chain of communication when trying to develop topics and content.
Meet The Market Managers: Ryan Hatch, Bonneville International Phoenix
“Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it.”
For as long as I have known Ryan Hatch, he has been a good friend, encouraging me to take advantage of each opportunity put in front of me. When someone treats you that way, you cannot be anything but thrilled when you see them do the same thing.
Late last year, Ryan was elevated from a programming executive role with Bonneville to become Market Manager of the company’s Phoenix cluster. He is now overseeing every aspect of a building that he has worked in for a long time.
I thought it would be fun to visit with him to see what has changed. The last time I profiled him, he was serving as PD of Arizona Sports 98.7. The last time we profiled Bonneville Phoenix for this series, it was Scott Sutherland in the Market Manager’s chair. So, what has changed?
In this conversation, presented by Point to Point Marketing, Ryan and I discuss the changing nature of our business, retaining great talent, and supporting the person who’s tasked with filling your former position and leading the programming team forward. When a company is ahead of the curve with its digital strategy and generating strong ratings and revenue, what’s next?
Demetri Ravanos: So how has the transition gone moving from programming into the market manager’s seat? We’re a little over six months into the change. How steep has the learning curve been?
Ryan Hatch: You know what? It’s been fantastic. And I have to give so much credit to Scott Sutherland, who was in the chair before me, and others within the company for really preparing me for this moment. But it’s not just a transition from programming. I would think even if I came up through the sales, marketing or finance side there would be a curve.
I’m learning new things every single day and loving it. So whether it’s six months or six years in this chair or more, I hope that I can always say that.
I love the job. I love the market. Obviously, you know, I’ve been here for such a long time and it’s the best chair to be in. I’m thrilled.
DR: You mentioned Scott and I started thinking about this after you and I set a time to talk. There’s this advantageous environment of education there, right? Because Scott is still in the area. He held your job before. You’re obviously in the building and that’s got to be advantageous for Sean Thompson. How much do those conversations take place day-to-day? There seems to be an opportunity for everybody to learn and build on the person that came before them because they can just walk down the hall and ask.
RH: Absolutely it can be advantageous because you’ve got institutional knowledge. Every person that’s been in your chair before can certainly provide important information to help expedite the onboarding process.
The other side of it is making sure that there are clear boundaries. I can speak with Sean Thompson coming in on the programming side. My goal is to empower him and embolden Sean to take this brand to a different level with new ideas and thoughts.
I’d been in that chair for so long, we were certainly ready for somebody new to come in with a new perspective and new experiences, and Sean’s done a wonderful job doing that. I think if you talk to Scott, he would probably say something similar. So when you ask the question, “is it advantageous?”, the answer is unquestionable. Yes, it is. At the same time, you have to really be clear on where those boundaries are, how much you want to give and share, and how much you want to let that person learn and experience it on their own as they’re creating their new environment, if that makes sense.
DR: So with those boundaries, are there things you see Sean putting into place that make you think, “Oh man, that’s really cool. I kind of miss programing at this moment”?
RH: Well, the irony is in asking that question, I think today is actually his 90th day on the job. So we’re still in the basic stages of him taking that chair.
He’s full of ideas, full of energy. I can’t wait to see so much of it come to fruition. But again, when you’re only three months in, you’re doing a lot of listening and a lot of learning before you dig in to start making change. I expect that to come, but he walked into a position with a great on-air staff, fantastic talent, an unbelievable digital team, with a great marketing and promotional support team behind him as well.
I’ll tell you what I’m most excited about is what’s going to happen this fall. After the listening and the learning is done, we’ll be starting to really build some exciting plans into the NFL season around the Cardinals and the NFL. We’re also hosting the Super Bowl in February of ’23 as well. So we’ve got a great big build coming here in Arizona.
DR: So let’s talk a little bit about the future and where things can go, not just for Phoenix, but for Bonneville overall. I told you this a million times. What has always impressed me about the company, even before you and I got to know each other, was that you guys were so ahead of the curve on recognizing the value of digital content. Arizona Sports is not a radio station, it is a brand.
I wonder now that you are in the market manager’s chair, how you look at all of the money from these different companies being put into podcasts. I mean, the deals being made to turn podcasts into TV shows or movies, do you ever think about what is possible or maybe what the next evolution for the digital side of Bonneville could or should be?
RH: Well, I think as a company, and not to speak for Tanya Vea, who’s in a new EVP position helping oversee a lot of our content initiatives, we’re opening up a mechanism for local ideas to be funneled up to a team led by our VP of Podcasting, Sheryl Worsley. The idea is to be able to support a local that might scale on a national level and help it achieve that potential. I think that we’re very aggressive. I think that we’re also very strategic in the podcasting world.
There’s a blessing and a curse there. The blessing is that that audience is expanding rapidly and the revenue’s been following, you know, slowly, but still following in that direction. The downside is how much time and energy and creativity a lot of our best talent have.
Do we want to put our talk show hosts, who are spending 4 hours a day creating live broadcast content, at the forefront of that effort? How many more hours a day of creative juice do they have left for a podcast or a passion project? It could be something that might not be entirely complimentary to the brand.
I think you have to be smart and strategic and understand how big of a bed it is you want to make. I think we’re being strategic about it and making the best decision for each individual circumstance.
DR: So what about from a broadcast angle? As podcasting continues to grow and becomes the kind of thing that sellers see as easier to get clients involved with, what are the things that terrestrial radio is going to have to do to secure its own future?
RH: Well, speaking on behalf of our properties here, where we’re all local news and all local sports. Really, that’s our business. I don’t think that there’s anything that can replicate the power of live, in the moment, information-based content. And that is the value proposition that broadcast has.
Now, will that traditional radio audience continue to decline and find other venues? Potentially. I mean, that’s just natural, and I think that we’ve seen that accelerate through the pandemic. That doesn’t take away from the importance though.
If you look at Bonneville Phoenix, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR, our streaming numbers are way, way up. Our monthly app users are way, way up. Our smart speaker usage is way, way up. And I think too many times we categorize one as digital and one as radio. I look at it more through the lens of what is a live broadcast and what is driven by more destination-based, story-based, topic-based choices. That’s a different experience and you can serve both.
DR: What is your view of having that live content accessed by both radios and streaming devices? When you’re a programmer, I think it is it is easier to say, “Look, people are coming to this content. This is good content. That is what matters.” But now that you’re the market manager, I know you are a real advocate for total line reporting, but now the ratings take on this whole different meaning to you than they did before. What is your view of the right path forward to paint that picture easily and accurately for advertisers about just how powerful these brands are, whether it’s Arizona Sports or KTAR?
RH: Thank goodness we have fantastic sales management and account executives on the streets telling that story and big brands to back them up with that unique content that our stations are delivering. And as I’ve told you in different settings over the years Demetri, Nielsen is one of many tools that tell that story. When we’re on the streets talking to a potential advertiser, and understand that our game is not as national or our market is not as regional, we are hyper-locally focused. In Phoenix, Arizona, that’s a lot of small to medium-sized businesses. So when we can walk in and share a total audience report that gives a glimpse of Nielsen, which we know is antiquated and really, really needs to be reformed and updated. You’ve got to bring your Google Analytics and your Triton numbers. You have so many other tools to use to evaluate how our content is being delivered and consumed. You’ve got to paint that entire total audience story, and I will tell you that it’s a story that is very well received in Phoenix with our products.
DR: Maybe this is more of a question for your sales staff, but is it a matter of walking potential advertisers and current advertisers through each individual number, or do you find a way to synthesize it down into a simple illustration of how many people are listening to your content every day?
RH: It’s not a numbers game. It’s not getting into detail about how many tens of thousands of listeners we have on one platform and how many on another and how many views or clicks on websites. Our pitch is that these brands have a connection to the market. That works for us, and that works because it’s emotional. It works because it’s local. It works because of the creative messaging behind it. When you have something that works for your advertisers, they’re not going to be coming in and scrutinizing the numbers left and right.
Now, you have to deliver to the audience, and we have significant audiences. In fact, I’ll tell you right now, combining everything together. And it’s not apples to apples, because these are all different channels. But our audience is here in Phoenix between our websites, our apps, and our radio distribution. Our audiences have never been better. I mean, that’s a wonderful and easy story to tell.
DR: Play-by-play is obviously a big part of what you do on Arizona Sports. You and I have talked before about the landscape of Phoenix sports, and I think you’ve described it as, because Phoenix is a transplant market, you find yourself talking about everyone’s second favorite team.
So how does that play with advertisers? Do they buy into the idea that this is a unifying thing or is there some concern that it is too much of a transplant market for the value returned by play-by-play doesn’t match the cost to advertise in that space?
RH: Our original franchise, the Phoenix Suns, while, they had a disappointing end of the season, it couldn’t have been more galvanizing. That is the one team that has been here for 50-plus years. That orange blood does run deep. The Cardinals have had their moments. The Diamondbacks have the only championship in the major sports here, but that was back in 2001.
I’ll answer that question in a couple of ways. Number one, we are catering to the fans and to the super fans, but we try to create content that is going to be accessible and interesting for those that would claim that any of the franchises are their second favorite team in a given league. When you move into a market and you head to the office or nowadays maybe it’s a Zoom call, you still want to be able to have a conversation about something that’s relevant. You want a shared experience with your coworker or a neighbor, somebody at school when you’re hanging out waiting to up the kids. So often that conversation is sports.
We have a fantastic sports market. Now, where’s the passion level? Is it as high as a Boston or Philadelphia? Of course not and we’re not going to act like it is. But at the end of the day, what does an advertiser look for? They’re looking for an audience and they’re looking for something exclusive to put their message on. That’s what we’re able to offer with our play-by-play. On top of that, what’s become more and more important to us in our model, especially on the digital side over the years, is the access to those decision-makers, to the coaches, the exclusive access to the general managers with weekly calls, and things like player shows.
There’s so much more that you can offer beyond just the game itself that makes these partnerships great for our business and the advertising community.
DR: So coming out of what is being called The Great Resignation, what are you experiencing as a market manager and what are your other hiring managers experiencing? What are the new challenges of recruiting, whether it is sales or programing, any kind of talent in an environment like this?
RH: Well, let’s add to that and talk about inflationary pressures as well. I mean, there are so many factors at play right now, and I think it’s as tough as I can ever remember it.
What we’re doing here at Bonneville Phoenix is really leaning into our culture and making sure that we’re an employer of choice because we have a culture that people want to be a part of. It’s a good team environment full of hungry people that want to succeed not just for themselves. So the more hungry, humble, and smart people we find, the better off we’re going to be.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t lost. There’s been a dramatic shuffle. Right now, I can say that we’re close to a full boat, but that wasn’t the case a month ago. There are so many different forces at play right now. It is a difficult environment. Our news side alone faces unique challenges. News itself has been under attack for multiple years. Don’t you think that burns people out?
Absolutely I have concerns, but what can we control? Well, we can focus on executing the vision that Bonneville has provided. It’s built on passionate people and innovation. It is about creating a culture people want to be a part of.
DR: We’ve heard a lot about burnout when people talk about why they leave a job in any industry. We hear about work-life balance. You’re responsible for the entire building, so what are you telling your managers on the sales and programming side about creating an environment for employees that respects that those are real and valid concerns while still maintaining the level of expectation of quality for Arizona Sports and KTAR.
RH: We’re still committed to the highest standards, and we always will be. And we found that certain parts of the business can work pretty effectively from home, while other parts of the business really can’t. I will tell you, on the content side working from home, we did it when we had to. We did it, I would say fairly effectively for a few extended periods. But overall, in a local news and local sports environment that really is driven by the breaking news, the need to work together in a space is real. You just can’t do things as quickly or as effectively or as creatively if you’re separated. You just can’t.
Now, on the sales side, we want them on the streets. We want them out of the office, but there is a balance. So what are we asking our great sales managers to do? We’re asking them just to make sure that they are up to speed on where the activity is and that we’re doing all the jobs that need to be done. Do I ever see us going back to five days a week in the office? I don’t. I think that ship has sailed and I think that’s just fine. I think there’s some real benefit to that.
The way to make this all work is to empower our department heads to come up with a plan that’s going to work best for them, for their people, and deliver on what our expectations are for the business. And then as leaders, we have to understand that the plan is going to be evolving. It really is. This is not going to be decided on a new policy set. I think that we’re in a new world, probably for the rest of our lives.
Broadcasting Fills The Baseball Void For Keith Moreland
“When I got through… I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”
Sports color analysts are more often than not former players. This has been a consistent norm across sports broadcasting at all levels. The analyst is there to add “color” to the play-by-play broadcaster’s metaphorical and verbal “drawing” of the game. For former MLB slugger and catcher, Keith Moreland, this was the surprise post-playing retirement career that has boosted him to a key figure in Austin media and national media alike.
Moreland played football and baseball at the University of Texas before making his way to the MLB for 12 years with key contributions to the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs in the 1980s.
Moreland reminisced on his decision to play baseball full time: “I thought I was going to be in the NFL, but Earl Campbell changed that. I had just played summer ball. We had won a championship and I missed the first few days of two-a-days. I hadn’t even had a physical yet and I’m in a scrimmage. I stepped up to this freshman running back and as he ducked his shoulder, one of his feet hit my chest and the other hit my face mask and he kept on truckin’. I got up and I thought ‘I could be a pretty good baseball player.’
So I told Coach Royal after practice I was going to focus on baseball and he asked ‘what took you so long? We were surprised you came back because we think you have a really good shot at playing professional baseball.'”
It was a good choice for Moreland. He was part of the 1973 College World Series winning Texas Longhorns baseball team. While at Texas Moreland hit .388 and became the all-time leader in hits for the College World Series. After being drafted by the Phillies in the 7th round of the 1975 draft, Moreland would go-on to play in the majors from 1978 to 1989.
“You go your whole life trying to get to play professionally. When I got through my opportunity to play in the big leagues, I wanted to do something with my life and I get that same feeling with broadcasting.”
Broadcasting was not the original retirement plan for Moreland. He first tried his luck at coaching with his first stop being his alma mater as an assistant for the Longhorns. At the time, Bill Schoening (a Philadelphia native and Phillies fan), was the radio play-by-play broadcaster. Schoening made Moreland a go-to for a pre-game interview and convinced him to come on talk shows. Schoening even convinced Moreland to practice live broadcasting skills by taking a recorder to games and listening back to them to learn.
“Bill was the guy who brought me onboard and I still have those tapes and I really learned from them, but I don’t want anyone else to ever hear them!” Moreland adds with a chuckle on how far he has come in over 25 years of broadcasting.
Moreland has been a key part of University of Texas radio broadcasts for baseball since the 1990s and has catapulted that broadcast experience to Texas high school football, Longhorn football radio and television broadcasts, ESPN, the Little League World Series, the Chicago Cubs and more since hanging up his cleats and picking up a microphone.
While his playing days are well behind him, Moreland still takes the spirit of his professional athlete background to his broadcasting:
“If you don’t bring energy to your broadcast, somebody’s gonna turn the game on and wonder ‘what’s wrong? Are they losing the game?’”, Moreland remarks, “So you have to come prepared and with energy for the broadcasts.”
Radio Partnerships With Offshore Sportsbooks Are Tempting
The rush to get sports betting advertising revenue offers an interesting risk to stations in states where the activity is illegal.
As the wave of sports gambling continues to wash over the United States, marketing budgets soar and advertisements flood radio and television airwaves. Offers of huge sign-on bonuses, “risk-free” wagers, and enhanced parlay odds seem to come from every direction as books like DraftKings, FanDuel, and BetMGM fight over market share and battle one another for every new user they can possibly attract.
For those in states where sports betting is not yet legalized–or may never be–it is frustrating to see these advertisements and know that you cannot get in the action. However, as with any vice, anybody determined to partake will find ways to do so. Offshore sports books are one of the biggest ways. Companies such as Bovada and BetOnline continue to thrive even as more state-based online wagering options become available to Americans.
While five states–Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York–have passed laws making it illegal for offshore books to take action from their residents, using an offshore book is perfectly legal for the rest of the country. While there are hurdles involved with funding for some institutions, there is no law that prevents someone in one of those other 45 states from opening an account with Bovada and wagering on whatever sporting events they offer. The United States government has tried multiple times to go after them, citing the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, and have failed at every step, with the World Trade Organization citing that doing so would violate international trade agreements.
While gambling is becoming more and more accepted every day, and more states look to reap the financial windfall that comes with it, the ethical decisions made take on even more importance. One of the tougher questions involved with the gambling arms race is how to handle offers from offshore books to advertise with radio stations in a state where sports betting is not legalized.
Multiple stations in states without legalized gambling, such as Texas and Florida, have partnerships with BetOnline to advertise their services. Radio stations can take advantage of these relationships in three main ways: commercials, on-air reads, and the station’s websites. For example, Bovada’s affiliate program allows for revenue sharing based on people clicking advertisements on a partner’s website and signing up with a new deposit. This is also the case for podcasts, such as one in Kansas that advertises with Bovada despite sports gambling not being legal there until later in 2022.
People are going to gamble, and it’s legal to do so. In full disclosure, I myself have utilized Bovada’s services for a number of years, even after online sports wagering became legal in my state of Indiana. As such, advertising a service that is legal within the state seems perfectly fine in the business sense, and I totally understand why a media entity would choose to accept an offer from an offshore book. However, there are two major factors that make it an ethical dilemma, neither of which can be ignored.
First, Americans may find it easy to deposit money with a book such as Bovada or BetOnline, but much more difficult to get their money back. While the UIGEA hasn’t been successful in stopping these books from accepting money, it has made it difficult–near impossible, in fact–for American financial institutions to accept funds directly from these companies. Therefore, most payouts have to take place either via a courier service, with a check that can take weeks to arrive, or via a cryptocurrency payout. For those who are either unwilling or not tech-savvy enough to go this route, it means waiting sometimes up to a month to receive that money versus a couple days with a state-licensed service.
The other major concern is the lack of protections involved with gambling in a state where legislation has been passed. For example, the state of Indiana drew up laws and regulations for companies licensed to operate within its borders that included protections for how bets are graded, what changes can be made to lines and when they can take place, and how a “bad line” is handled. They also require a portion of the revenues be put towards resources for those dealing with gambling addiction or compulsion issues.
None of those safeguards exist with an offshore book. While the books have to adhere to certain regulations, it’s much more loosely enforced. I’ve lost track of the number of times a book like Bovada has made somewhat shady decisions on what bets to honor as “wins”, and how they handle wagers on what they deem to be “bad lines” where they posted a mistake and users capitalized on it. Furthermore, not a single dime of the monies received go towards helping those dealing with addiction, and there are few steps taken by the offshore books to look for compulsive or addictive behaviors.
As states look to move sports betting out of the shadows, the decision whether to take advertising dollars from offshore books seems to be an even larger gray area than ever before. Although it is perfectly legal to accept these funds when offered, it feels unethical to do so. There are moral obligations tied to accepting the money involved, especially given the lack of regulations and safeguards for players in addition to the limited resources for those who find themselves stuck in a situation they may struggle to escape. While it’s possible to take steps to educate listeners on these pitfalls, it simply feels irresponsible to encourage people to utilize these services given the risks involved, and the lack of protections in place.