If you’ve ever consumed gambling related content on ESPN, there is a good chance Ben Fawkes had something to do with it. The Brooklyn native first started working at ESPN the Magazine as an intern during his Junior year of college. During his internship, Fawkes appreciated ESPN’s family atmosphere, got to meet Michael Jordan (more on that later) and loved going into work, so when the opportunity came along for him to get a job there post-college, he jumped at the chance.
Since 2010, Fawkes has worn multiple hats at ESPN, including general editor of their sports betting product, ESPN Chalk, which was founded in 2014. During his tenure there, Fawkes oversaw the planning and execution of the editorial content for their sports betting vertical, including the ESPN show Daily Wager. He also contributed content and provided editorial direction across ESPN’s sports betting platforms, including digital, broadcast and print. He was a part of every ESPN sports betting property, including recently helping to manage ESPN’s partnership with Caesars Entertainment’s sportsbooks. That all changed this year, when VSiN, who is in the middle of an expansion, came knocking.
Fawkes has now moved to Las Vegas to join VSiN as vice president of digital content. His duties will include overseeing the written and digital content, special issues, their daily e-newsletter and VSiN’s subscription-based publication, Point Spread Weekly. Fawkes will also contribute on-air and help with content strategy across VSiN’s multiple platforms.
I spoke with Fawkes about his journey, his move to VSiN from ESPN and his thoughts on the future of the industry.
How did you get your start in the gambling industry?
I started in 2010, when I was editing Chad Millman’s blog at ESPN, the Behind the Bets blog. Chad was also doing a podcast, so I was also editing his audio podcasts, and I think he was writing five days a week then. That was kind of the introduction just to the sports betting world, and I think it was cool from multiple perspectives.
One was that, I know Chad has touched on it before, but just the language. It’s almost like it’s just a little different world, a kind of an “in the know”. We’re not even just talking parlays and money lines, but taking juice. And, everyone has some cool or weird nickname, or everyone knows a guy, and there’s a wink-wink and a nod to all this stuff, especially back then. It was not necessarily shady, but a little bit kind of the, “Oh, you do gambling?”
It certainly is very, very far from where it is today, just both in the legal standpoint, and then just from a public perception standpoint and how legitimate it would seem. So, really doing that kind of piqued my interest into this world, and I think that the Westgate SuperContest which Chad had done some content on, was something that was similar to a contest that I had started doing a couple years before where you’re picking five NFL games against a spread. Those things got me interested in the industry.
Why did you make the jump to VSiN from ESPN and what will your role entail?
It’s really hard to find a ton of sports betting talent. Once you start looking at who is reputable, who knows their stuff, who has been in the space for a while, who can write and who can actually be on TV, you start narrowing down the list quite a bit. And, when you start knocking those things off as well, as who doesn’t have any skeletons in the closet, the list shrinks.
I really think VSiN has the best collection of that talent. Coming at it from the media perspective and being on SiriusXM Radio, now on MSG and NESN, sports betting is only going to get bigger and bigger, and I appreciate the way that they, and I guess now I should say we, are attempting to deliver it in a smart way that’s not completely over the top. And, isn’t strictly picks-based.
You’re really trying to make yourself smarter, obviously, if you’re going to be giving out picks, but really, you’re dealing with a large audience because of the most programming rights. So, the downside of let’s say an ESPN show like Daily Wager is that you can have only one hour, in that you really have to figure out what segment of the sports betting population am I targeting?
So, that’s an advantage VSiN has is that there are a wide variety of shows and they somewhat cater to different audiences and different bettors.
My job is to basically make sure we’re hitting the right topics on those shows and staying up-to-date on news as well, both from a legalization standpoint, and now there are all the different business deals that different companies have, so making sure we’re hitting on all of that. Some of the, “On this Date in Sports Betting History” too. That’s something I want to try and push more as well. Then just kind of making sure we’re making fans smarter and being a little bit more ahead on the digital side.
On the TV side, there is so much, that’s a day to day grind, and how do we get through today’s show? You’re really thinking about today’s show and maybe tomorrow’s show and the rest of the week, but you’re not necessarily looking ahead to the following week, month, etc., so both of those things. And, then I’m also in charge of the website and Point Spread Weekly, our digital subscription products, so just trying to grow subscribers and grow the business on that front as well.
Last week I actually talked to Mitch Moss and he said the ceiling for VSiN was ESPN. What are your thoughts on his statement?
Look, ESPN is a lofty goal certainly, and I think that’s where you want to aspire to be in terms of brand recognition, and brand loyalty, and all of that. I think the biggest thing is the future is really bright and there is so much talent here. We have a great studio at South Point and now we’re going to be opening the big studio at the Circa in a month. That property just looks phenomenal, so you have two state-of-the-art studios.
On top of that, we just had a show from BetMGM in the lounge at Empower Stadium for the Broncos. We’re doing a show from the BetRivers Sportsbook in Chicago. Michael Lombardi is at the Borgata in New Jersey. So, we have all of these different areas that no one else can really hit. And so, when we have a show that’s called Betting Across America, we actually are betting across America.
So, being able to have all those different perspectives and then hit on all those different story lines is also going to be big in the future because there is also going to be a movement towards localization of content. Ultimately, if I live in Chicago, what do I care about? The Bears. Who are they facing? The White Sox, the Cubs. Right now, that’s what I want to know.
Am I betting the over, the under? Should I bet on The Bears? Should I bet against the Bears? And so, you’re going to have the ability to produce specific content for all of those different States, as well as the larger betting content. That’s kind of the great thing about sports betting and why I agree with Mitch on the ceiling.
When it comes to the future of the gambling industry, do you see anything new on the horizon? For example, a 24/7 TV channel with non stop gambling odds or a NFL Red Zone of gambling channel?
What would be interesting to see is how integrated the sportsbook apps can get and whether the leagues will go down that road. By that, I mean, I think FanDuel basically had picture in picture on the app that allowed you to watch a tennis bet on your phone while placing other bets.
I think ultimately that is going to happen for the NBA or the NFL. I guess if you’re going to pick between those, you think probably the NBA would be first instead of the NFL given it’s been surrounding sports betting for so long.
You should also look out for who can have the best in-game experience. And, by that, I mean essentially a Sunday gambling RedZone like you said. I think that a company like ESPN with their rights has the largest potential advantage for something like that because you can show the games.
Obviously, NFL RedZone is immensely popular just for people watching the games and for people both in a gambling and fantasy perspective, but they’re going to hit on everything from a fantasy perspective, there is no gambling mentioned in NFL RedZone.
People have started to dabble with it on the NBA side and other places, but that will be interesting to see who really attacks that and tries to corner that part of the market. That’s where everyone’s watching the games and then they have some second screen experience, whether that’s Twitter, hopefully VSiN, other places, that’s what people are looking at potentially, now the third screen experience.
Let’s say there is a company like Comcast that offers RedZone and then you can actually bet through your TV, so you’re watching RedZone and you can actually place a bet in a State where it’s legal. I think that those are the types of innovations that will take the industry to the next level.
It seems silly to say now in 2020, but it seems like so long ago in May of 2018 when sports betting wasn’t legal outside Nevada. It has come so far so quickly and I think that the technology will be a compelling thing to catch up.
We’ve seen that some in the app space with DraftKings and FanDuel, where we are really seeing that the best technology is going to win, and it’s going to be where people want to place their bets. Most consumers are less price sensitive and more technology sensitive. So if it’s good technology, they’re going to bet on the Steelers minus 120 as opposed to minus 115, that difference doesn’t matter that much to them.
Coolest moment you’ve experienced working in sports?
It came at a Derek Jeter Shoe Party. I forget the name of the club, I think it was Marquee in New York. We were there and I remember waiting for Jeter and he was one of the last guys to show up, but before he did, MJ showed up.
That event really stuck in my mind just because after that I realized there were levels of celebrities. Many were there and came through, but, Michael Jordan, he was just on a completely different level, even from Derek Jeter.
MJ actually was nice enough to fade into the background a little bit because it was Jeter’s night, but he was very nice.
My brother actually got to come along for that one, so it was a really cool experience. I think from that, my takeaway was, I think I’d like to work in sports.
Looking back on your journey, is there a moment that sticks out to you where you realized you are now a real part of the industry?
I don’t want to say in the industry, but a moment that was most surreal was a couple years ago working with Chris Berman on his Swami Sez segment. I had the idea to take his Swami Sez segment and make it a digital free piece and it ended up being by far the most trafficked free piece we had all year.
Friday afternoon and evenings, I’d go over to the studio and we’d both run through every single game, he has the gold sheet, he makes his lines and he’s comparing those lines, he knows everyone in the NFL, and I think just working on that was such a surreal experience. We text every week before the NFL games and go like, “hey, what games do you like this week?”.
For an 11-year-old me, who obviously grew up watching Chris Berman on Sports Center, and he’s just the guy to be, to be someone that worked with him and to get to know him was great. It was kind of an honor that I’d probably not appreciate until things slow down at some point, but it was definitely one of those things where you don’t know how good you have it till it’s gone.
The Craig Carton/FanDuel Deal Is Undeniably A Good Thing
“Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better.”
Craig Carton is destined to forever be a polarizing figure in the world of sports media. Long before he was arrested, he had plenty of detractors that considered him less of a talk show host and more of a shock jock. Add to it a conviction for his role in a Ponzi scheme that defrauded investors in order to pay back gambling debts, and it is clear that the guy’s approval rating will never hit 100.
There are understandable reasons not to like a guy and then there are grudges. Grudges don’t have to be personal. They don’t have to spring from some sort of affront. They can easily be born out of feeling like someone has figured out a way to live a life above the rules and free of consequence for their awful actions.
Grudges can (and often do) blind us to reality. I think that is a big part of what is happening when people point to Craig Carton’s new deal with FanDuel and say that there is something wrong with it.
If you missed the announcement last week, Carton is joining FanDuel as the company’s first “responsible gaming ambassador.” He will create content about gambling responsibly and also work with FanDuel engineers to create AI to spot problem gambling patterns. The deal gives Craig Carton a seat at the table with one of the biggest mobile sportsbooks in shaping their responsible gaming policy. Isn’t that a good thing?
I probably cannot convince you to view the guy in any particular light. When it comes to former inmates being rehabilitated and getting a second chance, we tend to be very dug in with our opinions, whatever may influence them.
Undeniably, Carton did a bad thing. Swindling people out of huge chunks of money is always bad. In America, it somehow seems worse. As costs of living increase and wages remain flat, every dollar is accounted for and allotted to something for most of us. The guy should be ashamed of himself. And here’s the thing: he clearly is.
Since returning to WFAN, Carton has been very upfront about who he is, what he has done and how he is trying to do better. Hell, what other station in America dedicates any time at all, even just a half hour on the weekend, to issues of addiction and recognizing problem habits? This deal with FanDuel seems perfectly in line with his previous attempts to atone.
You don’t have to like Craig Carton, but you do need to acknowledge that everything he has done in terms of highlighting his problem with gambling and offering help to those that he sees a little bit of his own struggles in has been sincere. There is no reason to believe it isn’t.
Under the terms of the deal, not only will Carton advise and create content for FanDuel, but the company will also make sure Hello, My Name is Craig finds a bigger platform. You can be cynical and say that this is just part of a bigger deal between FanDuel and WFAN parent company Audacy, but FanDuel’s Chief Marketing Officer, Mike Raffensperger explained that it is good for the gaming industry to promote betting responsibly.
“I think what we recognize we needed is to add some humanity as to how we get this message across,” he said when explaining why Carton was the perfect face for this campaign.
We see it every time we post a story about sports betting. Someone will comment that it is an evil practice and that the advertising has made sports radio disgusting. The reality is that it is no different from alcohol. For most people, it is harmless. Plenty though, cannot handle it. Still, you tell me the first time you hear an ad break on sports radio or see a commercial break during a game without a beer commercial.
If you really believe sports gambling is evil and want people to stay away from mobile or physical sportsbooks, who do you think the ideal person to be delivering that message is?
You can go with the puritan approach of tisk-tisking strangers and telling them they are flawed people that are going to Hell or you can have a guy that has literally lost it all because of his addiction out front telling you “I know I cannot place a bet and here is why. If that sounds familiar, maybe it is time for you to seek help.” It seems pretty obvious to me that the latter approach is exactly what Raffensperger is talking about – using humanity to reach the people they need to.
Craig Carton committed a crime. A court of law said he had to pay for that both with restitution to his victims and with jail time. He served his time. Deals like this one with FanDuel make it possible for him to stay on schedule with the restitution payments. Even if you think he is unforgivable, that should make you happy, right?
It is admittedly strange to see a mobile sportsbook hire a “responsible gaming ambassador.” I would argue though that it is only strange because it isn’t something we have seen before. Be skeptical if you are the “I’ll believe it when I see it” type, but I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to congratulate and celebrate both Craig Carton and FanDuel.
Covid Is A Convenient Excuse For Lowering Our Standards
“I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show.”
I was probably four hours deep into my all-day football binge on Saturday when I started to think about the overall quality of what I was seeing. This isn’t a column about whether college football is secretly better than the NFL. This is about our industry.
While you may not notice a difference in the presentation on CBS’s top line SEC broadcast or on FOX’s Big Noon Saturday game, it is clear how few resources are being allocated to some of the games further down the networks’ priority list. ESPN doesn’t even send live broadcasters to its Thursday night college football game for instance.
Covid-19 was the beginning of this. It forced every business in the broadcast industry to re-evaluate budgets and figure out how to do games when travel and the traditional set up of broadcast booths simply were not on the table.
This isn’t a problem limited to game coverage either. Plenty of hosts still are not back in their radio studio. Plenty of guests on ESPN’s and FS1’s mid day debate shows are still appearing via Skype and Zoom connections. It is as if we have started counting on our audience not expecting quality any more.
I want to be perfectly clear. I get that this pandemic isn’t over. I get that in many cases, networks and stations are trying to avoid overcrowding studios and in some cases, make accommodations for top-level talent that refuse to get vaccinated. “It’s survival mode,” is the answer from corporate.
Do we still need to be in survival mode though? We are 18 months into this pandemic. The majority of Americans are vaccinated. The ones who aren’t are actively making a choice not to do what they need to in order to put on the best possible show they can.
I am sick of hearing lag and noticeably different levels of soundproofing between two hosts on the same show. I am sick of seeing hosts on crystal clear HD cameras in a high tech studio talk to someone on a dirty webcam that can’t be bothered to even put in headphones so they don’t sound like they are shouting down a hallway.
A good example is the late Highly Questionable. I really liked that show when it was done in studio. I liked a lot of the ESPN talent that popped up on the show even after Dan Le Batard left. I couldn’t watch any more of the show than the two minute clips that would show up on Twitter. I didn’t want to see Bomani Jones behind a giant podcast mic. The low res camera that turned Mina Kimes’s house plant into a green blob gave me a headache. The complete disregard for quality made a decent show hard to watch.
There was a time when the accommodations we made for Covid-19 were totally necessary. Bosses and broadcasters did whatever they had to to get a show or a game on the air. At this point, I am starting to wonder how much of the concessions are necessary and how much are the result of executives that “good enough” is the new standard.
It is totally reasonable to argue that in an age where microphones and editing software are cheap, slick production doesn’t carry the weight it once did. That is true for the podcasters and TikTokers that are creating content in spare bedrooms and home offices. If you’re ESPN or FOX or SirusXM, that slick production is what sells the idea that your content is better than what people can make at home on their own.
It’s soundproof studios, 4K cameras and futuristic graphics packages that make the standard setters in the industry special. Maybe your average Joe Six-Pack can’t put it into words. He just knows that a lot of home-produced content sounds and looks like play time compared to what he sees or hears on a network.
Sure, the anchors are the signature of SportsCenter’s heyday, but it was the stage managers, producers, and other behind-the-scenes staff doing their jobs that really made the show thrive. Those people cost money. The details they took care of may be something 90% of viewers will never notice. They will just know that they are watching a really good show. Those difference makers cannot do their jobs to the best of their abilities if everyone is being piped in from a different FaceTime feed.
In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic we did whatever we had to. As broadcasters, we made compromises. As an audience, we accepted compromises. We were desperate for familiar entertainment and if Zoom is what it took to get it, that was just fine. There was no cure, no vaccine, things were scary and we were all anxious not knowing how long it would all last.
More than 18 months later, things may not be back to normal, but we are considerably less desperate. There are signs of normalcy in the world. Make the commitment to bring back the standard that won you so many fans in the first place.
If Netflix Wants Live Sports, F1 May Be Just The Beginning
“Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.”
In the past, Hollywood dealmakers and stockbrokers wondered whether another studio or streamer would catch Netflix. Its dominance stemmed from being a first-mover and not having a serious competitor until Amazon and Disney ten or more years after their launch. However, Netflix would eventually have to compete for content, original and licensed, other platforms that offered less expansive ad-based options, and additional content like live sports or a very popular series or movie premiere.
Arguably, the pandemic accelerated the move to digital and it allowed competitors to gain subscribers because people were spending more time at home. More subscribers and additional streaming options for consumers has not caused Netflix to faulter, but it has caused Netflix to rethink its sports strategy. For years, Netflix was dead set again streaming live sports because of their cost and commercials—Netflix does not have advertisements on its platform currently.
Netflix’s popular Drive to Survive docuseries about the Formula 1 (or “F1”) racing circuit, which was renewed for a fourth season, and the Michael Jordan/Chicago Bulls The Last Dance represents a golden era and renaissance of sports documentaries. As much as fans of feature films and television series enjoy learning about actors during and off camera they similarly want to know about sports stars, their coaches, and franchises. In other words, the business of sports is booming in valuation and behind-the-scenes content.
Recently, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings stated that the popularity of Drive to Survive has caused the company to rethink its stance on purchasing live sports content. The broadcast and streaming rights to Formula 1 will become available via ESPN and Sky Sports in 2022 and 2024. Netflix, will have some competition to secure F1 rights, which will drive up the cost. It was also reported by Front Office Sports that the Netflix CEO would require a level of exclusivity for sports rights that other platforms do not normally require. The exclusivity is likely required because Netflix will want to justify the purchase price and to keep-in-line with what Netflix customers expect—exclusive content on the platform.
With Premier League club Manchester United looking to secure a broadcast deal for selling its rights outside of the traditional league format, it might be the perfect acquisition for Netflix. An exclusive team vs. an entire league would also be less expensive and more targeted. One aspect of uncertainty for all streamers is their subscribers overseas, particularly in untapped China. The international market is far from settled or established. Netflix also has a large operation in India so possibly cricket via the Indian Premier League (“IPL”) could be a rights purchase to consider.
In 2018, the original content on Netflix only accounted for 8%. This means that 92% of the content on the platform just a few years ago was all owned (at least partially) by someone else. That statistic has changed because Disney+, Paramount+, Peacock, HBO Max, Apple+, and many others have since been created and stocked or restocked with content. Controlling interest in Hulu was even purchased from FOX by Disney. Disney and Amazon now both rival Netflix in terms of subscribers. Netflix will shrewdly need to continue to rethink its strategy because its first-mover advantage and long-time industry leading dominance is no longer guaranteed.
As Comcast-owned NBCUniversal CEO Brian Roberts recently said, purchasing sports rights can be difficult. Sports rights are expensive. Exclusive sports rights are even more expensive. Sports rights only become available every five to ten years. Networks and streamers are highly competitive to secure those rights with the hope of landing viewers, subscribers, and advertising dollars.
Will Netflix get into sports rights bidding? In the past, the digital entertainment giant has been steadfast is its non-sports approach. However, the market has changed and is flooded with more competitors now. Netflix has to change to meet its customer and the market needs.
Formula 1 presents an interesting scenario for Netflix as a buyer and partner. F1 is a popular league internationally and growing in the United States. Two new F1 races in Miami, Florida, and Austin, Texas, in addition to season four of the Drive to Survive Netflix series are sure to drive traffic, pun intended, and interest in the racing sport.
Formula 1 is a sports league that will cost less to purchase streaming rights than a traditional American “Big 4” like the NBA, NFL, or MLB. Formula 1’s structure is also centered at the top so it would be easier to make an exclusive deal that Netflix seeks. The remaining questions being, will Netflix pursue Formula 1 sports rights to increase its streaming platform subscribers and compete with others? Second, will Netflix be the first to offer commercial free live sports programming—for a premium price—or offer in-screen ads and additional during-break inside looks, content, and analysis? Or will Netflix act more like a traditional broadcaster and offer advertisements to pay down its purchase price? One will know more after a few laps around the sun.
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