Connect with us

BSM Writers

Ben Fawkes Came To Take VSIN to the Next Level

“I think the biggest thing is the future is really bright and there is so much talent here.”

Vik Chokshi

Published

on

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.

Ben Fawkes, VP Digital Content VSiN | VSiN

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?”

Sports Gambling Evolves: A Bookie Nears the End of the Line - Bloomberg

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.

Feder: The Score to air VSiN sports betting reports

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.

Michael Jordan - Michael Jordan Photos - Air Jordan XX Launch Party - Zimbio

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.

BSM Writers

The Big Ten Didn’t Learn ANYTHING From the NHL’s Mistake

However, to not have your product ever mentioned outside of Saturdays ever again on the network that literally everyone associates with sports seems like a steep tradeoff to me.

Published

on

ESPN, Big Ten

My favorite moments in life involve watching someone/something on the verge of a great moment and after a lot of struggling, get to the moment that makes them happier than you cam imagine. You can feel your scowl shift from tepid observer to interested party and then finally transition to open fandom. I was on the verge of another one of those moments coming into this week until the Big Ten decided that they would make biggest mistake since the Legends and Leaders divisions.

The conference was closing in on a brand new set of media rights to go into effect starting with the 2023 football and basketball seasons. The discussions were near a climax when the USC and UCLA called Big Ten commish Kevin Warren. Then, the negotiations relaunched and something special was about to happen. The Big Ten was inches away from declaring themselves the richest and most forward-thinking conference in the entire country and if they could win a few football games, they’d be head ahead of the SEC.

You can argue until you are Gator Blue in the face but the fact is, the Big Ten was about to explode and pass the SEC. The conference was about to have games on FOX, ABC/ESPN, CBS and NBC. All of the networks. ALL OF THEM. They were also developing a package for a streaming service to test the waves of the web. It all sounded so damn smart.

Then, the Big Ten went dumb.

The conference got greedy and asked for too much from what would have been their most profitable partner in cachet, ESPN. Reportedly the conference asked ESPN for $380 million per year for seven years to broadcast the conference’s second-rated games… at best. My jaw hit the floor.

Pure, unapologetic greed got between the Big Ten and smart business. The conference forgot a lesson that the NHL learned the hard way. ESPN dominates sports. ESPN is sports.

I don’t need to go to far back in the archives to remind you that ESPN’s offer to the NHL for media rights wasn’t as lucrative financially as NBC’s was, but the NHL took the short-term money and ignored the far-reaching consequence. ESPN essentially wiped them from the regular discussion. Yes, there were some brief highlights and Barry Melrose did strut ass into the studio on occasion, but by no means was that sport a featured product anymore.

One afternoon I had someone tell me that they were upset ESPN was airing a promo for an upcoming soccer match that ESPN was carrying. He told me, “they’re only promoting it because they have the game.”

That’s kind of how this thing works. ESPN is in business with some sports and not others so it makes a lot of sense to promote those you are in business with, yeah? ESPN doesn’t spend a lot of time promoting Big Brother, Puppy Pals or ping pong either. Why would they? There is no incentive too.

Here’s the sad question. Why would ESPN bother promoting the Big Ten? Why would ESPN spend extra time on the air, on their social platforms, on their digital side, to promote something they don’t have access to? The Big Ten is a big deal, but is it that big of a deal?

I am not suggesting that ESPN will ignore the Big Ten. They will still get discussed on College GameDay. But why would the network’s premiere pregame show for decades go to any Big Ten games and feature the conference?

There will be highlights still shown on SportsCenter, but I’m willing to bet they get shorter.

The Big Ten chose network television and a streaming service over the behemoth that is ESPN. As far as streaming is concerned, consider that over half of all NFL frequent viewers still don’t know that Thursday Night Football games are on Amazon only this year. That’s a month away and that’s people who call themselves frequent NFL viewers and that’s the biggest, baddest league in the land. Good luck telling them Purdue/Rutgers is on Apple or Amazon. Streaming is a major part of the future, but it still isn’t the now.

ESPN may seem like the safe bet, but that’s because it’s the smartest bet. NBC is a fine network that spends a bajillion dollars on America’s Got Talent and The Voice. Fine shows, but tell me where I can watch highlights of the recent Notre Dame/Stanford game.

CBS is a wonderful network that dominated with the SEC package for a long time, but that’s because the very best SEC game each week went to CBS. Will they still dominate if they have the league’s #2 package? Because why wouldn’t FOX, Big Ten Network co-owner FOX, get the best game each week for Big Noon Saturday?

There isn’t a single one of us that has a good damn idea where college football will be in three, five or seven years but I do know that ESPN isn’t going anywhere. I know ESPN has elite talent at every level of production and on-air that’s been in place for a really, really long time. I also know ESPN cares way more about sports than the other networks. CBS would like the Big Ten to do well, but CSI: New Orleans is a priority, too.

The NHL went for quick money and it cost them market share. The sport is still trying to recover after being largely ignored by ESPN for 17 years. It wasn’t out of spite, it was out of business. The NHL once thought it didn’t need ESPN. Where’s the NHL now?

The money the Big Ten will generate is amazing, I will not deny that. It seems like a boondoggle of a lifetime to grab this cash. However, to not have your product ever mentioned outside of Saturdays ever again on the network that literally everyone associates with sports seems like a steep tradeoff to me. The Big Ten is going to get paid a lot now but in the long term, they will pay the most.

Continue Reading

BSM Writers

Will Big Ten Lose Relevance Without ESPN’s Machine Behind It?

Does ESPN’s grip over sports talk and the college football scene affect how a Big Ten team is perceived versus how an SEC or ACC team is looked at? We have yet to determine that but I don’t believe it will.

Published

on

It’s a historic time for the Big Ten. The athletic organization is about to become the first college conference to pass $1 billion per year in television rights. The other big news comes straight out of Bristol, Connecticut. ESPN is stepping away from broadcasting its games for the first time in 40 years. ABC will also no longer air Big Ten games for the first time since 1966. 

I became a fan of college football during the Reggie Bush/Matt Leinart era and have so many memories of watching USC on Fox Sports Net and ABC. It’s so crazy to imagine that ABC won’t be airing any USC home or intra-conference games for the first time since 1954. This is a move of epic proportions.

The change could be seen as questionable to some from the Big Ten’s point of view. ESPN is still in 80 million homes. ABC is opening up more slots in prime time for live sports to be available in as shows like Dancing With The Stars begin to transition to streaming exclusively on Disney+. Most of all, ESPN dominates the college football conversation. College Gameday is one of the best studio shows on television and attracts the attention of everyone from the influential to the Average Joe.

SportsCenter is still the sports news show of record and literally faces no other competition besides similar news programming on league owned networks. First Take, as bloviating as it can sound on television, is still one of cable’s highest rated live broadcasts on a daily basis and has a lot of relevancy on social media. Pardon The Interruption is one of the few shows on sports television (if any) that can still draw 1 million viewers on a daily basis. Paul Finebaum is an expert in the game that people trust, watch and listen to on a daily basis and is currently aligned with ESPN’s SEC Network. Finally, the College Football Playoff and Championship still air on the “Worldwide Leader”.

Does ESPN’s grip over sports talk and the college football scene affect how a Big Ten team is perceived versus how an SEC or ACC team is looked at? We have yet to determine that but I don’t believe it will. There seems to be an assumption among fans in forums and social media that all of a sudden ESPN is going to overrun its audience with debate topics and stories across its platforms that are focused solely on the SEC.

While there will be increased attention on the SEC across Disney-owned networks and sites, as there should be because that’s what ESPN is paying for, it is a proven fact that what rates best is a solid product with interesting conversation from multiple angles. Audiences will be able to easily decipher rather quickly whether what they are being served is interesting versus what is being fed to them purposefully and react very quickly. 

There is nothing executives love more than a highly rated, lively, and contentious broadcast that draws attention and contributes to the national conversation. Even though ESPN is more friendly with the SEC now, there is a reason why it is called show business is not called show friends. Why would ESPN want to drain out ratings from their linear programming especially given the already strenuous rope that basic cable is holding onto as a whole? 

Let’s just say Big Ten powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan are both ranked in the top 10 and playing in their traditional yearly game. Despite the fact that Fox will be broadcasting the game, I just don’t see how or why SportsCenter wouldn’t be giving such a prolific game the same coverage it would on a normal basis. There would most likely be no reason for College Gameday to not do their show live from the game or for shows like First Take and PTI to not participate in some sort of debate about it. It’s just not good business for a sports information destination to not engage in the practice of giving out information and analysis about sports even if they don’t own a particular sport or league’s broadcast rights. 

It might be possible to reduce coverage with less popular leagues such as NASCAR and the NHL, which ESPN has been accused of doing in the past, and get away with it without affecting your bottom line. While NASCAR and the NHL each have millions of fans worldwide, their fandom alone can’t compare to the influence which the alumni of major colleges and universities across the country can sway. The Big Ten alumni base is so far and wide that it would be too noticeable after being done consistently not to make some sort of dent. Disney’s own CEO Bob Chapek is an alum of Indiana and Michigan State.

The assumption that Gameday prefers SEC schools has already existed for a long time and could be a determining factor of why Fox’s pregame show Big Noon Kickoff, which has predominantly broadcasted its show from Big Ten schools, is already beating or coming close to Gameday’s ratings week after week.

I also don’t want to underestimate Fox, CBS, and NBC’s impact on the sports conversation. FS1’s “embrace debate” shows may not get the highest ratings but their distribution across social media and the podcast world is well established. The Herd with Colin Cowherd is the 13th most listened-to sports podcast in the country. Replays of FS1 shows are available 24 hours a day on FAST (free ad-supported television) channel apps such as Pluto TV and Tubi that reach millions of people. Fox also recently launched a channel with Fox Sports clips on Amazon’s news app that can reach up to 50 million active users.

CBS Sports has a news network reminiscent of the old ESPNEWS on that same app as well as Pluto TV and is a producer and television distributor for Jim Rome, one of the most listened to sports talk show hosts on radio. It also distributes the highest-rated sports talk morning show in New York – Boomer and Gio – on national TV.

NBC’s sports talk universe exists primarily through their Peacock app (which will reportedly have an exclusive package of its own) and includes Dan Patrick, number 12 on the podcast charts, and Michigan alum Rich Eisen, who has a robust presence on YouTube.

ESPN has more concurrent linear television viewers than its rivals daily. But sports talk content from Fox, CBS, and NBC can still reach a substantial audience through YouTube, FAST channels, streaming services, podcasts, and radio. Fox, CBS, and NBC’s non-sports talk programming throughout the day on their broadcast networks can also serve as a venue to expose the Big Ten’s athletes and schools in a non-traditional way and reach more people not exposed to college sports yet.

The biggest thing we can’t forget is that as of now, for the next 10 years, there will only be one college sports conference whose games are as widely broadcast to the masses as the NFL’s – the Big Ten. Unlike the cable networks, at least 100 million people (1/3 of the country) have a way to access Fox, CBS, and NBC every week. Whether ESPN is talking about the Big Ten or not, the conference will always be able to reach more people than the SEC and other counterparts week after week. Sports fans are already used to flipping between Fox, CBS, and NBC to watch their NFL games on Sundays. They know where to find all three channels and that alone makes the Big Ten the closest comparison that will ever exist to the NFL in our current media landscape. You literally can’t match that.

Continue Reading

BSM Writers

Producers Podcast – Nuno Teixeira, ESPN Radio

Brady Farkas

Published

on

Continue Reading
Advertisement

Barrett Media Writers

Copyright © 2021 Barrett Media.