Usually with a wink or a grin, Al Michaels has long sneaked subtle references to sports gambling into his NFL broadcasts, references often undetectable to the uninitiated but unmistakable to anyone with a working knowledge of the point spread — or with money on the line. Michaels is a maestro at laying out the stakes in games that might look like blowouts but that remain interesting for other reasons.
A change in federal law that will hasten the spread of legalized sports betting won’t alter his approach, though he predicted that with time, the wink and grin won’t feel quite so playfully verboten.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with this through the years, coming in a backdoor, a side door, whatever — different ways to use the English language — people know what I’m talking about,” he said this week. “But in the past when I would do this, it was almost as if the fans would think, ‘He’s not supposed to do it, but that’s kind of cool.’ Now it’s going to be out there.”
Both the NFL and its broadcast partners have a curious new dilemma to grapple with this season. With sports betting largely destigmatized and no longer federally outlawed, networks and their on-air talent must decide whether gambling references have a place in game broadcasts and related programming, much as fantasy football content has for years.
Network producers and executives say it’s too early to expect the broadcasts to feel or sound significantly different, even if the interest and availability of sports gambling will be higher this season. For starters, there’s language in the contracts between broadcast partners and the league that bars overt discussions of sports gambling.
“At this point, we’re going to honor the deals and there won’t be any specific gambling messages on our air this year,” said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
“Then again,” Gaudelli said, referring to Michaels, “late in the fourth quarter, I have a rascal up in the booth.”
In May, the Supreme Court overturned the Professional and Amateur Sports Act that outlawed sports betting in most of the country, essentially opening the doors for states to legalize and regulate sports wagering. As the NFL opens its new season next week, four states are already accepting sports bets — Nevada, New Jersey, Delaware and Mississippi. Many others are lining up and debating legislative bills, with a handful likely to open betting windows before season’s end, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. Charles Town, located in the panhandle of West Virginia near its border with both Maryland and Virginia, will open a sportsbook next week, becoming the closest sports gambling option for much of the Washington region.
“Right now we’re not planning to discuss gambling information in our broadcast,” said Sean McManus, chair of CBS Sports. “Whether it’s lines or over-under — we’re just not. There’s still a very small number of states that have approved it. So again, we’re going to monitor the situation, but the plan is not to address gambling issues in our NFL coverage.”
While the NFL has publicly opposed legalized sports gambling, its broadcast partners seem to know there’s a hunger for information and analysis that might satisfy both fans and bettors. Gambling-specific media companies, like the Action Network and Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN), have bulked up their offerings, and traditional outlets like ESPN have been actively discussing how gambling could reshape their products. Fox Sports already announced an hour-long weekday show dedicated to sports betting, “Lock it In,” that will debut next month.
“We’re going to be really thoughtful about it,” said Connor Schell, ESPN’s executive vice president for content. “We know there’s a huge intersection of sports fans and those who bet, and now that they can do that legally, we’ll think about if we want to inject content inside existing shows, if we want to create some stand-alone programming. I think those things under consideration, but no decisions have been made.”
ESPN will broadcast 17 NFL games this year, starting with a “Monday Night Football” doubleheader on Sept. 10. While the network has already incorporated sports betting into some of its digital and TV offerings, Schell said the network is studying the matter “with new interest.”
“I think we’ve talked a lot about things being in the first inning,” he said, and “this is the first batter.”
Even if networks don’t make overt gambling allusions or references to betting lines, broadcasts have already evolved in recent years to accommodate fans who aren’t simply rooting for a favorite team, incorporating regular discussion about fantasy football implications and statistical updates both during game broadcasts and in pre- and post-game shows.
“Fantasy football has in its DNA a gambling component,” said Jim Nantz, the veteran CBS play-by-play announcer. “Whether you like it or not, maybe it’s not full-blown gambling, but it is gambling. There’s action — the merging of money and analytics.”
Nantz, who has anchored CBS’s top NFL announcing crew since 2004, doesn’t anticipate his approach to calling games suddenly to change.
“But of course, I’m trained the old-fashioned way,” he said, “where if you mention gambling on the air, you’re toeing a fine line there.”
Nantz said he could see those restraints relaxing in time, but suggested that fans will always have a broadcast that feels familiar and is focused on the players, teams and results that affect the standings, rather than bettors’ bottom lines.
“I don’t think as the documenters of the league, our role is going to change in terms of game-calling and getting into scenarios. I don’t think that’s going to deviate all that much,” he said. “But who knows, maybe there’s one day where there’s an auxiliary channel and you get the base network feed and then there’s some substation channel the network has with two guys talking about wagers and bets as the game unfolds.
“I think there will always be the classic network feed, but is there a chance of something different down the line? You know, maybe,” he said. “The world changes.”
Ben Strauss contributed to this report.
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