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Darren Rovell on his move from ESPN to the Action Network: ‘They’re buying me as a brand’

If sports gambling is going to sweep the country, Darren Rovell wants a piece of it.

The longtime ESPN sports business reporter has officially left the cable giant to join the Action Network, a start-up media company focused on sports gambling. His first day at Action is Monday, where his title will be senior executive producer.

“ESPN does a great job covering gambling, but winners in spaces today are the ones in the niches, not generalists,” Rovell said in an interview. “People aspire to go to organizations that are specialists. You feel good watching CNBC because all they do is business. All Action does is gambling.”

ESPN let Rovell out of his contract early to join Action. His departure comes during the same week that Rhode Island became the eighth state to accept sports wagers and on the heels of a report that nearly $600 million was wagered in New Jersey in four-plus months of legalized sports gambling.

More states are expected to legalize sports betting in the coming months and some experts believe New Jersey could soon eclipse Nevada in total money bet on sports, suggesting the appetite for wagering across the country hasn’t yet been satiated.

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Rovell has covered the burgeoning industry for ESPN while also marveling at the speed of its growth since the Supreme Court last year overturned a decades-old law that limited most sports wagering to Nevada.

“I’m watching the East Coast turn into its own Las Vegas,” he said.

At Action, Rovell plans to maintain the ubiquitous presence he built at ESPN — tweeting constantly, while writing breaking news stories in the gambling world that revolve around sponsorships, league activity and also betting trends and big bets cashed around the country. (The NBA has reached a sponsorship deal with MGM, as has the NHL. Major League Baseball just announced a partnership with MGM this week.)

Rovell will also consult on larger content strategy, including social media.

Rovell declined to say if he received equity in Action, but said, “I am incentivized to grow Action as big as possible.”

What Action, in turn, is getting is a reporter with the kind of reach — he has two million Twitter followers — that can both help visibility for a still-new company and also potentially drive customers to its website and app, where it offers reams of betting data and information, some free and some behind a paywall. Action could also enter the affiliate business in the future, getting a fee for referring bettors to gambling operators, which would increase the value of driving more readers to its app.

Action CEO Patrick Keane said, “Darren’s largely responsible for taking the business of sports into the mainstream and we want him to do the same for sports betting. He’s a tireless promoter of all things.”

The promotional aspect of Rovell’s work has made him a lightning rod of sorts in sports journalism. The New York Post’s Andrew Marchand referred to Rovell as a “journalist” in quotation marks when parsing his move to Action this week, which was perhaps kind, considering the perception of Rovell in some corners of the Internet. Rovell has long been criticized for being too close to the companies he covers, and sometimes derided as little more than a mouthpiece for entities like Nike.

Journalist Will Leitch once described Rovell as “a shill for corporations” and “far more skeptical of the average fan than he is of his business sources.”

Asked if he would cover the gambling industry critically, Rovell said he would.

“People say he’s not that critical because he gets the scoops — he’s nice and this and that,” Rovell said. “But look at the breadth of my work and you would know I do slam Under Armour when they have a bad [Stephen] Curry shoe. It’s in my best interest to tell the great stories in gambling, but also be critical when something goes wrong.”

He added: “I’m a journalist. I would never have gone to work for a sports gambling operator.”

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Rovell has been at ESPN for the last six years, his second stint at the network. In between, he reported for CNBC from 2006-12; he also hosted the show, “NBC SportsBiz: Game On” on the NBC Sports Network.

Action was created last year by the Chernin Group, a holding company that also has stakes in Barstool Sports and the Athletic. The site and its app cover sports gambling and produce a show that airs on ESPN’s platform, ESPN+, called “I’ll Take That Bet.” Action hired Chad Millman, the former editor in chief of ESPN the Magazine, last year to lead its content team.

Now Action has gone back to ESPN and poached Rovell, its most high-profile acquisition to date.

“They’re buying me as a brand,” Rovell said. “They’re buying a brand with two million Twitter followers. And I’ll be tweeting links to promote everything — the website, the app and my stories."

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