LAS VEGAS — Brent Musburger walked through the sportsbook inside the South Point casino, past the whirl of numbers and teams on the wall showing favorites and underdogs for upcoming games, a language of dreams and disasters in yellow, green and red lights. Musburger headed toward the final chapter of his career as a sports broadcaster: a glass-paneled television studio smack in the middle of a casino floor, next to a bank of Happy Festival slot machines.
As Musburger entered the studio, two gamblers stopped to greet him, their shirts sleeveless and their Rs dropped. “You look like a couple of guys who took the Patriots!” Musburger said with a wide smile, referencing the Super Bowl. The men giggled in the manner of children meeting Santa Claus at the mall. “You’re looking at a guy who had you beat for three quarters!” Musburger continued. “You know what I’m saying? Okay! What a comeback!”
For more than half of his 77 years, Musburger lived inside living rooms. He anchored the pioneering “NFL Today” pregame show, provided play-by-play for six NBA Finals and seven college football title games, always reminding the audience they . . . were . . . looking . . . LIVE at some of the biggest spectacles in sports. He remarked upon fetching women in the stands and made not-so-oblique references to point spreads, sharing insights he had gleaned from “my guys in the desert.” He grew into a distinctly American character, one of the most recognized faces and voices in sports, ahead of his time in regard to gambling early in his career and behind it in his outlook toward women later.
In late January, Musburger left ESPN despite the network’s attempts to retain him for . . . what, exactly? Musburger hosts “My Guys in the Desert,” a daily two-hour show on the Vegas Stats & Information Network. He sits in a glass box in the middle of a casino and discusses sports gambling in insider vernacular, a patter of point spreads and line movements. He interviews bookmakers and gamblers, quants and touts, most of them old friends.
Monday’s show was a big one, the first day after the NCAA tournament bracket reveal. Musburger sat in the middle of a desk, flanked by co-host Ron Flatter and looking into five television screens above a gaggle of producers and assistants. To the side, an old blackjack table served as a desk. People scurried around. Musburger felt fired up.
“Here we go now!” Musburger yelled. “In five, 10, we got it! Move fast, boys!”
Musburger had driven to the South Point from his new apartment. Before he found the place, the South Point simply gave him a room upstairs in its hotel for three weeks. Literally, the first thing Brent Musburger did after four decades in broadcasting was live in a casino.
For those weeks, Musburger would head downstairs at 6:30 a.m., to drink his first cup of coffee in the lounge just off the sportsbook. As he read the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Los Angeles Times, he could catch the early crowd coming in and the late crowd straggling out. His wife would sometimes wonder how Musburger felt about his semi-retirement project.
“ ‘How you doing?’ Arlene would say to me,” Musburger said. “ ‘Oh, Arlene, you can’t believe it, I can’t wait to get out of here.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Whoa, if she only knew. I’m right in the middle of all this!’ But she really does know. We’ve been married 55 years. She gets it. She gets it.”
She must. In 2002, Musburger invited Flatter, his longtime ESPN Radio producer, to attend the Belmont Stakes in the afternoon and then watch a prizefight between Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis at ESPN Zone in New York that night. On the limo ride back into Manhattan, after a day of betting races, Musburger blurted, “Hold on, I have to give Arlene a call.” Musburger pressed his cellphone to his ear, and when Arlene answered, Flatter heard him shout, “Happy anniversary!” It was their 39th.
The eclectic nature of Musburger’s broadcasting career owes to the same characteristic that ultimately led him to Las Vegas. Try to imagine Joe Buck or Jim Nantz, years from now, calling the Little League World Series or a random midweek NBA tilt on the radio. Long after he had covered championship games, golf majors and Olympics, Musburger not only accepted those assignments; he reveled in them.
“I like being around action,” Musburger said. “I love action, okay?”
Musburger started Monday’s show without his signature. He said he believes “You are looking live!” does not work for the conversational, intimate show. Instead, he relayed a story he heard on the radio on his drive into the South Point, about how the Statler Brothers recorded “Flowers on the Wall.”
“I’ve had days like that,” Musburger said later. “ ‘Smoking cigarettes and watching Captain Kangaroo.’ I totally got it, man.”
Musburger has long been fascinated by the culture around sports wagering. In his career-launching role, starting in 1975, Musburger hosted “The NFL Today” alongside commentator Jimmy Snyder, better known as Jimmy the Greek. Snyder introduced Musburger to associates from his days as an oddsmaker.
“I came to believe that the professional sports bettors and bookmakers are the most knowledgable sports fans in the country,” Musburger said. “I love sitting around talking to them.”
He admired their expertise and insight, and the risk and stakes thrilled him. He started placing his own bets through friends in Vegas, $50 or $100 at a time, maybe up to $500.
“But not on the games I was doing,” Musburger said. “Everybody thought so.”
In the mid-’80s, Musburger began sprinkling his broadcasts with references to point spreads and over/unders (a bet on the total number of points scored in a game). He said he believes it started during Oklahoma football broadcasts, when then Sooners went on a streak of covering large spreads. Late in an otherwise uncompetitive contest, he may have remarked, “Some scores mean more than others.” Some viewers missed the references. Others nodded, in elation or grief. Out on the road, fans started approaching Musburger to ask, “Are we going to cover the spread?”
Not everyone shared their enthusiasm. Sports betting long has been taboo in the eyes of leagues that worry about the perception of how it might damage the integrity of games. At “The NFL Today,” Musburger and Snyder couldn’t reference spreads directly. When he moved from CBS to ESPN, “one of the executives took me in a back room and took me to the woodshed over giving an over/under on Notre Dame and Ohio State in a Fiesta Bowl,” Musburger said. After he called an NFC championship game, he read the initial point spread for the Super Bowl — gleaned through a call to acquaintance Jimmy Vaccaro, now an oddsmaker at the South Point — on the air. Later, an NFL executive scolded him.
Over his career, the sports world moved to his view. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called for federally regulated, nationwide legalization of sports betting in an editorial. ESPN routinely runs point spreads on its crawl. Sports leagues have partnered with daily fantasy sports websites that, by any reasonable definition, allow customers to bet money on the outcome of sporting events. The need for Musburger to wink and nod slowly vanished.
“It’s only about 10,000 times what it used to be,” Vaccaro said. “The walls have started to crumble.”
Musburger’s energy, even at 77, carried the show. He called everyone “lad” or “kid” or “mate.” A longtime viewer of Musburger could have discerned no difference between his enthusiasm for calling a game on ESPN or asking a statistical expert about the World Baseball Classic.
“I don’t care if it’s one person, or one million,” Musburger said. “That never entered into my mind. You owe them your best shot. I’m as enthused as what’s going on with this as the Sugar Bowl or SEC basketball.”
Musburger extended his contract with ESPN in early 2016, and he assumed he would work there until he no longer could. ESPN had moved him down the pecking order in college football, assigning him to night games on the SEC Network rather than ABC’s “Saturday Night Football.” In an industry dense with ego, Musburger could have revolted. He never minded.
“I always view it as change,” Musburger said. “There’s no need getting upset if they decide to go in a younger direction. What the hell? What was better than SEC football and the fans I dealt with? I never get bitter at anything.”
Four years ago, his nephew, Brian, hatched an idea for a show that could take advantage of sports bettors, a massive and largely untapped television audience.
As Musburger continued his ESPN career, Brian convinced Michael Gaughan, the owner of the South Point and a longtime friend of Musburger’s, to build the studio. A year ago, Sirius XM agreed to broadcast VSiN’s content, a degree of legitimacy that Brian felt enabled him to ask his uncle if he wanted to become the fledgling network’s face.
“He knew my weak spot,” Musburger said. “The truth of the matter is, I was going to move to Vegas, anyway.”
The morning after Musburger called the Sugar Bowl in January, he had breakfast with John Skipper and Stephanie Druley, two of the highest-ranking executives at ESPN. They made one last attempt to keep him. Musburger discussed it with Arlene and made his final decision. He told his brother Todd, who doubles as his agent, he was leaving.
When his Monday show finished, he laughed as he told a reporter, “It’s great working for a group that, when I see a beautiful woman, I can call her a beautiful woman.” Musburger had, over the years, rankled many by referring to the attractiveness of female fans. (“Fifteen hundred red-blooded Americans just decided to apply to Florida State,” he once said after the camera showed three scantily clad Seminole football fans.)
During the Sugar Bowl, many decried Musburger’s comments that seemed to defend Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who two years ago punched a woman on tape. Musburger said the criticism had nothing to do with his departure.
Per Brian Musburger’s data, more than 200,000 viewers streamed Sunday’s show on VSiN’s website. “We may have beaten FS1,” he said. “I believe those numbers put us right in that area.”
Musburger has committed to broadcast for VSiN for two years. “If I’m having as much fun as I did today with the guys,” he said Monday, “I may do it a lot longer.”
For the final segment Monday, Vincent Magliulo, the sports director and another one of his guys in the desert, sat to his left. Musburger asked him how various oddsmakers had disagreed on certain NCAA tournament spreads. The clock ticked toward 5 p.m.
“Time flies when you’re having fun!” Musburger said. “Two hours went by like that.” He snapped his fingers. Musburger read a South Point promo, signed off and clapped his hands.
“Cold one time!” Musburger shouted to the room as he removed his headphones. “Woo!”
Musburger walked across the South Point floor, to the Silverado lounge. He and Flatter bought a round of Budweiser bottles with yellow tickets, vouchers the sportsbook gives customers for making a bet. As Musburger sipped beer and told stories, a man approached the table and gushed that he had reupped his Sirius subscription for the sole purpose of listening to Musburger’s VSiN shows.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Musburger replied. “Getting feedback from guys like you.”
Musburger has been talking to people most of his life, and he remains grateful when they listen. After the man left, Musburger’s jaw loosened a bit, in genuine awe. “Awesome,” he mouthed.
Musburger pulled two more yellow drink tickets from the old briefcase, handed them to Flatter and announced he had to leave. He walked out of the bar and ambled toward the exit, dressed in all black, so happy, after all these years, to be a guy in the desert.