Your eyes did not deceive you. If you watched ESPN’s College GameDay on Saturday, you indeed saw the on-set cast pick games against the spread. While it was bold, new ground for the iconic traveling college football circus, it’s part of a growing trend of traditional sports media incorporating gambling into its content. You’ve seen gambling graphics and “cover alerts” popping up on Fox Sports and ESPN with more regularity—and it’s likely only the beginning for sports networks and other mainstream outlets that previously shied away from sports gambling-centric content.
“We talked about doing this all of the past offseason and we’ve considered this for a long period of time,” said Lee Fitting, the coordinating producer for College GameDay and one of the point people for ESPN’s coverage of college football. “We recognize that fans are very interested in this type of talk. Our goal on College GameDay is to serve the fans and we believe by doing this, from time to time and when we feel it’s right, serves the fan.”
Fitting said GameDay will aim for any gambling stat to have value for non-gamblers. Deciding on which games to pick straight up versus the spread will change week to week.
“When there are 8 to 10 competitive high-profile games to pick ‘straight up,’ then we will do that” said Fitting, who discussed and outlined his plans with his superiors in the offseason. “There is no model that we will follow with this other than to do what feels right for that week. I don’t think it was earth shattering one way or the other, but I do think we really engaged viewers who like that type of conversation.
"We are always looking at ways to create original content to inform those fans who like to gamble. For years, we gave out trends/analytics/numbers that help those groups. This was just the next step. It’s interesting too as you really examine it, the growth of analytics in sports has increased the number of folks who bet on sports as well as changed the way many people look at betting.”
For GameDay, the majority of the gambling mentions will center around ESPN senior researcher Chris Fallica, a longtime staffer and recent on-air contributor who is nicknamed “The Bear.” Said Fitting, “That’s his specialty, his niche, and we feel comfortable when he is delivering this kind of information.”
But the main set analysts will be involved as they were last week. How did the cast react to the new directive? “Like me, they realize this is good in doses, not overload,” Fitting said. “We have to make sure we are still doing everything we can to preserve the integrity of the show and serving the fan. If that means picking games straight up, great. If it means picking a few games versus the spread great. We decided to add a few high-profile teams—Oklahoma/Tennessee/Penn State—who we hadn’t discussed in great detail anywhere else in the show in the picks and versus the spread segment to give the viewer added information. We have done ‘prop-type’ picks for years on the show. This is just a different version of that.”
Fitting said pushback from university administration or the NCAA is always a concern with this kind of material but he believed GameDay would do things in a smart and thoughtful manner. He said he was in constant contact with ESPN’s Programming Department, who would likely handle any angry calls from NCAA officials.
“The bottom line is this: We won’t go overboard with gambling talk.” Fitting said. “We just won’t. Our viewer is going to get College GameDay as he or she knows it. When we talk gambling and point spreads, it’ll be done in a smart, well-thought out manner. We will do it when we feel it serves the fans who gamble as well as the fans who don’t. It has to be conversation that serves both. By no means are we going to be nutty about this, but at the same time College GameDay will be at the forefront of this conversation. Look, it’s 2015. You have to understand the landscape and you have to understand who our viewers are, and we are trying to cater to them. Serve the fan. It’s that simple.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some notable stories in sports media.
1. ESPN’s broadcast of Ohio State’s win over Virginia Tech drew a 6.6 overnight rating, which ESPN said was the best for a college football game on opening weekend since 2010 across all networks. For comparison, Alabama’s win over Wisconsin on ABC’s Saturday Night Football drew a 4.3 overnight rating, while Notre Dame’s win over Texas on NBC drew a 2.56 overnight rating.
2. Thirty years ago, while coming off a Heisman Trophy-winning campaign at Boston College, NBC college football analyst Doug Flutie was among the first-team college football All-Americas chosen by United States Football League clubs in that league’s third annual draft. The team that drafted Flutie? The New Jersey Generals. And who owned the Generals? A New York City real estate developer named Donald Trump. I recently asked Flutie what his memories were of interacting with the now GOP Presidential contender.
Said Flutie: “Back then I was a naïve, young 22-year-old kid—I was afraid of Donald Trump. I was “yes, sir,” No, sir.” I didn’t talk a lot. I was intimidated. I didn’t get to know him back then like Herschel [Walker] did. He was flamboyant and loved to be in the limelight, his face out there front and center. He wanted me as his quarterback. He was excited about how I played the game and thought I would bring a flair and flash to his team. We crossed paths on the Letterman Show on the same night and had a chance to talk in the green room for quite a awhile.
"At that point I was starting quarterback in the NFL and doing well, going a Pro Bowl and all that, and he felt that little window of time validated him signing me way back when. Of course now he is running for office. It’s cool to have a little insight into who he is especially if he were to continue on and become the President. I wish him all the luck in the world but I know better than to get involved in politics.”
3. The latest Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN commentator Jemele Hill, the co-host of the ESPN2 daily show His & Hers, as well as a podcast of the same name. In the SI podcast, Hill discusses how her show is put together, her journey to get recognized as an on-air opinionist at ESPN, the dearth of black women offering opinion in the sports media, why Bill Simmons left ESPN, the prospects of The Undefeated site launching, how she approached interviewing Janay and Ray Rice, what it’s like for women in sports—and specifically minority women—in social media and more.
4. The Sporting News interviewed Roger Bennett of Men In Blazers.
4a. Sports photographer Neil Leifer is profiled by the Povich Center for Sport:
5. The fourth episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks averaged 9333,000 the most-watched telecast of the show this year and the most-watched Hard Knocks since the second episode of the 2012 edition of Hard Knocks (featuring the Dolphins). The season finale is tonight at 10 pm ET.