ESPN’s inclusion of point spreads during its College GameDay coverage is a bold development that has even those in the sport’s gambling industry astounded.
“It was amazing to me last year just to see the spreads on the screen,” prominent oddsmaker Jay Kornegay said last week during an interview with the ESPN radio affiliate in Las Vegas. “Now they’re adding making picks as selections against the spread this year, so the coverage is just tremendous.”
Kornegay, the Westgate Las Vegas Race and Sportsbook director, finished his comment by saying, “This is happening only because there is a demand out there.”
Give ESPN credit for to playing to its audience.
The sports network giant last week reported that global gaming research firm Gambling Compliance projects that a widespread legal American market – in casino sportsbooks and online gambling sites – outside of Nevada would produce $12.4 billion in annual revenue.
As it is now, with sports gambling only legal in Nevada, an estimated $95 billion is expected to be wagered – mostly illegally – on college football and NFL games this season, according to the ESPN report.
The interest in point spreads is as rampant as fantasy leagues. Sites such Draft Kings and Fan Duel have become wildly popular. ESPN and other media outlets have increasingly emphasized a player’s fantasy numbers in recent years.
It was only a matter of time before ESPN and other television networks discussed point spreads in depth on the air.
Spectators are putting their money on the line with their college football bets. That makes every game interesting. Television viewers want to know an analyst’s opinion, the latest spread and injury report whether it’s Oregon vs. Michigan State or Western Michigan playing Georgia Southern.
ESPN’s executives realize the groundswell of interest – outside of the state of Nevada – and have thrown caution to the wind, as they should, displaying the latest odds throughout a GameDay telecast. “Cover alerts” from the studio mention if a game is close to the point spread or the over-under line (the total amount of points scored by both teams that odd makers placed on the game).
“We recognize that fans are increasingly interested in this conversation and that millions engage in legal sports betting,” an ESPN statement, published by USA Today, said. “Our coverage has mirrored that larger trend in recent years and this is another step. We will approach this subject the way we do any beat we cover — providing information while examining trends, topics and stories that are shaping the wider conversation. Our mission is to serve fans and we believe this is consistent with that.”
Aside from College Gameday reaching areas where sports gambling is illegal, the concern exists about athletes and coaches exposed to point spreads.
“I don’t think those are things that ought to be a part of the presentation of college football, but maybe that’s the environment in which we find ourselves,” Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby told USA Today. ”I am quite sure that all of (the Big 12’s presidents and athletic directors) feel as I do that it’s inappropriate.”
ESPN can’t base its coverage on sports gambling laws or the NCAA rule book that forbids players and coaches to participate in sports wagering activities, including college, amateur or professional sports. The NCAA and its member institutions must make that governance work on their own.
Additional college sporting events in Las Vegas in recent years indicate not all institutions and their administrators are apprehensive of visiting the gambling capital of the world.
The Pac-12, West Coast Conference, Mountain West Conference and Western Athletic Conference each have their basketball tournaments in Las Vegas, showcased at casino arenas no less. Many in-season tournaments are also scheduled in Sin City.
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne communicated to me that scheduling games in Las Vegas is not a concern for him. The Wildcat football team recently concluded a home-and-home arrangement with UNLV. The basketball program is in the midst of a four-game series with the Running Rebels.
“We do not have a problem scheduling games in Las Vegas, but our teams usually stay at non-gaming hotels,” he wrote in a message. “When they stay at hotels that have gaming (such as the MGM Grand where the Pac-12 tournament is staged), we talk with our student-athletes about what our expectations are while they are there.”
Another significant sign of sports-gambling acceptance: The 40-year ban of point spreads involving UNLV and Nevada games, or other events held in Las Vegas, was lifted in 2001.
UNLV’s new football field prominently showcases the iconic “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign in each end zone and at the 50-yard-line markers. The other yard markers feature a diamond design with the same theme used by the old Stardust Resort and Casino.
No question, the times, they are changing.
The spectator has the loudest voice. College football programs won’t post point spreads on their scoreboards any time soon. The possibility exists, however, that sports wagering can impact the popularity of the sport and potentially help at the gate.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is keeping an open mind of ESPN’s attention to sports gambling during college football broadcasts. He understands it is the way of the world. As he told USA Today, “we have to mindful of the realities of the culture developing around us.”