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Over the past couple of years, ESPN has increased its coverage of what's always been an extremely sensitive topic for leagues and TV networks - sports betting. NPR's Uri Berliner explains now how that happened and why.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: For people who wager on sports, there's no more basic number than the point spread - the betting line oddsmakers set between the favorite and the underdog.
ROB KING: You know, there was a time when we would talk about it without talking about it.
BERLINER: That's Rob King, head of ESPN's flagship show, "SportsCenter."
KING: We'd say phrases like, the game's going to be closer than the experts think or, you know, little side phrases.
BERLINER: But gradually, and over the past year especially, ESPN has become more overt and direct. Here's Las Vegas betting analyst R.J. Bell on "SportsCenter" in April talking about the NCAA men's final four.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPORTSCENTER")
R.J. BELL: Well, first game, we've got Kentucky favored by five at this point over Wisconsin. The game was six. It's been bet down by the professionals.
BERLINER: For a number of years, betting news like this had been part ESPN's radio talk shows, podcasts and online columns. But "SportsCenter" is much more visible with 18 live hours daily, as mainstream and big-time as you can get. And when King rolled out more gambling coverage on SportsCenter last year, it was a decision made with care.
KING: We did ask ourselves how overt we were going to be on our full-screen graphics and our language. I will tell you that we decided that we would try to be authentic and, in that case, use terms that we might not have 2 or 3 years ago with the thought that, look, if we heard it, and it looked bad to us or it didn't sound right to us, we could always pull back.
BERLINER: The reason for such sensitivity - one, sports betting is illegal throughout most of the United States. Two, pro and college sports have always sought to distance themselves completely from gambling, and ESPN has deep connections with those leagues. Vince Doria retired as director of news at ESPN in March.
VINCE DORIA: You know, our concerns, mostly, were not so much journalistic as they were based on the relationships with business partners - the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the NCAA and, by extension, the college leagues and conferences.
BERLINER: Then, last November, NBA commissioner Adam Silver wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in which he advocated legal, carefully regulated sports betting. ESPN's Rob King read that interest.
KING: This was a - something a watershed moment, yes. But it was also validation because we really thought that in covering this content, we were serving audiences the way they wanted to be served.
BERLINER: Vince Doria says another reason ESPN started paying more attention to gambling - the growth of fantasy sports, especially daily fantasy sports, which are basically an amped-up version of weekly contests like fantasy football.
DORIA: No doubt about it. I think a big factor - you know, while fantasy sports has been deemed legal and not gambling, there's no doubt that these one-day fantasy entities - you know, thinly veiled gambling. You're basically betting daily on players instead of teams.
BERLINER: That is, these are legal sites where cash is risked on player performance instead of the outcome of a game. And in a sign of changing times, instead of shunning these sites, Major League Baseball and the NBA have turned them into business partners.
DORIA: The leagues have decided that, you know, fantasy sports is out there, and we might as well make some money off this since they're making money off of our product.
BERLINER: It's not just the leagues getting into daily fantasy. Just this week, ESPN said it would put daily fantasy sports on its platforms through a deal with one of those companies, DraftKings. And here's one last reason ESPN is more comfortable with gambling - the rise of the nerds. The sports world is big into data and analytics. And the deep statistics valued by teams, reporters and hard-core fans, they're also valued by betters. All of this troubles antigambling activists like Les Bernal. He's with a group called Stop Predatory Gambling. Bernal says ESPN and the sports media in general act as PR vehicles for the gambling industry.
LES BERNAL: You know, major television networks, you're validating this. So it's one thing to tuck it the back pages of - in the past, newspapers would have, you know, point spreads in the back of the paper or whatever. It's there for people who want it, but it wasn't in your face.
BERLINER: And he says when it's in your face, the temptation to bet increases.
BERNAL: Yeah. Without question, the more gambling gets covered, it makes it more acceptable.
BERLINER: "SportsCenter's" Rob King says ESPN is not advocating for gambling. Instead, he says, it is committed to serving all sports fans and being authoritative in every meaningful sports conversation. Uri Berliner, NPR News.
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