Sports Betting Promises Big Changes for RSNs

Regional sports networks are positioned to take advantage of new opportunities

The U.S. sports-betting landscape is in the midst of a radical transformation following the 2018 Supreme Court decision that allowed sportsbooks across the country. Eight states currently allow sports betting, and another five are poised to allow it. And, although 18 states have rejected gambling legislation, there is plenty of interest among the others.

“Sports betting has moved from taboo to mainstream,” said Shawn Oleksiak, VP/EP, live events, NBC Sports Philadelphia. “It’s here, it’s not going away, and it’s big money.”

The questions facing the industry are numerous, but there are some key things broadcast networks looking to be successful will need to address. Many of those things were addressed during a sports-gambling panel at the recent SVG RSN Summit in Denver (Colorado voters will vote on the matter in November). Here’s a look at advice and observations offered.

Start Your Strategic Conversations Early
Oleksiak said his team has been discussing how to approach gambling-related content on a daily basis since 2018. Serving three states — New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware — that have passed gambling legislation, the network wanted to make sure it was ready.

From left: STATS’ Aaron Charlton, NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Shawn Oleksiak, and VSiN’s Stephan Shelanski at SVG’s RSN Summit in Denver

The result is a new viewer experience that takes a clean feed of the telecast and adds graphics offering various sports-betting odds and events. It was rolled out for Philadelphia 76er regular-season and playoff games beginning in March.

“We also had separate talent and, for the entire game, added graphics like the over/under, the spread, and others during each quarter,” Oleksiak said.

The chemistry of the talent matters, and great content will be very important. It needs to be fun, accurate, and timely, and things like latency are going to be a big issue to be overcome.

“The tone of the talent has to be that the game is a backdrop that can’t be ignored or disrespected,” Oleksiak advised. “They are still doing a game, and the storylines will change every play.”

Stephan Shelanski, EVP, distribution and strategy, VSiN (Vegas Stats & Information Network), discussed VSiN’s efforts as, currently, the only dedicated 24-hour live sports-betting channel. Veteran sports broadcaster Brent Musburger hosts a three-hour show Monday to Friday that embraces sports betting and leverages his decades of experience.

“A lot of people watched football and liked to bet on sports,” Shelanski said, “but Brent saw they wanted more info and wanted to launch a channel that would give people who are interested in sports betting all of the data and analytics they would want. And our studio is in Las Vegas at a 24-hour sportsbook, so it’s like CNBC being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It gives us access to talent like the guys who are the originators of the betting lines, and they can explain why the spread was the way it was and where the money is going.”

He gave one bit of advice: avoid touts and focus instead on information and statistics that can help bettors make more-informed bets. Often, touts are simply selling their own picks, and the goal is to make sure you build a relationship with viewers that increases their trust in the talent, who delivers honest, timely, and unbiased information.

RSNs Are Poised To Lead the Industry
National sports networks are offering sports-gambling programs, but, with betting still not legal across the entire nation, those efforts have been limited. However, an RSN whose core audience is in a market with legalized gambling is primed to exploit new opportunities.

“Regional sports networks are in a wonderful position to tailor content to the fan base,” said Shelanski. “On a regional basis, there is so much activity and more passion for sports betting. And then, you can tailor things like the line in your region and take advantage of that. There is great upside.”

In terms of programming strategies Shelanski said that bettors are always wanting to look forward and to the next game.

“They aren’t too interested in dwelling and seeing highlights,” he said. “They want as much information they can get and as early as they can get it. And they also want the first shot at things like football lines when they are announced on a Sunday, as there are opportunities there before the lines adjust as bets come in. It’s very similar to a stock market where sharp bettors can glean information.”

Be Sure To Meet the Needs of Both ‘Pros and Joes’
One challenge is figuring out how to produce a broadcast that teaches the vernacular (terms like over/under, point spread, and push) to sports-betting newcomers but doesn’t turn off the seasoned sports bettor. Lower-third graphics can go a long way towards quickly educating the newbie without losing the experts. And the tone of the talent and the excitement they bring to the broadcast can make both pros and joes feel comfortable.

Sportradar’s Steve Byrd: “You need to make the programming as broad as possible and have to be on top of everything for pros. That can get very complicated, but you need to educate the average bettor as well.”

Steve Byrd, head of global strategic partnerships, Sportradar, noted that serving both requires a fine balance.

“You need to make the programming as broad as possible and have to be on top of everything for pros, as they will catch you if you get something wrong,” he said. “You have to be on your game but also broadly appealing for people who are just starting. You need to go very deep. That can get very complicated, but you need to educate the average bettor as well.”

For example, figuring out how to make MLB betting odds easier for the novice to understand is a challenge. Although basketball and football games typically have a point spread with a favorite giving points to the underdog, MLB bets tend to be along the lines of a favorite at -170 or an underdog at +210. For the average sports fans, those numbers can be difficult to understand.

“MLB needs bet types that will be easier for people to get their heads around,” said Byrd. “You want fan engagement to direct dollars to the bookmakers. How do we make it easier and more fun to bet on baseball? Plus/minus is not intuitive.”

He also cautioned to not spend too much time talking about prop bets.

“It’s interesting to see how much talk on the shows are around prop bets,” he noted, “but that is not where the money is. Much less than 10% of the volume of bets on [an event like the NBA Finals] are on prop bets.”

One advantage of avoiding prop bets? Leagues are much more comfortable about the integrity of betting that doesn’t involve specific players doing specific things.

“From an integrity perspective,” Byrd said, “it is easier to manipulate those than a bet that involves a whole team. The biggest revenue is still on live odds, and in-play betting is the highest volume of bets.”

Build Relationships
Data and stats will be the key for any effort. Aaron Charlton, Research Manager, STATS, said STATS has established relationships with most regions and has begun setting up the mechanism for how different RSNs will want data displayed for views. Machine learning will continue to play a big part, and new ways to display proprietary predictive data will be developed.

“You want to have both live and historical data feeds in place, as they will help engagement and push viewers towards different bets based on AI,” he said. “But you have to curate it and focus on the stuff that will move the needle. If you have 1,000 data feeds coming in, that is a lot of information to handle, and the RSNs don’t have the staff of the national networks.”

According to Byrd, Sportradar is developing advanced insights that bring together a combination of data to offer something beyond the typical box score. Milestones and historical context are part of it, along with information from a historical betting database.

“The key is to easily put it into graphics packages with APIs, which our product team is doing,” he said. “It’s super exciting.”

Byrd also said that sports betting is changing the nature of things like lineup announcements. MLB has taken steps this year to align lineup announcements with its data feeds so that it is delivered at the same time to everyone. The days of NFL coaches like Bill Belichick not being upfront with injuries and player status are destined to come to a close sooner than later.

Reducing Latency Will Be Important
Sportradar streams more than 40,000 events a year, and Byrd said the company has a big infrastructure to make sure that happens as quickly as possible, especially as in-game betting (on things like whether a field goal will be made or who will score the next goal) becomes more popular here in the U.S. In-game betting is already big business in Europe, and Byrd said that European broadcasters deliver a timelier stream because things like seven-second delays or dump buttons aren’t used.

“Some firms are trying to do subsecond latency,” he said, “but I am not sure we have to go there. We have things like bet stops, where the betting window can close if, say, the ball in soccer is in a scoring position.”

The Evolution Will Be Televised
The impact of sports betting on sports broadcasting will be an evolution, with both regional and national networks learning what works best. Are the information needs for those interested in betting best served by a second broadcast focused clearly on their needs? Is the third person in a booth going to shift from analysis to a focus on live betting and odds? Is the best bet for success to take talent that is already trusted and put them at the center of betting discussions? And how many states need to legalize gambling before national networks really get into the game? The answers to each of those questions will shift the landscape, and, as they are answered, the true economic impact of the relationship between broadcasting and gambling will become clear.