EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Lisa Kerney once earned her living hosting “SportsCenter” on ESPN, making her a nightly fixture in the vast American conversation between sports fans and their favorite athletes, teams and leagues. Her latest endeavor, she believes, is just as all-American.
Every Saturday, Kerney slips into the anchor’s chair of a very different kind of television program: a sports betting show from a makeshift studio at the Meadowlands Racetrack. Instead of reporting just scores and news, Kerney now also rattles off NFL point spreads and money-line odds as easily as a CNBC host talks stock prices and P/E ratios.
She will be on the air again this Sunday, serving up information on the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams in the hours before the Super Bowl. The game will take its place in U.S. gambling history because, for the first time, bettors will be allowed to wager on the NFL’s championship game legally, not only in Nevada but also in seven other states.
By next year, gambling may be legal in more than a dozen more states, a shift that already is moving betting on games into the mainstream of American culture and teaching fans to look at the sports contests they love as investment opportunities as well as entertainment.
“Now fans are able to play the game within the game,” Kerney said. “It goes beyond the nuts and bolts of who’s going to win. It is a whole new way of experiencing sports.”
Last May, when the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibited expanded sports gambling, it created — almost overnight — a billion-dollar market that bookmakers, media companies, tech entrepreneurs, touts and quants have rushed in to dominate.
On the high end, that has meant sports shows that incorporate into their coverage market-moving information like injury reports and their effect on bettors. But it also means digital subscription services that make a tsunami of sports data available, and app-makers eager to help bettors slice it.
On the retail front, the innovations have been more basic: how-to-bet sports camps; cable shows that explain the difference between a proposition and parlay bets; and Nevada-based tout services — which for decades have picked winners for a price — that suddenly have refashioned themselves into media companies.
“If you have a way to make betting more fun, or to otherwise increase consumer investment in betting, the market needs you,” said Chris Grove, a managing director at Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, an independent research firm. “If you have a way to salve any of the pain points for consumers in the regulated sports betting — the learning curve, hassles with payments, ensuring that you’re getting the price — then the market absolutely needs you.”
As sports betting and bills are being shepherded through legislatures in at least 15 other states, the early returns show there is plenty of opportunity in what is a familiar but nascent industry. In New Jersey, for example, sportsbooks at Meadowlands Racetrack and their online counterparts have handled more than $1.2 billion in wagers since the market was born in mid-June, despite having only three brick-and-mortar outlets in the early going and no availability for online wagering until August. If retail and online wagering were to become accessible in all 50 states, Eilers & Krejcik predicted, sports betting in America could become a $16 billion industry.
Figures from regulators in Mississippi and Rhode Island also show an upward trend. New Jersey is on pace to surpass Nevada in sports wagering. And though market oversaturation could eventually slow or halt the industry’s rapid growth, that is not a pressing concern.
Legalized sports betting already has changed the way some fans consume sports. Earlier this month, NBC Sports Washington Plus, a regional sports network, offered an alternate telecast of several Washington Wizards games, starting with one against the Milwaukee Bucks, that looked like a cross between CNBC and ESPNews.
Unlike most NBA telecasts, the productions included statistics, odds and point spreads alongside the live action. It was a preview of what game telecasts may look like in a mature sports betting landscape.
In two years, the Las Vegas-based Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN) has grown from a startup streaming service with 1.4 million visitors to 12.6 million visitors a month — across video and audio streams like Sirius XM and fuboTV — seeking “actionable information” delivered by a roster of Las Vegas bookmakers and professional gamblers, as well as longtime CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger.
The Super Bowl, though, has been an integral part of America’s sporting fabric and a highlight of the betting year since long before the Supreme Court’s ruling last year made it legal in more jurisdictions.
Last year, for example, $159 million was bet on the Super Bowl legally in Nevada, a respectable take for any business but one that paled in comparison to the far-higher estimates of the amount — as high as $4.6 billion — wagered on the game illegally. This year, with eight states now offering legal sports betting, projections for wagering on Sunday’s Super Bowl have risen to more than $325 million, according to PlayUSA, which monitors the legal sports market. That haul is expected to soar as more states bring betting on games out of the realm of corner-bar bookies and offshore operators and onto their tax rolls.
At the same time, the popularity of fantasy sports and the growing amounts of easily accessible data and analytics have not merely hastened the acceptance of sports betting: They have transformed the nature of fandom.
“This is a generational thing, and what we’ve seen is a perfect storm develop over the last 20 years, with a boom in fantasy sports, the interest in ‘moneyball’ and the democracy of information through technology,” said Chad Millman, the chief content officer at The Action Network, a subscriber-based media company. “It’s meant that fans have become more opportunistic about their fandom. They think about winning individually, not about rooting for a team.”
The Action Network runs a website and an app offering data, research and betting tools, as well as general coverage of sports and the nuances of cashing in on them. It also produces a betting show — called “I’ll Take That Bet” — for ESPN+, the sports broadcaster’s new streaming platform.
Millman would not say how many subscribers the Action Network has in its first year, but since April, he said, users of the company’s app have logged 13 million bets, and the circulation of the Action Network’s email newsletter has grown nearly tenfold, to 240,000.
“In general, sports fans want to be smarter than their friends,” Millman said. “As sports betting becomes more and more part of the conversation, people are trying to figure out what the language of it is.”
For now at least, there is a difference between a general sports audience and sports betting audience, a gap Kerney, the former “SportsCenter” anchor, is trying to navigate on her show, created by the bookmaker FanDuel, from the Meadowlands.
“Most sports bettors will notice every second on or off the clock, every yard, every pitch, every shot, because any of these can ultimately affect their bets,” said Kevin Grigsby, the show’s executive producer of the show. “So your story, programming, messaging needs narrative that caters to both cohorts.”
Kerney and Grigsby’s bosses at FanDuel are making a big bet that they can close that gap quickly. FanDuel is owned by the European bookmakers Paddy Power, as is TVG, the cable network that is home to Kerney’s show. TVG reaches 40 million homes and gives horseplayers wall-to-wall coverage of races that they can bet on through a proprietary website or app. As sports betting expands, TVG is poised to also expand programming like Kerney’s show. FanDuel already takes bets on all sports.
With a more than half-century head start on legalized betting, European bookmakers handled more than $13 billion in wagers in 2018, according to Eilers & Krejcik. That is a number Paddy Power and other bookmakers expect the U.S. market to surpass in as few as five to seven years.
“The biggest advantage we have right now is that the leagues, the networks, or me and you don’t have to pretend anymore that there are not hundreds of millions of dollars bet every day on the games we follow,” Kerney said. “We are here to educate and inform but also to become an authority in this space. If we do our jobs, we believe people who follow us will make money.”