ESPN opened college football season in earnest Thursday night, with its blowout coverage of Ohio State vs. Indiana. The worldwide leader gave the (at any other point mediocre) game a pared down “Megacast” treatment across multiple networks (no feed of random ESPNers milling about and eating food, sadly).
We received a preview of how ESPN’s ongoing flirtation with college football gambling coverage will go this season. The GameDay panel picked some of the weekend’s prominent games against the spread. Incorporating point spreads into ESPN’s college football coverage is necessary, but the balance remains delicate.
Save your moral arguments about gambling. It’s unclear to me why I can drive to Detroit and fritter away my life savings on slot machines in a matter of minutes, but cannot wager on sports. Or why I can’t even consult a betting site for lines while trying to work in a hospital room. It’s no more of a societal scourge than many other activities. The initial impetus for modern organized sports was to facilitate gambling on them. Gambling is why sports spectatorship became a pastime.
There are very compelling reasons for ESPN to include gambling within its college football coverage. It’s where the core audience’s (and much of ESPN staffers’) interest is. In many cases, dissecting a game from a betting perspective is far more useful. The bulk of games won’t be close enough where you can talk about them straight up. Having a panel agree that Alabama will win as a 17-point favorite doesn’t tell anyone anything. Even a venerated institution like College GameDay can’t afford to be divorced from its audience and offer less than insightful commentary.
Gambling analysis may be smarter analysis. But the problem is smarter analysis may not be better analysis for TV.
Sports television has relied on ex-players and former coaches for an inside perspective on what is happening on and off the field. The greats, such as Kirk Herbstreit, can digest the complexity of what occurs in front of them and present it in clear, intelligible English. Picking games against the spread is a different skill-set. It’s studying numbers and searching for inefficiencies in public understanding. If networks are going to do the latter and do it well that may require a comprehensive rethink of the sort of sports analysts we have on television. Overturning that apple cart may not be for the better.
Gambling coverage can also conflict with ESPN’s promotional imperative. ESPNU airs FAU vs. Navy on Friday night. ESPN wants to sell the positive story of Navy’s resurgence and Ken Niumatalolo being one of the nation’s most underrated coaches. Noting gambling sharps like FAU in that game may gin up interest. Noting one of the primary reasons they like FAU – Lane Kiffin has had about eight months to break down a pass defense that was a dumpster fire in 2016 – is less of an enticement.
We saw this conflict between gambling coverage and promotion directly last night. The GameDay panel was picking the Ohio State vs. Indiana game against the spread (-20.5) airing minutes later. Shockingly, the opinion was near unanimous that game would be closer than expected. Would anyone have predicted a blowout to such a game on the field before it?
ESPN knows where it has to be with gambling and college football. That’s somewhere between the extremes of not addressing points spreads at all and breaking away for a “cover alert” to a 26-point game in the 4th quarter because a backdoor cover may be afoot. Doing that across the array of media ESPN offerings is easy. Getting that balance right on television is still hard.