ESPN has been making a big push on the sports gambling front this season. The network has emphasized point spreads much more freely and openly and even went as far as showcasing a “Cover Alert” during the first week of the season.
You could see what was going to happen next from a mile away. NCAA executives used some pretty dramatic language in saying how “concerned” they were about the overt gambling references for college football games. Well, we haven’t seen a Cover Alert since and now ESPN says you won’t see any more period.
On Sept. 4, ESPN broke into its Baylor-SMU telecast to show a highlight when Western Michigan scored a touchdown late in the third quarter to cut Michigan State’s lead to 17. The Spartans were favored by 18, and ESPN branded the break-in as a “cover alert,” something the network had not done before. Michigan State ended up winning the game by 13 points.
That was the only time ESPN used a “cover alert,” and ESPN executives said they made a quick decision to get rid of it even before they heard any complaints.
“We did it once. I didn’t like it, and we stopped it,” said John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and production. “To me, it was too overt. Part of everything we do has a little bit of trial and error.”
ESPN has been upfront about its plans to discuss gambling on its shows more regularly this season, from Scott Van Pelt’s studio show to Brent Musburger’s veiled references to his “friends in the desert” (i.e., Las Vegas gamblers). Though Wildhack stressed that talk of gambling takes up a tiny percentage of ESPN’s programming (it’s around 2 percent of “College GameDay” and Van Pelt’s show, he said), the increased attention on gambling makes college officials uneasy.
The SBJ piece goes on to quote SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and his concerns about the Cover Alert. The influence of ESPN’s rights partners and their mega-bucks partnerships can’t be understated. The SEC has a very deeply rooted relationship with ESPN considering the existence of SEC Network and all.
Even if ESPN says the decision was made before the programming department received angry phone calls, it’s obvious that this would still be a proactive step to take to nip any angst in the bud.
The NCAA has so many institutional and fundamental things wrong with it that it’s hard to believe an ESPN in-game update about a point spread would threaten the very fabric of college athletics. But if the NCAA still wants to pretend there is no money in college football and players are still taking the train to games like it’s 1905, so be it. In fact, I’m sure the NCAA would love for that to happen.
ESPN is in a bit of a weird position when it comes to their stance on gambling and sports betting. Bristol has made a very public push to explicitly state that they’re going to talk more gambling and point spreads, both on College GameDay and on the new SVP SC at midnight. Beyond traditional sports betting, the network is going all-in with DraftKings and Daily Fantasy, to the point where their NFL pregame shows are becoming infomercials for the service.
How is a Cover Alert “too overt” versus the remainder of ESPN’s increased gambling coverage? If ESPN is making an attempt to bring sports betting out of the shadows and provide mature, responsible coverage, that seems to be one of the best ways to do so.
Now that ESPN has tried to lift up the curtain on sports betting and daily fantasy, it’s tough to put it back down. But that’s what ESPN is going to do here, at least on one half of the stage.
Why would ESPN be so hellbent on pushing one kind of sports betting and so easily shut down another? Aside from the influence from some very powerful rights partners, it’s a difficult position to reconcile.