If you’ve ever consumed gambling related content on ESPN, there is a good chance Ben Fawkes had something to do with it. The Brooklyn native first started working at ESPN the Magazine as an intern during his Junior year of college. During his internship, Fawkes appreciated ESPN’s family atmosphere, got to meet Michael Jordan (more on that later) and loved going into work, so when the opportunity came along for him to get a job there post-college, he jumped at the chance.
Since 2010, Fawkes has worn multiple hats at ESPN, including general editor of their sports betting product, ESPN Chalk, which was founded in 2014. During his tenure there, Fawkes oversaw the planning and execution of the editorial content for their sports betting vertical, including the ESPN show Daily Wager. He also contributed content and provided editorial direction across ESPN’s sports betting platforms, including digital, broadcast and print. He was a part of every ESPN sports betting property, including recently helping to manage ESPN’s partnership with Caesars Entertainment’s sportsbooks. That all changed this year, when VSiN, who is in the middle of an expansion, came knocking.
Fawkes has now moved to Las Vegas to join VSiN as vice president of digital content. His duties will include overseeing the written and digital content, special issues, their daily e-newsletter and VSiN’s subscription-based publication, Point Spread Weekly. Fawkes will also contribute on-air and help with content strategy across VSiN’s multiple platforms.
I spoke with Fawkes about his journey, his move to VSiN from ESPN and his thoughts on the future of the industry.
How did you get your start in the gambling industry?
I started in 2010, when I was editing Chad Millman’s blog at ESPN, the Behind the Bets blog. Chad was also doing a podcast, so I was also editing his audio podcasts, and I think he was writing five days a week then. That was kind of the introduction just to the sports betting world, and I think it was cool from multiple perspectives.
One was that, I know Chad has touched on it before, but just the language. It’s almost like it’s just a little different world, a kind of an “in the know”. We’re not even just talking parlays and money lines, but taking juice. And, everyone has some cool or weird nickname, or everyone knows a guy, and there’s a wink-wink and a nod to all this stuff, especially back then. It was not necessarily shady, but a little bit kind of the, “Oh, you do gambling?”
It certainly is very, very far from where it is today, just both in the legal standpoint, and then just from a public perception standpoint and how legitimate it would seem. So, really doing that kind of piqued my interest into this world, and I think that the Westgate SuperContest which Chad had done some content on, was something that was similar to a contest that I had started doing a couple years before where you’re picking five NFL games against a spread. Those things got me interested in the industry.
Why did you make the jump to VSiN from ESPN and what will your role entail?
It’s really hard to find a ton of sports betting talent. Once you start looking at who is reputable, who knows their stuff, who has been in the space for a while, who can write and who can actually be on TV, you start narrowing down the list quite a bit. And, when you start knocking those things off as well, as who doesn’t have any skeletons in the closet, the list shrinks.
I really think VSiN has the best collection of that talent. Coming at it from the media perspective and being on SiriusXM Radio, now on MSG and NESN, sports betting is only going to get bigger and bigger, and I appreciate the way that they, and I guess now I should say we, are attempting to deliver it in a smart way that’s not completely over the top. And, isn’t strictly picks-based.
You’re really trying to make yourself smarter, obviously, if you’re going to be giving out picks, but really, you’re dealing with a large audience because of the most programming rights. So, the downside of let’s say an ESPN show like Daily Wager is that you can have only one hour, in that you really have to figure out what segment of the sports betting population am I targeting?
So, that’s an advantage VSiN has is that there are a wide variety of shows and they somewhat cater to different audiences and different bettors.
My job is to basically make sure we’re hitting the right topics on those shows and staying up-to-date on news as well, both from a legalization standpoint, and now there are all the different business deals that different companies have, so making sure we’re hitting on all of that. Some of the, “On this Date in Sports Betting History” too. That’s something I want to try and push more as well. Then just kind of making sure we’re making fans smarter and being a little bit more ahead on the digital side.
On the TV side, there is so much, that’s a day to day grind, and how do we get through today’s show? You’re really thinking about today’s show and maybe tomorrow’s show and the rest of the week, but you’re not necessarily looking ahead to the following week, month, etc., so both of those things. And, then I’m also in charge of the website and Point Spread Weekly, our digital subscription products, so just trying to grow subscribers and grow the business on that front as well.
Last week I actually talked to Mitch Moss and he said the ceiling for VSiN was ESPN. What are your thoughts on his statement?
Look, ESPN is a lofty goal certainly, and I think that’s where you want to aspire to be in terms of brand recognition, and brand loyalty, and all of that. I think the biggest thing is the future is really bright and there is so much talent here. We have a great studio at South Point and now we’re going to be opening the big studio at the Circa in a month. That property just looks phenomenal, so you have two state-of-the-art studios.
On top of that, we just had a show from BetMGM in the lounge at Empower Stadium for the Broncos. We’re doing a show from the BetRivers Sportsbook in Chicago. Michael Lombardi is at the Borgata in New Jersey. So, we have all of these different areas that no one else can really hit. And so, when we have a show that’s called Betting Across America, we actually are betting across America.
So, being able to have all those different perspectives and then hit on all those different story lines is also going to be big in the future because there is also going to be a movement towards localization of content. Ultimately, if I live in Chicago, what do I care about? The Bears. Who are they facing? The White Sox, the Cubs. Right now, that’s what I want to know.
Am I betting the over, the under? Should I bet on The Bears? Should I bet against the Bears? And so, you’re going to have the ability to produce specific content for all of those different States, as well as the larger betting content. That’s kind of the great thing about sports betting and why I agree with Mitch on the ceiling.
When it comes to the future of the gambling industry, do you see anything new on the horizon? For example, a 24/7 TV channel with non stop gambling odds or a NFL Red Zone of gambling channel?
What would be interesting to see is how integrated the sportsbook apps can get and whether the leagues will go down that road. By that, I mean, I think FanDuel basically had picture in picture on the app that allowed you to watch a tennis bet on your phone while placing other bets.
I think ultimately that is going to happen for the NBA or the NFL. I guess if you’re going to pick between those, you think probably the NBA would be first instead of the NFL given it’s been surrounding sports betting for so long.
You should also look out for who can have the best in-game experience. And, by that, I mean essentially a Sunday gambling RedZone like you said. I think that a company like ESPN with their rights has the largest potential advantage for something like that because you can show the games.
Obviously, NFL RedZone is immensely popular just for people watching the games and for people both in a gambling and fantasy perspective, but they’re going to hit on everything from a fantasy perspective, there is no gambling mentioned in NFL RedZone.
People have started to dabble with it on the NBA side and other places, but that will be interesting to see who really attacks that and tries to corner that part of the market. That’s where everyone’s watching the games and then they have some second screen experience, whether that’s Twitter, hopefully VSiN, other places, that’s what people are looking at potentially, now the third screen experience.
Let’s say there is a company like Comcast that offers RedZone and then you can actually bet through your TV, so you’re watching RedZone and you can actually place a bet in a State where it’s legal. I think that those are the types of innovations that will take the industry to the next level.
It seems silly to say now in 2020, but it seems like so long ago in May of 2018 when sports betting wasn’t legal outside Nevada. It has come so far so quickly and I think that the technology will be a compelling thing to catch up.
We’ve seen that some in the app space with DraftKings and FanDuel, where we are really seeing that the best technology is going to win, and it’s going to be where people want to place their bets. Most consumers are less price sensitive and more technology sensitive. So if it’s good technology, they’re going to bet on the Steelers minus 120 as opposed to minus 115, that difference doesn’t matter that much to them.
Coolest moment you’ve experienced working in sports?
It came at a Derek Jeter Shoe Party. I forget the name of the club, I think it was Marquee in New York. We were there and I remember waiting for Jeter and he was one of the last guys to show up, but before he did, MJ showed up.
That event really stuck in my mind just because after that I realized there were levels of celebrities. Many were there and came through, but, Michael Jordan, he was just on a completely different level, even from Derek Jeter.
MJ actually was nice enough to fade into the background a little bit because it was Jeter’s night, but he was very nice.
My brother actually got to come along for that one, so it was a really cool experience. I think from that, my takeaway was, I think I’d like to work in sports.
Looking back on your journey, is there a moment that sticks out to you where you realized you are now a real part of the industry?
I don’t want to say in the industry, but a moment that was most surreal was a couple years ago working with Chris Berman on his Swami Sez segment. I had the idea to take his Swami Sez segment and make it a digital free piece and it ended up being by far the most trafficked free piece we had all year.
Friday afternoon and evenings, I’d go over to the studio and we’d both run through every single game, he has the gold sheet, he makes his lines and he’s comparing those lines, he knows everyone in the NFL, and I think just working on that was such a surreal experience. We text every week before the NFL games and go like, “hey, what games do you like this week?”.
For an 11-year-old me, who obviously grew up watching Chris Berman on Sports Center, and he’s just the guy to be, to be someone that worked with him and to get to know him was great. It was kind of an honor that I’d probably not appreciate until things slow down at some point, but it was definitely one of those things where you don’t know how good you have it till it’s gone.
Now Is The Time To Build Your Bench
“There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention.”
As we crawl towards the Thanksgiving holiday week, many content managers are likely in the middle of figuring out what they’re going to put on the air.
Since most marquee talent take the entire week off, this can present scheduling headaches.
Some stations (who can) will pick up more syndicated programming. Hey, why not? It’s a cheap, easy solution that’s justified by the fact that business is slow in Q4, and your GM doesn’t want you spending any more money than what you have to.
Other stations will hand the microphones over to whoever happens to be available. This usually ends up being the same array of C and D listers who aren’t that great, but they can cover when needed and usually tend to be affordable.
Both of these decisions, while usually made out of convenience, are terrible mistakes. Quite frankly, it’s one of the many frustrations I have with spoken word media.
Content Directors should be using the holidays as an excellent opportunity for them to answer a particularly important question: DO I HAVE A BENCH???
One of the most common refrains I hear from other content managers is that they have no talent depth. Everyone constantly is searching for the “next great thing,” yet I find that very few people in management that take the time or the effort to seriously explore that question.
My response to them is always, “Well, how do you know? Have you given anyone in your building a chance yet?”
Often, the answer is sitting in their own backyard, and they don’t even know it.
Years ago, Gregg Giannotti was a producer at WFAN. Then Head of Programming Mark Chernoff gave him a chance to host a show because of how Giannotti sparred off-air with other hosts and producers in the building. Chernoff liked what he heard and gave his producer a shot. Now, he’s hosting mornings on WFAN with Boomer Esiason in what is considered one of the best local sports-talk shows in the country.
Carrington Harrison was an intern for us at 610 Sports Radio in Kansas City. He worked behind the scenes on Nick Wright’s afternoon show and had a fairly quiet demeanor. It was rare that we ever spoke to each other. On one of his off-days, Nick was talking about Kansas State Football and Carrington called in to talk to him about it. I couldn’t believe what I heard. Not only was his take on the Wildcats enlightening, but he was funny as hell. Soon after, we started working Carrington’s voice into Nick’s show more and eventually made C-Dot a full-time host. He’s been doing afternoons on the station for several years now with different co-hosts and (in my opinion) is one of the best young voices in the format.
There’s a good chance you have a producer, production person, or even a salesperson who has a big enough personality that they can hold your attention. Why not give them the opportunity to see what they can do? Honestly, what’s the risk of giving someone you think might have potential, a few at-bats to show you what they can do? If your instincts are proven wrong and they aren’t as good as you thought they’d be, all you did is put a bad show on the air during a time when radio listening tends to be down, anyways.
If you go this route, make sure you set them up for success. Take the time to be involved in planning their shows. Don’t leave them out on an island. Give them a producer/sidekick that can keep them from drowning. Be sure to listen and give constructive feedback. Make sure that these people know that you’re not just doing them a favor. Show them that you are just as invested in this opportunity as they are.
I understand that most Content Directors are overseeing multiple brands (and in some cases, multiple brands in multiple markets). Honestly though, using the holidays to make a potential investment in your brand’s future is worth the extra time and effort.
Treat holidays for what they are; a chance to explore your brand’s future. Don’t waste it.
Digital Platforms Should Signal The End Of Niche Linear Networks
“Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.”
CBS Sports Network just isn’t built to last. It seems obvious, but it was really hammered home for me on Friday when Jim Rome went off on the network for preempting the simulcast of his radio show for coverage of swimming.
“You idiots are going to preempt this show for swimming?” Rome said. “Stupid.”
You don’t even have to watch the video, right? You can just read the quote and his voice is immediately what you hear in your head.
John Skipper went off on a number of topics during Sports Business Journal’s Media Innovators Conference last week. Some dismissed it as sour grapes. Others said his comments were those of a man that is completely unencumbered by rights deals and corporate interests.
One thing the Meadowlark Media leader said that was dead on was that there are only a few properties in sports television that truly matter.
“Until you can get the NFL, or the SEC, or the NBA on a streaming service, it’s going to be marginal in this country,” Skipper said in a conversation with John Ourand.
He was answering a question about the relevance of streaming services, but the fact is, he could have been talking about any outlet in the world of sports television.
With that being said, it isn’t just CBS Sports Network that isn’t built to last. Comcast got this message last year. That is why NBCSN is about to go dark. Sure, every niche sport has its fan base, but can you build a profitable and powerful brand on swimming, lacrosse and 3-on-3 basketball? You probably can’t.
BSM’s Jeremy Evans recently wrote about life in the metaverse and what it means to sports media. So much happens digitally now. Think about the last time you felt like you HAD to have a physical copy of a movie or album. It always made sense that television networks would get to this place.
Peacock, ESPN+, CBS Sports HQ and Paramount+ all have plenty to offer. Whether it is niche sports or exclusive shows, the streaming platforms have proven to be valuable catch-alls. They haved turned hard-to-sell programming into part of what you get when you are motivated to subscribe by Premier League Soccer or UFC.
CBS Sports Network isn’t the only cable sports network whose existence may be on borrowed time. You know about FS1. Did you know there is an FS2? Did you know beIN Sports still exists? Don’t worry. It seems most major cable operators don’t know it either. The same can be said for networks with names like Eleven Sports, Maverick, and Pursuit.
In fact, when you look at that group of channels, CBS Sports Network is probably in the best shape. It may carry the low end of college football and basketball, but it at least has sports with large, national followings.
Radio simulcasts have always been cheap programming. Once the production costs are recouped, there is a straight-line path to profit. Sports networks on this level will always be interested in carrying radio simulcasts, and that is a good thing. It means better studios and more exposure for the hosts involved. When the suits can have a legitimate debate whether the live sports their network carries will draw as many viewers as the simulcast of a radio show, it may be time to rethink the path forward.
Streaming platforms weren’t built exclusively for niche sports. ESPN+ launched with college football and college basketball at its core. Now that streaming platforms are here to stay though, it should start a conversation and migration.
The cable sports network was never anything more than a prestige play. It was a way to show that a broadcast network was so serious about sports that the few hours it could devote to games would never do. The problem is that ESPN got that memo decades earlier and established a juggernaut.
Even FS1, which has major talent and rights to major college football and basketball and Major League Baseball, is behind the eight ball compared to ESPN. They got a 34 year head start in Bristol! CBS Sports Network is behind FS1 and it has college football, basketball and hockey. It also has the WNBA and the NWSL. Still, it seems like it is on borrowed time. What does that mean for networks that can’t get a league comissioners to take their call?
I like some of the programming on CBS Sports HQ. I think Paramount+ has been a valuable tool this college football season. There would be nothing wrong with CBS shuttering CBS Sports Network. It is just the reality of where we are headed.
CBS is run by smart people. I have faith they will see the forest thru the trees in sports media and find the right solution before they start losing money. Streaming means consolidation and unfortunately, that means there may not be room for the FS2s, Mavericks, Pursuits, and Eleven Sports of the world. That doesn’t mean the sports those networks carry cannot find a new home. They may even find a home that makes more sense for them and their fans.
Can Your Station Create Its Own Holiday?
“Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape.”
A belated happy Disney+ Day to us all!
Did you see social media on Friday? Did you see any media at all leading up to Friday? Disney created a 24-hour commercial you could not escape. The best part, from a marketing standpoint, is fans were captivated by it. They either didn’t realize it was a commercial or they just didn’t care.
The execution was masterful. Granted, we Star Wars fans were left wanting a bit, but Disney dropped teasers for series and movies we didn’t know were coming and showed the first footage from one we have been anticipating for more than a year now.
I started thinking how a radio station could do this. How could it go out and create its own holiday? How for one day, can we make our fanbase excited and glued to social media eagerly anticipating announcements about what is coming next?
This is going to take some creativity. Disney+ is a platform full of multiple brands with multiple fanbases buying in. A sports talk station is one brand. It has varying levels of fanbases, but largely, your dedicated audience are the people that not only love sports, but also like your programming enough to be called P1s. Is that enough people to build an event like this around?
Who cares if it is or not! Go for it.
One thing that Disney did masterfully on November 12 is it brought partners into the fold and made them a key part of Disney+ Day. Fortnite announced that Boba Fett was coming to its game. TikTok announced Disney character voice changers would be available on the platform. Disney found the kind of partnerships that could spread its holiday to even the Disney+ Day equivalent of Ebenezer Scrooge.
You can do the same. Surely you have a local brewery as a partner. Can they brew a one day only beer for you? Partner with a restaurant. Can they put your station’s name on the day’s special? Would other partners offer discounts and promotions for celebrating the day? There are a lot of options here.
Now, what are YOU doing on your holiday? Disney has a deep well of franchises. It could squeeze Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar, its own studio and more for content and announcements. Again, you are just one brand, but there is still a lot you can do.
Build the day around announcing your special contributors for the football season. Drop new podcasts and play an extended clip on air. Announce new podcasts, the kind of things that will only be available digitally.
Look at 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh. Joe Ovies and Joe Giglio have created great, multi-episode series that are events for their audience. Like any narrative podcasts, those don’t come together overnight. As long as you have enough audio to build a solid 90 second to 2 minute long preview, you have something worth bringing to the air as part of the celebration.
Do you have a contract you are waiting to expire to make a change in a prime day part? Make your station’s holiday the day that the new talent or show hits the air for the first time. You can do the same for new weekend programs. Whether it is someone new coming to the station or just a new pairing, put them on air for your prime time audience to meet and have your weekday hosts help create some buzz for them.
As for the shows that are on every weekday, you have to make them special that day. Give away a big cash prize. Make the guest list epic – I mean everyone that is on air that day has to be a home run.
The other thing that Disney did so well was work to get all of its divisions involved. Check out this tweet from the Disney Parks account. Every single park around the world lit their iconic building up blue in celebration of the streaming platform’s holiday.
Can you work with other stations in your building? Maybe they won’t give you full on promotion, but between songs, if a DJ brings up a sports topic, would the PD be willing to have them mention that their sister station is celebrating all day? Would a news/talk PD let your talent pop on air to talk sports with their hosts and promote what is happening on your airwaves today?
The answer to these questions could be no. You don’t know if you don’t ask though. Also, if the answer is no, there is nothing wrong with asking for a little backup from your market manager. A station holiday is a major sales initiative after all.
The final piece of this puzzle to take away from Disney is you have to be everywhere. Any local show you air from 6 am until midnight needs to be on location. Fans should have easy access to them. How can they celebrate you if they are not allowed to be where you are?
Use the broadcasts however the sales department sees fit. Take them first to long-established clients to celebrate their loyalty on the station’s holiday. Use them to draw in new clients. Show off what your station can create with its fanbase.
Money has a way of motivating everyone. So, even if your hosts don’t like leaving the studio, these would be remote broadcasts priced at a premium and should have larger-than-usual talent fees attached.
Finally, let’s do something Disney didn’t. I was shocked that a company with this many iconic characters at its disposal and with a CEO that came from the consumer products division, didn’t have a line of merchandise ready to go. Don’t make that same mistake.
Create cool station shirts (not the cheap giveaway crap). Throw the logo on unexpected things like water bottles, bottle openers, facemasks, whatever! Have a merch tent wherever you go. Maybe set up a site to sell it for the day. Make the people come to you to get this stuff.
Twitter is a huge part of promoting what you do. Constantly show off what you are offering and what you have created. That is how Disney sold their event to its most dedicated fans as something not to be missed.
What were we celebrating with Disney+ Day? Nothing. Disney wasn’t even really celebrating anything. It was just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging. Actually, there are a lot of holidays that are just a series of commercials wrapped up in fun packaging.
Not every holiday has to celebrate something once in a lifetime. Not every holiday has to even be real. Building your own will take a long lead time, but it is doable. Get sales, promotions and programming in a room and build a plan together. If Disney+ Day taught us anything, it is a valuable way to motivate your fans to spread your message too.
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