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Why Communications Staffs May Be Significantly Impacted By Sports Gambling

By Dr. Steve Dittmore

As academics, pundits, and “experts” race to break down the Supreme Court’s ruling on sports betting from earlier this month, it seems certain the decision could upend the current financial structure of college athletics. This piece from ESPNW suggested women’s sports will receive a boost from the decision. Media rightsholders have the potential to benefit from an increased audience suddenly interested in an early season non-conference football game simply because it bet the over.

 

The speculation is consumer demand for information will alter how broadcasters approach their content. Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz suggested five ways broadcasting will adapt, including the creation of specialized sports betting-focused shows on networks such as ESPN and increased spreads on ticker scrolls.

 

Already we see how college athletic departments might realize increased revenues. In West Virginia, athletic departments at West Virginia University and Marshall University are poised to receive a cut of gambling revenue. Direct revenues from sportsbooks pose an ethical dilemma for college sports as athletes are still deemed “amateur” and are not entitled to financial compensation. Forget Ohio State’s tattoo scandal, or A.J. Green’s jersey scandal, the real problem for athletics compliance staff will be keeping their athletes away from folks more than willing to provide a thousand-dollar handshake in return for a clutch missed free throw.

 

Hence, universities are exploring ways to receive integrity fees, a portion of gambling revenue ichich could be used to offset increased compliance costs. San Jose Mercury-News reporter Jon Wilner quoted Ryan Rodenberg, associate professor of sport management at Florida State and expert on sports law analytics, as saying this could be worth $100 million annually to Power Five conferences. The Athletic’s Jason Kersey reported, “multiple athletic directors contacted Monday said they hope their state takes advantage of the ruling and that they can figure out a way to get a cut of the revenue.”

 

And while that may seem like a positive for universities, as Sports Illustrated’s Michael McCann notes, the overriding sentiment is that the NCAA and its member institutions emerge as losers in this arrangement. The NCAA quickly went on the record stating its preference for federal sports wagering legislation.

 

NCAA President Mark Emmert positioned college athletes as being vulnerable, stating, “Our highest priorities in any conversation about sports wagering are maintaining the integrity of competition and student-athlete well-being.” Paying athletes seems like a logical way to improve student-athlete well-being and remove that vulnerability, but that is a conversation for a different day.

 

University of Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth told Jon Wilner of the Mercury-News he did not believe athletic departments should be worried athletes becoming vulnerable to thousand-dollar handshakes. Knuth, whose office is one mile from casinos in Reno, told Wilner, “We know the casino owners, and they know our staff and our athletes.”

 

Clearly coaches and athletes are recognizable figures and they have access to information which can aid gamblers. But, they are not the only ones who might be vulnerable and have access to the same information. We certainly live in a society where individuals are not afraid to leak sensitive pieces of information, at any level of our democracy, and for whatever benefit the leaker hopes to achieve.

 

Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University, wrote in a piece on May 14, immediately after the SCOTUS announcement, “the same piece of information can serve different information needs for different people.” In other words, the news that a freshman running back is getting reps with the first team at practice could mean very different things for the team’s fanbase and a bookie.

 

Citing Anthony Downs’ 1957 An Economic Theory of Democracy, Benton discussed how the ruling moves sports reporting from entertainment information, which is consumed for enjoyment, to production information, which is used to make sound business decisions. But he omits the fact that sports organizations have long been the owners of both entertainment and production information.

 

Benton asks the question, “Is there a way you can get the folks willing to pay top dollar — the ones for whom the information has real, tangible value — to subsidize information gathering that also benefits a wider audience?” Before addressing his question, we must ask “who are the folks willing to pay top dollar for information?” The easy answer is bookies and gamblers. A more nuanced answer might include fans, boosters and alumni.

 

For sport organizations, and college athletic departments in particular, providing entertainment information to those groups has long been in their domain. Now, production information grows in importance and, as such, the job of the college athletics communications professional (or media relations professional or sports information director, or whatever they are called) probably just got a lot harder.

 

As the gatekeepers for all news and information which comes from a football or basketball practice, athletics communications staffers should prepare to be besieged with phone calls from bookies and Tweets from gamblers, all seeking that production information necessary for a sound business decision. For beginners, communications staff might wish to remove their cell phone numbers from media guides. At a minimum, training student workers and staff who might answer the office phone is a first step in preparing for a potential influx of calls. I recall working corporate public relations for an oil refinery in the late 1990s and receiving calls brokers who traded in futures markets asking questions about refinery operations and capacity. Those seeking production information will do whatever it takes to acquire that information.

 

The SCOTUS ruling guarantees that all information – entertainment and production – will become an even more valuable commodity in the gambling economy. Depending on how conferences and universities are able to monetize the Court’s decision, there may be little incentive for university athletic departments and their communications staff to be forthcoming with any information.

 

A byproduct of this could be acceleration of reduced access for traditional journalists, something we witnessed last fall at Notre Dame, Tennessee, as well as LSU and Texas. I doubt many coaches would mind if fewer media attended practice, and the threat of information being used for gambling purposes might be the perfect excuse to travel down that road. This does not mean the information does not exist and odds are (pun intended) that it will surface one way or another.

 

Which brings me back to Benton’s question about who is willing to pay for this information. It is possible athletic departments decide the information they own has value, and, logically, those departments may wish to monetize their information while simultaneously keeping it out of the hands of oddsmakers and others who are making money off it. Or, at the very least, force the oddsmakers to also pay for the information.

 

Could the athletic departments sell that information to alumni and boosters? Maybe. College sports fans have shown, time and again, a willingness to overpay for preferred access. They do so with donations to improve seat selection and tailgate locations (I know, they are framed as a way to offset athlete scholarships, but let’s not ignore the tangible benefits which have market value that donors receive).

 

They eat chicken breasts with mashed potatoes and canned green beans while drinking sweet tea in tacky hotel conference rooms or VFW halls in order to hear directly from the coach at local “Touchdown Club”-type events. They subscribe to fan-based magazines and message boards with names like Touchdown Alabama and Hogville. So, yeah, maybe they would pay for the information if it were not available elsewhere.

 

Of course information-starved media who rely on clicks and subscriptions for their own existence will protest loudly if they soon find themselves completely on the outside looking in when it comes to access and content. So that path to the information does not seem likely.

 

More probably, however, is to go after those in the athletic department who are vulnerable. Let’s assume departments increase their compliance efforts and are successful in preventing athletes from being corrupted by gamblers. Who else is vulnerable?

 

How about any number of graduate assistant coaches making $1,000 per month while working 70 hours and taking classes? Or, what about the student assistant who picks up uniforms and does laundry until 3 am after a game? Maybe the walk-ons, paying their own way so they can run scout team and get drilled by the bigger, faster, stronger starters. Perhaps the athletic training staff.

 

Any one of those groups is vulnerable enough and has access to privileged information. I am not suggesting that any of those groups would be co-opted to provide information to oddsmakers, but in this information economy with incentives on both sides of the transaction, it is certainly possible. Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman acknowledged the existence of this when he said, “The reality is we have access to information and the opportunity to influence outcomes and we want to be sure that we build a protective circle around people within that realm.”

 

Now might also be a good time for athletics communications staffers to refine those media policies regarding athlete interviews and availabilities which are typically buried in game notes. Communication, and education, of those policies to athletes and staff will become critical.

 

The immediate response of most college administrators, as documented throughout last week’s D1.ticker newsletters, was along the themes of “reviewing the decision” and “monitoring developments” as well as borderline optimsm for college sports. Whitman stated, “Is it conceivable that legalizing gambling in the college sports context could attract new fans and make them engage with our games in a different way? Absolutely, I think that’s possible.”

 

That Whitman, and perhaps others, is thinking about fan engagement in the gambling economy could be a sign that at least some athletic departments are considering how to effectively leverage the new-found riches afforded them as the owners of both entertainment and production information.

 

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