ESPN Decides to End “Cover Alerts” during College Football Broadcasts

ESPN Decides to End “Cover Alerts” during College Football Broadcasts
Brent Musburger Sometimes References His "Friends in the Desert", But Seldom Discusses Vegas Betting Overtly.

On Saturday, September 4, viewers of ESPN college games were treated to something new: alerts that point spreads were in jeopardy. During a game between Michigan State and Western Michigan, in which MSU was an 18-point favorite, ESPN broke into games to announce that Western Michigan had scored to bring their deficit to 17. The alert was used much like touchdown alerts in NCAA and NFL football games every weekend.

These overt references to gambling, dubbed “cover alerts”, pleased sports bettors across the nation. Despite one glorious weekend of receiving the betting alerts they would want, ESPN has announced it was doing away with the policy.

Where Gambling and Sports Meet

Gambling and sports have walked hand-in-hand for decades. Despite the obvious connection, the television broadcasters usually cast only a sideways glance at sports betting during broadcasts. Brent Musburger might make an oblique reference to his “friends in the desert”, but seldom in any forceful way do they mention gambling. Many would like to maintain that barrier, whether it’s naive or not.

The NCAA is one of several prominent U.S. sports associations which argue that sports gambling threatens the integrity of their sports. The NCAA has been a party to a couple of lawsuits brought by the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB against the state of New Jersey, which is trying to legalize sports betting in the face of the federal anti-sports betting law, the 1992 PASPA. According to the NCAA’s football officials, placing more of an emphasis on gambling would undermine the public’s trust in the integrity of college football games.

John Wildhack: “It Was Too Overt”

John Wildhack, who serves as ESPN’s Executive Vice President of Programming and Production, said in an interview that ESPN’s decision makers gave the alerts a one-week trial, but ultimately decided against maintaining that focus.

Wildhack told the Sports Business Journal, “We did it once. I didn’t like it, and we stopped it. To me, it was too overt. Part of everything we do has a little bit of trial and error.”

One-Week Trial Balloon

The College Gameday alerts were only part of the program on September 4. Broadcasters gave greater emphasis on betting lines by referencing them even when no news alerts broke into games. Not everyone was pleased with the changes, though.

Greg Sankey Cites “The Integrity of the Game”

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey backed up John Wildhack’s contention. In reference to the growing gambling culture in the United States, Sankey said, “We certainly try to be mindful of the culture around us, but that doesn’t mean that we accept it as entirely appropriate. There is an existing concern about gambling becoming more central to the sport (and the broadcast). Although there has not been any official discussion as a conference about this issue, we need to be attentive to the integrity of the game.”

The issue is not entirely settled. Upholding a long tradition, ESPN’s College Gameday is going to continue to make references to betting, though the broadcasts are going to be less forward with their references in the near future.

ESPN to Continue “Added Emphasis on Gambling”

The Washington Post said that John Wildhack had confirmed that College Gameday’s “added emphasis on gambling during college football telecasts isn’t going anywhere.” That means the cover alerts are gone (for the time being), but gambling references are not going away entirely.

The decision to retain certain aspects of the expanded focus on gaming is interesting. It hints that Mr. Wildhack’s pronouncement that he did not like the cover alerts should not be taken entirely at face value. The sports broadcasting coverage website, Awful Announcing, wrote a story in which ESPN’s “rights partners” were not happy with the in-game references to gambling.

The SEC’s role in the decision was speculated to be crucial. The SEC and ESPN have particularly close ties, because they partner on the SEC Network. The SEC operates in the country’s Deep South, in states with little gambling, such as Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. On a regional scale, the South has the nation’s most stringent anti-gambling laws. Thus, when Greg Sankey talks about the integrity of the game, he is referencing many things beyond fixing games.

Gambling is discussed on ESPN and the SEC Network, but those discussions take place after midnight, when it is thought only adults would be viewing the broadcasts. If Awful Announcing’s theory is correct, then John Wildhack’s pronouncement that the decision was his might be a face-saving gesture. The more nationally focused ESPN, which is heavily funded by quasi-gambling advertisers like DraftKings and FanDuel, would like to push the enveloper.

But just as money drives the decision to add gambling talk to the broadcasts, other moneyed interests can provide pushback. That would appear to be what happened to ESPN’s “Covert Alerts”.

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