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Frustrations Grow In Sports Radio Markets Without Legal Sports Betting

“Every other radio station and media entity in states where it’s legal, the minute it goes legal, are asking how quickly they can get in and how much money can we make off it.”

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When I was growing up in central Kentucky, I lived for two years in what was known as a “dry county”. That is one where alcohol could not be sold. The financial impact on local stores and restaurants was significant. The county eventually was forced to relent and allow sales in certain areas.

As a sixteen-year-old, it made no sense to me that people were allowed to drink alcohol and bring it home from neighboring counties, so long as they didn’t purchase it in the one we lived in. The way I saw it, they were going to drink one way or another–you might as well benefit from it financially. 

Now as an adult, I am having the same thoughts regarding sports betting. With 34 states having legalized wagering on athletic events and states such as California and Missouri possibly doing so this calendar year, it makes little sense to me that multiple states refuse to allow their citizens to do so. They are ceding millions of tax dollars to neighboring states every month. 

While an annoyance to the individuals who are unable to place wagers when they choose to, there is a tangible impact on the bottom line of businesses around the country. One of the hardest hit is the sports radio industry, which is unable to reap benefits from the windfall that comes along with legalization. I spoke with multiple individuals in the industry last week from states that have yet to pass legislation, despite multiple efforts, to gauge how they view the situation.

“It is bad for business what the state of Kentucky is doing,” says Andy Sweeney, program director for ESPN 680 WHBE in Louisville and host of The Take with Andy Sweeney.

Kentucky is in a truly unique situation. The state shares a border with seven states, more than any other in the union. It will soon be an oasis of no sports betting.

“All the states around us have passed it once Missouri is done, and some of them have been gambling for years, like Indiana. Our advertising and marketing would go up substantially.”

Sweeney is not the only person who knows there would be a tsunami of advertising dollars flooding their market. The Adam Gold Show, on 99.9 The Fan in Raleigh, North Carolina is syndicated across the state, and host Adam Gold says the legalization of sports wagering in the state would be game-changing.

“BetMGM, Caesars, DraftKings, FanDuel; there’s probably a dozen reputable gambling entities that, as soon as it became legalized, would be throwing money at sports radio stations hand over fist, and honestly, it might be the total-game changer when it comes to sports radio advertisement.”

Gold recalled how much money was thrown their way a few years ago when daily fantasy sports became legal in the state, laughing as he pointed out he was doing ads for DraftKings while his then co-host was doing the same for FanDuel. 

David Schultz echoed those thoughts when I spoke with him regarding efforts in Alabama. The program director of 105.5 WNSP in Mobile is also the host of The Game Plan. He knows the money is there to be made.

“I’m sure we’d get DraftKings and other sportsbooks involved,” he said, “so it’s a loss of revenue for the station, that’s for sure. And that’s a frustration. We’re all looking to profit from it.” 

Schultz also lamented the tax dollars being allowed to leave one of the poorest states in the country, with his listeners driving an hour away to Mississippi to place wagers while they listen to his show.

“I think it’s sad they didn’t take advantage of Florida screwing it up,” he said. “I think it’s foolish that everybody’s got it, and some people don’t want it for whatever reason. It seems to be good for the state.”

However, he pointed out that many opposed to gambling were doing so for selfish reasons. “When it comes to sports gambling, greed is going to be involved.”

In Florida, sports wagering was actually allowed briefly in the fall of 2021 on a trial basis, but it quickly was shut down after a court ruled against its legality. While the Seminole Tribe is appealing the decisions, many doubt it will be a settled issue until 2023 at the earliest.

For John Mamola, the program director at 95.3 WDAE in Tampa, the entire situation even tempted him to try it out a bit. While not a gambler himself, he attests to the appetite in his state for its legalization. 

“They know this is the golden goose,” Mamola said regarding the growing partnerships surrounding sports betting. “Every other radio station and media entity in states where it’s legal, the minute it goes legal, are asking how quickly they can get in and how much money can we make off it.”

He also pointed out that DraftKings has a partnership with his parent company iHeart Radio, and legalization would immediately lead to additional advertising opportunities for his station. 

While some of the arguments against sports gambling are valid, such as the threat of addiction, there are others based on awful rationale. Last Friday, Sweeney was joined by Kentucky house representative Al Gentry, after legislation failed, despite having enough votes to pass it, due to the Republican super-majority refusing to allow it to come to vote without “a majority of the majority” being in support of the bill.

Gentry addressed concerns from fellow state senator C. B. Embry, who claimed legalizing sports gambling would lead to college players throwing games.

“Let’s face it, he’s a little bit ignorant on some of these issues,” Gentry said, “but unfortunately, you run into that in Frankfort on certain issues. When you deal with these individuals that just don’t keep up on modern times, it’s frustrating.”

Sweeney echoed that frustration, borne in part by his unique situation of being an Indiana resident who works in Kentucky. Given his station is located less than five miles from the Indiana border, advertisements for legalized sports wagering play daily on his airwaves. While it only inconveniences him while he’s inside the state border during weekdays, he knows that is not the case for much of his listening audience.

“I live in a situation where it doesn’t affect me personally as much,” he pointed out, “but if you live in the middle of the state it absolutely does. There’s no doubt about it that our relationships with those online books and our advertising would be improved substantially, and that is why it’s so frustrating to us.”

He went on to point out that legalization wouldn’t impact his station nearly as much as it would others in places such as Lexington and Bowling Green.

“We can still have the fun because we are so close to Indiana. If we were 45 minutes from Indiana, like some of our listeners, they’re unable to do so.”

As for whether legalization would take place in their states, three of the four individuals I spoke with had hopes that it would–but not anytime soon.

“The earliest I think people in Kentucky can look at it is 2025,” Sweeney said, “and by then they will have been three, four, five years behind these surrounding states. Some of these politicians are uneducated on the subject and I think that’s what’s being fought.”

Gold strongly believes it should be up to personal decision, not the North Carolina government.

“We all know if you want to gamble, you’re going to gamble. People are going to use an illegal bookmaker like Bovada,” he said. “My line has always been, ‘If you’re anti-legalized sports gambling, then you are pro-organized crime’.”

He added that every major game-fixing scandal has been rooted out by the casinos, further reason to allow the professionals to run the show.

“Being anti-sports wagering makes no sense to me; it’s puzzling why we’re taking this long.”

Nearly everyone believes that Florida will eventually get it figured out, especially as Mamola points out that governor Ron DeSantis is up for re-election in 2022 and legalization would help his chances. To that end, Mamola knows how important it is for fellow program directors to have a plan for if, and when, legalization happens in their state.

“I think the biggest key for when it does go legal is to find interesting ways of really dumbing down the basics of wagering and trying to make that as entertaining as possible for those that don’t gamble, like myself.”

Mamola continued, “It’s going to be a combination of really coming up with some programming, crafting it right to where it caters to the long-time gambler but at the same time it’s welcoming to the person who’s interested but hasn’t done it yet, and finding those voices to really drive home the message, those trusted resources for our listening audience.”

That said, perhaps the most frustrated voice of all belonged to Schultz, who pointed out Alabama is one of just five states without a lottery system. He also stressed that the legalization of sports betting, which is heavily supported by governor Kay Ivey, would require an amendment to the state’s constitution.

When asked when he thought it would happen in Alabama, Schultz was very direct in his answer. “Never,” he said emphatically before following with, “Not only will we be the last state without it, we won’t get it. Not until February of 2024 at the earliest, and I wouldn’t hold my breath on that one either.”

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