ESPN Addresses Online Sports Betting Controversy

Mega sports broadcaster ESPN recently addressed an ongoing point of discomfort for many online gambling legal advocates: How can newspapers and sports broadcasters get away with certain aspects of sports betting, which is illegal in most of the United States?

The issue in question is the broadcaster’s tendency to discuss sports betting spreads to its U.S. readers via its website. Since sports betting is very illegal in most of the U.S. — and since the U.S. government strictly enforces an anti-online betting laws — this seeming endorsement drew criticism (though not as much as you might expect).

Responding to a reader at who noted that a recent link offered advice on “how to bet on Redskins vs. Eagles,” ESPN’s Don Ohlmeyer took the chance to examine the network’s attitude and confront the contradictions that, while sports gambling is illegal in much of the United States, ESPN occasionally seems to condone and encourage it.

Their response? Nothing wrong with letting readers know the spreads, as part of ESPN’s reputation for providing “relevant and deep information and insightful coverage” to its readers, according to Robbyn Footlick, executive editor of ESPN the Magazine and Insider.

“We already have a Behind the Bets column and blog, which covers the world of gambling and includes the line’s movement on a weekly basis during football season. We are moving forward with the intention of maintaining the editorial integrity of the ESPN and the league brands, while also serving the fan — many of whose sports engagement is enhanced by casual sports betting.”

Ohlmeyer points out that, on its TV broadcast, ESPN referenced point spreads for almost a decade.

“We understand that point spreads are the central tool for sports gambling, which is illegal everywhere [in the U.S.] except for Nevada,” according to Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news. “But, weighing that factor, we’ve come to the conclusion that the spread has become a significant part of the sports conversation.”

The whole issue indirectly draws attention to the fact that sports networks like ESPN (and many American newspapers) not only endorse semi-gambling activities like fantasy football, but even offer players a forum to place their bets against each other.

This fine line is also evident in other online gambling-related issues — such as the NFL’s harsh opposition to legalized online poker, even as it promotes online gambling via its own fantasy football networks.

Nathan Denny
November 18, 2010