By Luke Owen | UConn Journalism
December 8, 2023
STORRS — Brandon Sundblade is a daily sports bettor who relies on sports journalists to provide accurate and timely updates so that he can place informed bets.
“I follow every major NFL and NBA journalist on Twitter. I have their post notifications on, too,” Sundblade admitted. “If a player is a game-time decision, I am constantly checking [Adam] Schefter’s feed to make sure I know what’s going on.”
Sundblade is not alone. These journalists have massive followings, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter boasting 10.6 million followers on X and his colleague Adrian Wojnarowski closely behind at 6.2 million. Despite long track records of accuracy, these breaking news sports journalists have come to the forefront of potential scrutiny due to ESPN’s recent endeavor. ESPN has entered the online sports wagering scene with their $2 billion deal to rebrand what was formerly Barstool Sportsbook into ESPN Bet, according to ESPN Press Room. ESPN has made this move in light of the massive growth sports betting has seen in recent years.
After the Supreme Court decided to strike down the federal ban on sports betting in the United States, sports gambling has seen exponential growth nationwide each year. In 2019, sports betting generated a mere $910 million to the $7.56 billion generated in 2022, according to Statista.
“The revenue numbers have been jaw-dropping at times,” said Mike Mazzeo, a reporter for Legal Sports Report who covers the sports betting world.
In October, across the U.S., over $10 billion worth of total bets was spent at the sportsbooks, with the books bringing in just over $964 million in total revenue, according to data from Legal Sports Report. These staggering numbers are why ESPN is trying to get involved.
However, Mazzeo said that DraftKings and Fanduel are currently the dominant online sports betting apps, with “a lot of operators going in and out.” “It’s going to be interesting whether anybody can get into that mix and get some consistent market share,” said Mazzeo. That is where ESPN Bet fits in. “They’ve had lots of downloads. Will that lead to revenue, handle, and [market] share for them? We’ll see,” said Mazzeo.
From the business side, this purchase appears potentially lucrative for ESPN. However, considering journalists’ influence on betting, the question is raised: does this cross a line in journalism? ESPN reporters have shown their influence on sportsbooks before. A year ago, ESPN NBA Insider Adrian Wojnarowski released tweets just hours before the 2022 NBA Draft detailing which players teams are likely to select. As a result of his reporting, the odds on sportsbooks shifted drastically, according to a USA Today article.
At the time, this was considered harmless, but now ESPN has a stake in a sportsbook under its name, and the optics of reporting or withholding information have changed. ESPN said they will maintain a “high standard of journalistic integrity when covering the sports betting space,” according to ESPN Press Room. Prince J. Grimes, a current sports journalist for USA Today who worked at ESPN in 2018 as an editor, said he saw a “shift happen in real-time” as sites like ESPN began covering betting, which is now a mainstay. Grimes believes that ESPN’s purchase will not have much of an effect on the way their journalists cover sports.
“They have a responsibility as journalists anyway, to report the news accurately and uphold integrity,” but Grimes admitted, “there is a thin line that has to be towed.” Grimes also said that the influence and power of some journalists could present future road bumps and opportunities for scrutiny. “The line moves when [Wojnarowski] puts out his reports,” said Grimes.
“I think it’s going to be a learning curve for everybody. The media and the consumers,” said Grimes. “Fans, consumers, and people who do bet. They are going to have to smarten up.” As for the guidelines ESPN has put in place, “Even if it’s just for show. You have to at least give the public a little bit of confidence you are trying to uphold some type of integrity,” Grimes said.
Another reason people are concerned is because sports reporting has become a race, making inaccurate reporting more frequent. Multiple reporters from different networks are constantly competing to see who can tweet out the scoop first. Despite this race between journalists, Steve Buckheit, a sports journalism professor at the University of Connecticut, feels it is “absolutely, positively, more important to get things right than first.”
Being accurate and first has become increasingly difficult as the news cycle has changed from newspapers to online. “Before, you only had one chance per day to tell people the breaking news. But now, it’s 24 hours a day,” said Buckheit.
This new age of breaking news directly influences the sports betting world. “When you are covering a live game, and you are aware that your reporting could affect a prop bet, it will affect journalism. We just don’t know how yet,” said Buckheit. “If someone gets a scoop on an in-game injury, or if someone gets a scoop on something that’s happening that will affect the odds of the game. That news suddenly becomes big business,” said Buckheit. As for ESPN and its association with betting, Buckheit feels the marriage of the two is unavoidable. “Unequivocally ESPN is associated with betting, with the launch of ESPN Bet,” according to Buckheit.
Despite some ethical concerns though, Buckheit does not view this association as a hindrance to journalism. “You could say it’s a conflict of interest. But you could also call it poor journalism if you don’t cover the betting spreads,” said Buckheit. Ultimately, “if you cover the [sports] industry, you can’t not cover betting. They go hand in hand. It’s part of journalism,” according to Buckheit.
The collision of sports journalism and sports betting world and its lasting effects are still yet to be seen. “Information is so critical in terms of making a good bet,” said Mazzeo. “It’s on those journalists to ensure they are not doing anything untoward.” Ultimately, these reporters, knowingly or not, have an influence on how people spend money. This is evidenced by their ability to sway betting odds and their importance to bettors like Sundblade, who admits, “No doubt their reporting influences how I bet.”
TOP PHOTO: ESPN logo. Associated Press/File Photo