Business of News

A former ESPN editor’s big bet on sports gambling

May 20, 2019

The casino floor of The Palms, just off The Strip in Las Vegas, is an ecosystem with separate spheres of activity. The pits are filled with tourists jockeying for spots at blackjack, roulette, and craps. Among the clamoring slot machines, patrons wave down cocktail waitresses. But on this Wednesday night, the real action is over in the sportsbook, where a growing line of people wait to place bets on live sports.

It’s the eve of the NCAA College Men’s Basketball Tournament, prelude to four solid days of first- and second-round games. The event, which seems to get bigger each year, now draws more than 3 million binge-gamblers to Las Vegas every March, to bet on winners, losers, point totals, and even the tip-off.

This year, Chad Millman, a former editor in  chief of ESPN’s magazine and website, is hoping that they are all potential customers for the Action Network, his latest journalistic enterprise, which is devoted to sports gambling. Millman and his team have rented out a Palms restaurant, located on the way to the sports book, for a March Madness welcoming party. They offer a free drink, a t-shirt, and an Uber credit in an attempt to direct these casual bettors to their site and app, which both offer live odds, bet tracking, and trends, alongside news stories and features that focus on the business and culture of sports betting.

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It’s a growth industry—and not just in Las Vegas. In 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state of New Jersey, which had challenged a ban on sports betting. The landmark decision effectively allowed any state to legalize the practice; since then, seven states have already joined Nevada, which has allowed bets since 1949, in offering legal sports wagering, and two others and the District of Columbia have legalized it. Twenty-one other states have introduced similar legislation.

Action Network’s mission, according to Millman, is to make sports betting accessible to the masses. “Every sports fan wants to be the smartest person in the room,” Millman says. “Sports betting is one of those topics that can be confusing. We want our readers to be able to understand it at the highest level.”

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On September 18, 2017, Millman himself bet big and left a prime position at ESPN to help start the Action Network. He had been a writer and editor at the magazine for 18 years. One of his earliest assignments was to write about the men who set the Las Vegas point spreads for the NCAA Tournament. One of them, Joe Lupo, who ran the sportsbook at the legendary Stardust casino, became the subject of Millman’s second book, The Odds, a sacred text among regular sports bettors. “I was fascinated by the small group of people who have a domino impact on the billion-dollar industry of sports betting,” Millman says. “The book sort of got me into the industry and into the field. It got me sourced and helped me understand the psychology.”

At the time, betting on sports was a gray area—it happened in Nevada or else through local underground bookies and offshore betting websites. But Millman knew the money and audience was there. At ESPN he created the gambling beat, devoted an entire issue of the magazine to the subject, and set up “Chalk,” a vertical dedicated to odds, trends, and gambling culture. Readers responded. Gambling stories drove up web traffic and moved premium content subscriptions. Nonetheless, Millman calls ESPN’s relationship with gambling “anxious.”

“It was important for ESPN to recognize sports betting, and I think it had a big impact in the sports-betting community,” he says. “But there was a lot of trepidation to do any more than we were doing.”

So when Mike Kerns, president of digital at entertainment company The Chernin Group, approached Millman about starting the Action Network in 2017, Millman understood the potential. He decided to leave his safe corporate role to chase his growing, if still niche, passion. When the Supreme Court made its New Jersey ruling less than a year later, it must have seemed like an affirmation.

Guided by the belief that bettors want more than just the odds and analytics, The Action Network also offers journalism to help them understand why the pros are betting a certain way, why sports books are posting certain odds, what’s going on with the legalization of sports betting across the country, and personality-driven features to allow bettors to revel in a culture that has almost become a sport in itself.

Millman hired a staff of veteran sports reporters such as Matt Moore, a former NBA analyst for CBS,  and Jason Sobel, a former Golf Channel senior writer. The Action Network also partnered with Millman’s old employer ESPN+ and SiriusXM for a radio show. In February, the company announced that it had raised $17.5 million from private equity, team owners, and media and e-sports investors.

Other outlets such as Bleacher Report and CBS Sports have started to expand into the space. And the odds are strong that as legalized gambling spreads from state to state, other existing companies, as well as start-ups, will line up to compete with the Action Network.

But Millman seems decidedly bullish about his chances. The welcome party at the Palms attracted quite a few people, many of whom left with a free green t-shirt that read: “YOU PUSH 100% OF THE BETS YOU DON’T MAKE.”

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Correction: A previous version misspelled Mike Kerns’s name.

Tony Rehagen has written for Pacific Standard, GQ, Bloomberg, and ESPN The Magazine. He is based in St. Louis and is on Twitter @trehagen.