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Star Tribune Story, Tuesday, December 22, 2020

22 Dec 2020 08:22 | Rachel Jenner (Administrator)

From 'Play ball' to 'Play Bally's'? Sinclair betting on legal gambling to boost viewership

Sinclair Broadcasting, the owner of Fox Sports North, might soon be able to offer ways to bet on the game you're watching through your TV, phone or pad.  

By Phil Miller Star Tribune


DECEMBER 22, 2020 — 5:11AM


This 2019 photo shows a gambler making a sports bet at Bally’s casino in Atlantic City N.J. Fox Sports North, which has televised Twins games on cable under a variety of names almost continuously since 1989, will be rebranded as Bally’s Sports Network (or something similar) this spring,


Sometime next summer, the bullpen door will swing open, Taylor Rogers will jog to the mound, and Twins fans will fret as their closer tries to preserve a small lead.

But the team's new broadcasting partner wants them to do more than just watch and worry.

Imagine longtime play-by-play voice Dick Bremer saying something like: "Rogers has converted seven consecutive save opportunities. Can he make it eight? If you'd like to place a bet on it, just go to your Bally's Sports app and click on 'In-game wagers.'"

Fox Sports North, which has televised Twins games on cable under a variety of names almost continuously since 1989, will be rebranded as Bally's Sports Network (or something similar) this spring, perhaps as soon as baseball's scheduled Opening Day on April 1. And along with a new look will come a new facet of broadcasts of Twins, Timberwolves, Wild and Minnesota United FC games: gambling.

Sinclair Broadcasting, which bought FSN and 20 other regional sports networks from Fox's parent company for more than $10 billion in August 2019, last month struck an $86 million deal with Bally's Corp., which owns 10 casinos around the country, to rename the various networks and turn them into conduits not only for live sports viewership but online sports gambling as well.

Want to bet on whether Byron Buxton hits a home run in the game you're about to watch, who will net the Wild's next goal, or whether the Wolves will score more than 100 points? Sinclair and Bally's want to provide that opportunity — eventually, right through your TV, phone or pad. It's a tantalizing new revenue stream for a TV sports industry being battered by the rapid decline of cable and satellite bundlers as consumers migrate to streaming services.

Betting on games "creates more engagement, and that's what drives value for teams — engaged fans," Chris Ripley, Sinclair's CEO, said in a conference in November to announce the 10-year contract with Bally's. "It's a win-win for everybody."

Well, perhaps not for the 2.2% of American adults who are unable to moderate their wagering habits, according to research by the National Council on Problem Gambling. But just about everybody who is a fan of professional sports is a potential viewer, it seems.

Opening the door

The former Fox regional networks own the rights to televise games of 14 MLB teams, 16 NBA teams and 12 NHL teams, an inventory — in non-COVID years — of more than 4,600 games per season. Sinclair also owns 20% of the YES Network, which carries New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets games, and is a partner in the Marquee Network, which televises the Chicago Cubs, though neither property will be rebranded as Bally's.

Those TV rights are rapidly losing value as a younger generation grows up with eyes on much smaller screens, far more interested in interacting via phones than passively watching a sporting event. Already, Sinclair estimates that its regional networks, robbed of hundreds of hours of live programming by the pandemic, lost a combined $4 billion in value since the purchase from Fox. Drumming up new customers, particularly those not inclined to tune in to a low-wattage midweek regular-season MLB game, is becoming critical for programmers.

They hope they have found a new way to reach those customers, thanks to an unlikely ally: the Supreme Court. In 2018, a 6-3 majority declared unconstitutional a federal law that mostly prohibited states (except Nevada) from legalizing betting on sports, a ruling that set off a rush to cash in on a gambling boom. Already 25 states have approved gambling on sports, and another 21 — including Minnesota — have considered it.

The right age

It's a popular, and lucrative, lure.

The network's research shows that 63% of viewers aged 25-34, the most coveted demographic for sports advertisers, are interested in betting on sports; 46% already bet on games at least once a month; and people who bet on games are 24% more likely to tune in to watch. The rate is nearly as high among college-age adults, creating what Ripley called a "staggering" number of potential customers.

Those young viewers grew up playing video games, which provides a template for what Sinclair and Bally's have in mind, a broadcast that not only provides gamblers for Bally's but additional viewers for Sinclair's advertisers and teams.

"The overall vision, of which this is a keystone, is to 'gamify' sports, to make watching sports like playing a video game," Ripley said. "We think this will dramatically increase the attractiveness [of watching games], especially for a younger generation."

That means making the games — and the virtual betting windows — available on mobile devices, another important part of the strategy. Bally's paid $100 million to purchase Bet.Works, a company that is creating gambling software for a mobile app that can connect directly to Sinclair's streamed broadcasts.

Minnesota vice

It's clear already that there's plenty of money at stake, which is why pro leagues, the NBA in particular, have supported legislation to allow and regulate gambling. More than $800 million was wagered on sports in New Jersey last October alone, the state's regulators reported.

Bills have been filed in the Minnesota Legislature to legalize sports gambling in each of the past two years, but in the face of opposition from Indian tribes that operate casinos in the state, the proposals died without a vote each time. Iowa, however, was among the first states to legalize sports gambling. FSN's reach extends into northern Iowa, putting sports wagering within a short drive for thousands of Minnesotans. Casinos in Deadwood, S.D., which also receives Twins broadcasts, will begin offering wagering on July 1.

But Sinclair and Bally's are banking on legalization eventually arriving in most states, Minnesota likely among them, and planning programming accordingly. Ripley envisions pregame shows that examine potential wagers and betting strategies "and just set up that day's game for viewers," he told investors. Bally's will purchase advertising on the broadcasts as well, and graphics about available bets someday could be added to the screen.

Phil Miller has covered the Twins for the Star Tribune since 2013. Previously, he covered the University of Minnesota football team, and from 2007-09, he covered the Twins for the Pioneer Press. MillerStrib

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