Scott Van Pelt was on the air openly talking point spreads, backdoor covers and, most famously, the dreaded bad beat long before the Supreme Court opened the door for states to start legalizing sports wagering.
It’s impossible to measure his impact in helping to break down some of the barriers, but having a respected and likable mainstream broadcaster – the face of ESPN – as an advocate certainly didn’t hurt the process.
Van Pelt’s popular “bad beats” segments actually go back many years to when he was hosting a national radio talk show. But they’ve gained widespread popularity since he took them to the TV side as a rare solo anchor on the midnight SportsCenter (9 p.m. Pacific time) a little over three years ago.
“It has been interesting timing just because since our show’s come on the air, with the Supreme Court’s ruling (last May) and whatever else, it is something now I feel is far less taboo,” Van Pelt said. “I haven’t been right about everything in my life, but I was right to do this because it was clearly the direction this was headed.”
Van Pelt, considered to be a hero to many sports gamblers because of this approach, will be the featured keynote speaker Wednesday morning during the annual Global Gaming Expo (G2E) at the Sands Convention Center in Las Vegas. The general theme of Van Pelt’s presentation will focus on “the future of legalized, regulated sports betting in the U.S.,” part of a sports-betting symposium over the four-day G2E event. His appearance is scheduled to include a round-table discussion.
“From the start, Scott was one of the first to draw attention to the potential benefits of a legal, regulated sports betting market in the United States,” said Allie Barth, vice president of industry relations for the American Gaming Association. “Scott was a leader in incorporating the unique perspective of sports betting into how he broadcast the nightly highlights. He has been a longtime, vocal advocate for legalized sports betting, which makes him the perfect keynote speaker for G2E this year.”
Jay Kornegay, vice president of race and sports book operations for the Westgate SuperBook, said Van Pelt “has given sports wagering credibility by the coverage he shares and the platform he utilizes.”
“He sheds positive light on the entertainment value that sports wagering offers,” Kornegay said.
Van Pelt, 52, has been with ESPN since 2001 following a six-year stint as a studio host for the Golf Channel. In June 2015, ESPN promoted him to a show that now carries his name in the title – “SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt.” Van Pelt has used that status to continue trying to improve the perception of sports betting nationally. To him, it seemed like the obvious thing to do under the circumstances.
“When I was given an hour that was sort of mine to fill as I saw fit, I said, ‘Listen, I’m going to talk about this on our show and I’m not going to talk about it in a wink-and-a-nod kind of way. I’m going to talk about it more directly. People do this and I’m going to talk about it because this is what people do.
“There was really never any push-back. My bosses just sort of trusted I’d do it in a way that wouldn’t really cause anybody any pain.”
Perhaps as much as anything, Van Pelt is known for making that bettor’s cliché – the bad beat – a much more commonly used phrase. The problem is he has made it so common that it’s now often getting overused and misused.
“Thank you, I couldn’t agree more,” Van Pelt said. “I appreciate people’s enthusiasm to participate in the conversation but …”
But just because a game turns in the final minutes doesn’t automatically make it bad-beat material. And when a huge favorite loses outright, it’s a major upset, yes, but not necessarily a bad beat.
“The fact that gambling is becoming more mainstream, as it’s been legalized more places and will only continue to do so, people who understand it are going to need to be patient with people who don’t,” Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt’s definition of a bad beat is when “you’re on a side that absolutely should have been paid and at the end it’s not because of horribly unforeseen circumstances that conspire against you.”
A perfect example was when Van Pelt took Oregon over Stanford earlier this season, only to lose after the Ducks fumbled when they arguably could have been taking a knee to run out the clock. Kornegay calls these crazy turn of events “the agony and the joy” of sports betting. Van Pelt compares the interest in the bad-beat segments to “in a weird way like rubbernecking it in traffic when there’s a wreck.”
Kornegay’s only complaint is that Van Pelt’s perspective is too one-sided.
“He usually covers the players’ side, but I can tell you after 30 years of working this industry, bad beats go both ways,” Kornegay said.
When he takes the microphone at G2E, Van Pelt plans to address where he envisions sports betting is headed as more states outside of Nevada make it legal. Here are some opinions:
On the path could resemble that of marijuana legalization: “It’s a very interesting time given the way things are changing. We’re in the infancy of this, but my guess is once the baby starts walking, it will run quickly. So what does that look like? That’s the part I can’t really picture.
“What I have more than anything is just curiosity. This is happening faster than I thought. I thought there was probably a three-year window where it would happen. It got there early. I think the marijuana laws across the country are an indicator for what we’ll see. You can buy marijuana in more states now than you can’t. My guess is sports gambling will be very similar to that.”
On how much the TV industry gets involved: “People are of this belief that there will be all this gambling content disagree. I think gambling content is very difficult to do well because gamblers are a pretty cynical and arrogant bunch, like they think they already know. They don’t want somebody telling them what to do.
“It’s a tricky one to do. That’s why I’ve been appreciative that, by and large, the gambling community has been, I think, tolerant of me and us because they know that we at least know what we’re talking about. We’re not just sort of winging it. We’re not talking about it and don’t have a clue. If nothing else, I’ve earned my opinion honestly.”
On how far live betting actually will go in the future, particularly in the wake of the FanDuel controversy in which an algorithm pricing glitch led to a big payout by a New Jersey sports book: “If you’re going to have never-ending odds that expose you to mistakes that cost you $82,000 on a hundred-dollar bet, you better make sure you’re buttoned up. That was fascinating to see the way that one went.”
On the idea that sports books, such as those in Nevada, are going to agree to give a percentage of their handle – or even a portion of their winnings: “Are you crazy? People aren’t in the business of sharing their money that they haven’t been sharing before. That’s not how things typically go.”
To Van Pelt, any concern that legalization will create more integrity problems for the games is just as laughable.
“That’s comical to me,” Van Pelt said. “That’s just nonsense. I don’t think this adds a layer to that. Is it better if there’s a black market for it or if it’s regulated? I think it’s a pretty straightforward answer.”
For Van Pelt, his Vegas trips aren’t nearly as frequent as they were a couple decades ago, before he was married and had a family. This one will be short and sweet. He planned to leave Connecticut Tuesday night and return Wednesday afternoon. He has TV shows to anchor, but he accepted the invite because he said he was “flattered that they wanted me to come out and talk.”
“I’ll be on the ground for, I think, less than 24 hours,” Van Pelt said. “It’s brief, but there’s still enough time that you could theoretically sit in a semi-circle and have them deal you two cards and see if they add up to the right number.”