Matt Dubiel’s personal philosophy, at its core, comes down to being prepared and being nimble.
Those two traits can help explain why the 43-year-old managing partner of a Chicagoland station that had rebranded itself “Sportsbook Radio” just in time for the global sports scene to shut down hasn’t sent himself into a pandemic panic.
Dubiel is the station manager of WCKG-AM, a 4,000-watt signal in the western Chicago suburb of Elmhurst, Illinois, and has been attached to those call letters for more than a decade. With the long-term goal of sports wagering in mind, he flipped his station to sports talk radio in April 2018, a month before the U.S. Supreme Court opened the doors for individual states to offer legalized gambling on athletics.
“I believed that would be a future reality we would be living in, and I wanted to sow the seeds of building up an audience … to prepare specifically for the time we’re living in now,” he said.
He established a nationally syndicated lineup to start the day and quickly partnered through SportsbookReview.com for a time to put the “Closing Line” program with Donnie Seymour on for an hour each weekday — more than a year before Illinois casinos even entertained taking bets.
Finally, the state was accepting wagers this March 9. Dubiel announced the next day that his station would slowly morph into its “Sportsbook Radio” concept with a mixture of traditional national voices eventually building into an afternoon of wager-focused content.
You know what’s happened since. The coronavirus has crippled the country. The sports world ground to a halt. Illinois casinos had shut down by St. Patrick’s Day. “Sportsbook Radio” was without its differentiating concept.
When Dubiel’s wife asked the appropriate question — “Why does this stuff happen to us? — he was ready, and unfazed.
“The reason stuff like this happens to us is because we do a lot of stuff. We’re trying a lot of stuff,” he said. “This will pass. It’s not going to change where this train is going. Sports will return, gambling will return. And when it does, somebody’s got to talk about it in Chicago.”
So although it may seem like such a concept is already doomed on the surface — Dubiel is airing an all-Fox Sports Radio lineup in the interim, for example — Dubiel is not scrapping his concept for WCKG. If anything, this hiatus has bought him more time.
To a certain extent, Dubiel said he knew he was going to need to build an appetite for content over time, given both a relatively slow response from Illinois to legalize sports gambling in comparison with several neighboring states such as Iowa and Indiana. But he also said he wanted to push the concept of a Chicago-area station that would take sports betting on this serious a level well before bigger entities overseen by regional and national directors would have a chance to pivot.
“I believed I had one of two choices. I would sit and wait, and everybody now is sitting and waiting. I’ve been through that, and the wait-and-see approach doesn’t work for me,” he said. “I made the decision to declare and be aggressive in our certainty that this is what we’re doing.
“We’re moving ahead on talking about gambling and odds and this new arena that I firmly believe our competitors with big agendas aren’t going to be able to move as nimbly.”
What’s he got in mind? It starts small, with extended interstitial segments and miniature shows centered on specific casinos and racetrack activities that take the place of some traditional commercial breaks — skinned audio around national content, in other words. Dubiel said he believes that between the aggressive explosion of the podcast industry along with economic disruption bound to continue from COVID-19, there will be no shortage of content creators available who need to find other venues with which to market their expertise.
“We want to bridge the gap between the media celebrity who’s talking about sports gambling because his boss tells him to, and the guy on the internet selling picks for $75 and you need to stay away from those guys,” he said. “There are tons of good people, guys and girls in the sports and gambling space that should create content and don’t know the place for it yet. Well, we can be that place and those conversations are welcome.”
As the months go by, Dubiel hopes to find those content creators who will realize they need to build a relationship with the masses and with the cache that over-the-air access provides in order to differentiate themselves in the evolving digital media space. Then, as the later individual days go by, he’ll be in a better place to be gambling-focused in the afternoon-to-evening window once the sports world is up and running again.
Any plan such as this carries risk. Dubiel is aware. But he’s prepared to make a long-term bet on sports betting as that more insulated, nimbler risk than certain other, staid options available to him.
“To me, now is a tremendous opportunity for potential partners to eye us from across the dance floor and start boogieing. Now is the time to prepare,” he said. “Get the dance steps down now so when the floor opens up and the music comes back on, we’ll have practiced our two-step before everyone’s watching.”