“By the way, Ben Simmons tonight, guys — if you were feeling frisky, Ben Simmons was getting 14/1 to make the first three of his career.”
A mere 11 seconds elapsed between when those words came out of Brad Feinberg’s mouth and when Ben Simmons stroked a three-pointer from the corner a little under four minutes into the Philadelphia 76ers’ Nov. 20 game against the New York Knicks.
For more than two seasons in the NBA, Simmons’ reluctance — bordering on utter refusal — to shoot from the outside has been a constant plotline. Feinberg seized on that plotline at the perfect moment. And it gave the NBC Sports Philadelphia sports betting-focused alternative broadcast of that Sixers-Knicks game, the “BetCast,” the defining call of the historic moment.
Feinberg cited the wagering odds. Broadcast mate Anthony Gargano quickly swatted his comment away, insisting, “He’s not shooting the three.” Then the shot went up and swished through the net, leaving Feinberg, Gargano, and host Marc Farzetta screaming like Mexican soccer announcers after a game-winning goal.
The other TV and radio broadcasts of the game reacted to the moment with appropriate histrionics, but only the BetCast called Simmons’ shot and teed up the moment before it happened. It was the most memorable call of these experimental broadcasts so far.
But NBC Sports’ aim is not to predict the future. It’s to make the present interesting, whether the actual game action is compelling or not.
‘You can never run out of stuff to talk about’
“We have an expression that we’ve been using through all the broadcasts and rehearsals so far, that ‘the spread levels the field,’” NBC Sports Philadelphia Vice President of Live Events Shawn Oleksiak tells Penn Bets. “The line really develops sports opportunities and content opportunities for you throughout the game. For example, you can have the end of a game that’s a blowout where the final seconds might still impact the over/under.”
This was proven accurate in the most recent BetCast, on Dec. 2, when the Sixers hosted the Utah Jazz. Philly led by eight points after the first quarter, by 18 at halftime, and by 19 entering the fourth. The Jazz rallied a bit in the final minutes to come within sniffing distance of the point spread (the Sixers were favored by 5½), but the pure win-loss result of the game was never in doubt.
So on the primary Philadelphia broadcast, hosted by play-by-play man Marc Zumoff and color analyst Alaa Abdelnaby, it was a challenge to make the game interesting.
That wasn’t the case for the BetCast.
“It’s actually easier to announce a game with a focus on betting,” Feinberg says. “We have the option to call the game at times, just like they do. But I can also talk about the spread or the over/under for the game or for a half or a quarter coming down to the last shot. With betting, you can never run out of stuff to talk about.”
Feinberg credits Oleksiak as the driving force behind the BetCasts. “Shawn is really the reason this is happening,” Feinberg says. “He was very bullish on gambling. He really believed it was going to be a big thing.”
The concept was set in motion in late 2017, around the time Pennsylvania was legalizing online gaming but before the Supreme Court opened up the sports betting opportunities by declaring PASPA unconstitutional. Oleksiak introduced the idea of a betting-focused live sports broadcast on a call with other executives, and in the spring of 2019, with the NBA and the 76ers on board, they became the best fit for a first broadcast.
NBC Sports Philly rolled out its first BetCast in a low-stakes late-season game in April between the Sixers and the Atlanta Hawks, then tried it again for a first-round playoff game against the Brooklyn Nets.
The response was positive, so NBC Sports Philadelphia announced just prior to this season’s Sixers-Knicks game that featured the Simmons trey that 10 more BetCasts were planned for 2019-20. (That number has since been reduced to nine, since Tuesday night’s game against Denver got shifted to a national TNT slot.) The next one is this Friday, Dec. 13, against the struggling New Orleans Pelicans. Six more are planned for 2020:
- Jan. 6 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
- Feb. 7 vs. Memphis Grizzlies
- Feb. 9 vs. Chicago Bulls
- Feb. 24 vs. Atlanta Hawks
- Feb. 27 vs. New York Knicks
- March 18 vs. Toronto Raptors
Bring in the betting expert
While Farzetta and Gargano are both veteran sports radio personalities in Philly with plenty of broadcasting experience, Feinberg entered the first betting broadcast as a relatively unknown quantity. He’s a serious (though not professional) sports bettor who knows the ins and outs of gambling but had never really considered a sportscasting career.
Noted Las Vegas gambler Steve Fezzik, a two-time Westgate SuperContest winner, is a friend of Feinberg’s and, via Fezzik’s podcast co-host Ross Tucker, helped put Feinberg on NBC’s radar. One thing led to another and Feinberg got a call from NBC Philly.
“I was taking my son to a Sixers game that night,” Feinberg recalls, “and they’re like, ‘All right, we’re right in the building, will you come meet with us?’ So I met with them, I spoke to them for about 45 minutes or an hour.
“They called me back for an on-camera tryout. And I guess I was less bad than everyone else,” the self-deprecating Feinberg quips.
Through numerous rehearsals, Feinberg grew comfortable with the rhythms of broadcasting, and as Oleksiak notes, he, Farzetta, and Gargano “jelled from the start.” Feinberg has nothing but glowing words for his broadcast mates.
“Marc Farzetta who hosts the show, he’s really good. I couldn’t do what he does,” Feinberg says. “And Anthony is a ball of energy. Those guys have great skill sets for what they do, and we all get along.”
Feinberg says he’s gradually grown more comfortable on camera.
“What makes it easy for me is I’m an expert on the subject matter,” he says. “I know betting, so it makes it easier. There aren’t many things I would say I know well in life, but this happens to be one of them.”
Preparation reduces perspiration
So what does a typical game day look like for the NBC Sports Philly gang?
It starts with producer Casey Feeney creating an outline of the show, laying out the planned topics of discussion for every commercial break and every significant pause in the action. It might be exploring the Atlantic Division odds on one break, the MVP odds on another.
Meanwhile, Feinberg is compiling his own extensive notes, so he’ll be ready with numbers for just about any conceivable scenario. He has at his fingertips each team’s record against the spread, every prop bet he could find on the game, every notable player’s stats for the year and for the last five games, and so forth.
“I have all those notes,” he says, “so that nothing will surprise me. The Simmons three-pointer — that was lucky timing, but it wasn’t lucky in the sense that I wrote down Ben Simmons’ odds to make a three beforehand.”
One complicated consideration for Oleksiak, Feeney, and the broadcast team throughout has been determining how much to “dumb down” the betting talk for audience members who might be new to the space. On the one hand, there’s always the regular Zumoff-Abdelnaby broadcast available for those who don’t want this, and that’s naturally going to draw more viewers than the BetCast. (For what it’s worth, viewership of 76ers games on NBC Sports Philly overall is up 38% over last season.) On the other hand, Oleksiak and company don’t want to drive away new viewers by overwhelming them with wonky stats and puzzling terminology.
“We’ve talked about this extensively,” Feinberg says. “Initially, we were trying to make it so that as many newbies or recreational gamblers could understand it. We’re defining what a point spread is, what a parlay is — terms that I know in my sleep, but they may not.
“I think as we go on, you’re going to see that inherently people learn more as gambling becomes more omnipresent, and we’ll be able to go in that direction. I’m sure there are going to be some people who watch and say it’s like watching first grade. And there will be other people who thinks it’s too complicated and wish we would dumb it down even more. You’re never going to please everyone. But we want the average person to understand it. That is the primary goal for the time being.”
“We’re here to entertain and we’re here to have fun and we’re here to inform,” adds Oleksiak. “We’re not looking to beat anybody over the head in an analytical fashion. But we are looking to provide the data for casual fans that just want to take a deeper interest in the game.”
What does the future hold?
That natural assumption is that, with Sixers BetCasts off to an encouraging start, Eagles, Phillies, and Flyers editions can’t be far off.
But the various leagues and teams need to sign off on that first. NBC Sports Washington dipped a toe in these waters for a Redskins preseason game (and the D.C. network has done with some Wizards games what the Philly channel is doing with the 76ers). But otherwise, the NBA is the trendsetter here.
“It’s really up to the evolution of the particular sports leagues,” Oleksiak says. “From our perspective, we’ve discussed it internally. And we’ll be prepared when the opportunity presents itself.”
One thing is clear: Sports betting, once treated by many networks and broadcasters as if it didn’t exist, is on an upward exposure trajectory.
“You look at ESPN, the odds are on the screen now — that’s just become normal,” Feinberg says. “America loves gambling. People love to bet. That’s not going away. It’s only going to spread more and more.”