Brent Musburger’s big, new adventure involves sports gambling – Golfweek.com
Editor’s note: This story appeared in the May 2017 issue of Golfweek Magazine.
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Brent Musburger is riding a hot hand.
The sportscasting legend just chipped in for birdie on the eighth hole at Cascata, 20 miles southeast of Las Vegas
“Where’s that photographer?” Musburger chirps at a visiting writer. The photographer had peeled off from the group one hole earlier. Musburger’s moment of glory would live on in memory, if not pictures.
The hole-out ignites a string of victories. Musburger plays his 3-wood off the tee, keeps his ball in play and never gives his opponents a chance to rally. By the middle of the back nine, he and his playing partner, Vinny Magliulo, sports book director for Gaughan Gaming, were toasting their rout with Miller Lites.
Three months after leaving ESPN, Musburger is still doing what he loves: talking sports. But now he does it for the Vegas Stats & Information Network, or VSiN, the start-up launched by his nephew Brian, one of his victims at Cascata.
When Musburger received the request to play golf, he sent back word that he’d like to play at Cascata, No. 2 behind only Shadow Creek on Golfweek’s Best public-access list in Nevada. He’s been coming to Las Vegas for decades but only recently settled here and hadn’t yet played Cascata, an electrifying Rees Jones design chiseled out of mountainous terrain.
Musburger’s usual golf partner is his wife of 55 years, Arlene. He notes with some pride that when they play in club scrambles at Stock Farm, their club near Missoula, Mont., his buddies sometimes say they wish Arlene was their playing partner.
“I always tell young guys, ‘Get your wife playing early,’ ” he says. “They think I’m crazy. But it’s a game you can play your entire life.”
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A day after the outing at Cascata, Musburger is sitting in the sports book at South Point Hotel, Casino and Spa. The hotel is six miles south of Mandalay Bay, on a quiet part of Las Vegas Boulevard, if such a thing exists. Nearby, Gill Alexander, a statistical whiz kid, is wrapping up his “Numbers Game” show in the glassed-in VSiN studio. Musburger will be going on air shortly with his “My Guys in the Desert” show. (VSiN – pronounced V-Sin by the staff – streams its shows on its website and airs on SiriusXM channel 204.)
This is a big day for VSiN – “adult Christmas,” as Alexander tells his audience. It’s the first day of the NFL Draft, and Musburger is focused on possible storylines. Will the Bengals trade A.J. McCarron? Will the Patriots move Jimmy Garoppolo? “They’re better than anybody in the draft,” Musburger says. (Both quarterbacks stayed put.) The big question: How will the draft impact teams’ 2017 win totals? “People love to bet the over-under numbers,” Musburger says. “You don’t have to pay attention to it every day. You can bet your favorite team.” He settles on this as the hook for his show, which will start in less than an hour.
Some 40 years ago, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder took Musburger to the Barbary Coast casino and introduced him to the owner, Michael Gaughan, who became one of Musburger’s many friends in the desert. When Brian Musburger sought advice on launching VSiN, Brent steered him toward Gaughan. Later, over lunch, Gaughan told Musburger, “I like your nephew. I’m going to help him out.”
Then came the call from Brian: “Unc, I gotta have you.”
Musburger visited South Point last fall, looked at the studio, then under construction, and decided to explore an early exit from ESPN. His brother Todd, Brian’s father, is his agent.
“If it wasn’t family, I wouldn’t even think about it,” Musburger said. “But hell, I’m 77, so someday you’re going to have to get off the road.”
Musburger said he and Arlene had considered moving to Las Vegas several years ago. They had many friends there and loved the various entertainment options unrelated to gambling. (The previous week he and Arlene watched “An American in Paris” at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts – “as good as any theater you’ll find in the world,” he says.) Most importantly, Las Vegas offered easy air access to his home state of Montana.
Over the years critics sometimes wondered whether Musburger’s folksy on-air demeanor was genuine, but he comes by it honestly. He grew up in Billings, Mont., with the simple desire to be a sportswriter. Even as he became the face of CBS Sports, and later ABC and ESPN, he still leaned on his newspaper training. Mark Loomis, Fox Sports’ executive golf producer, often traveled with Musburger when he was a young production assistant at ABC. Musburger constantly pumped locals for information and opinions on their hometown teams.
“Brent would pick the brains of waiters, caddies, cabbies, trainers – whoever it was, he was truly interested in that person’s perspective,” Loomis recalls. “He didn’t have to go to the head coach. He wanted to talk to everybody.”
When working college games, Loomis says, you were more likely to find Musburger having a beer with students in a campus hangout rather than dining at some overpriced steakhouse. That’s where the action was. Loomis recalls that The Esso Club at Clemson was a particular favorite.
Musburger is resilient, which one might expect from a man who remained atop such a competitive profession for four decades. When his 22-year career with CBS ended abruptly and badly, he didn’t pout in public. “Folks, I’ve had the best seat in the house,” he said after the 1990 Final Four, his final assignment with CBS. “Thanks for sharing it. I’ll see you down the road.”
His new colleagues at ABC weren’t sure what to expect when Musburger arrived, given his tumultuous departure from CBS.
“He was great from day one,” says Golf Channel’s Jack Graham, who worked with Musburger at ABC. “There was never an ego with him. I couldn’t figure out what must have gone on for CBS to let him go, because he couldn’t have been a better team guy.”
Among his many ABC tasks, Musburger anchored the network’s golf coverage, which included the regular Tour, U.S. Open and British Open. At that time there were no hole announcers, so Musburger had to call every shot. He was doing a job that’s now done by four or five announcers.
“We didn’t put him in a position to thrive,” says Graham, a member of that crew and later ABC’s golf producer.
Still, his joy for the big events was evident. You can hear it in his call at the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews – “Yes! Yes! Rocca has done it!” when Costantino Rocca holed a 65-foot birdie putt from the Valley of Sin to force a playoff.
When ESPN bumped Musburger from its featured college football games to the SEC Network in 2015, he dutifully reported to remote outposts such as Columbia, Mo., and Lexington, Ky., to call meaningless games for smaller audiences. To this day, you won’t find any public comments from Musburger criticizing ESPN’s decision to make the younger, robotic Chris Fowler its lead play-by-play man. ESPN could reduce his role, but it couldn’t hide the fact that “Big Game” Brent remained the station’s best play-by-play man.
“I’m not surprised that he worked as long as he did, because he truly loved it,” Loomis says. “I was surprised he was stepping away because I thought he was going to do it forever. You could hear it in his voice how much he loved doing it.”
There was no farewell tour at ESPN; he left just days after word of his plans leaked out. He again thanked viewers “for sharing your time with me,” and suggested that they “pay me a visit at my new place out in Las Vegas. Why not? We can share a cold one, and maybe a win or two.” And then he was gone.
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“Holy George Halas! What’s going on here?” Musburger exclaims in the VSiN studio on draft day when the Chicago Bears move up to pick North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky with the second pick.
Outside, curious bettors at South Point mill around the studio, staring through the glass at the broadcasting legend. He’s fired up about the Trubisky shocker. “Bang on it at the top, baby!” Musburger tells a young producer prior to the news update. “Lean on it!”
“Boo! Boo! Booooo!” Musburger bellows coming out of a break. “I just wanted to get fans ready for the New York Jets pick.”
Word of Musburger’s exploits from the previous day’s golf outing have leaked to the crew. “Gee, Brent, one chip-in sure got you pumped up,” quips South Point oddsmaker Chris Andrews, a regular VSiN analyst.
Brian Musburger conceived VSiN as a means to outflank sports rights-holders. Sports gambling remains a subject the networks and the leagues dance around. Brent Musburger and CBS were decades ahead of the curve in the 1970s with weekly “NFL Today” segments in which Snyder picked games – though they avoided talking about point spreads. Forty years later, you still won’t hear Jim Nantz talking about the betting favorites for the Masters or March Madness, sports betting’s biggest event.
At VSiN, anything that impacts sports gambling is fair game. Brian Musburger noted that one of the first discussions his uncle led on VSiN, on Super Bowl Sunday, concerned Atlanta Falcons center Alex Mack’s broken left fibula and how pain medication would impact his play.
“That’s a discussion the NFL doesn’t want (the networks) to have,” he said. “There’s still great stories to be told without that access (rights holders have). With that access almost comes an obligation to tell the story (the leagues) want to hear. That’s worthless.”
Brian Musburger wants VSiN to be “the CNBC or Bloomberg of sports gaming” – reasoned, intensely analytical, absent the histrionics that are in vogue on many sports talk shows. He reasoned that the generation of sports fans that grew up playing fantasy sports already are immersed in predictive analytics. Vegas oddsmakers such as Magliulo have made their livings studying those numbers.
“What they do is a science, and it’s seen as some kind of shady, dark art. It’s anything but that,” Brian Musburger said. “What they do is no different than what traders on Wall Street do in setting markets.”
His uncle has believed that for decades. Far from gaming the system, Brent Musburger long ago became convinced that “my friends out in the desert” are a force for good in sports. “All they want is an honest game. . .” he said on his last night at ESPN. “It’s a good part of sports. I consider it healthy.”
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In the world of sports betting, the NFL and several other sports leagues dwarf the action on golf. It spikes during the majors and last week’s Players Championship. As with the television networks’ ratings, Tiger Woods drove a lot of the action when he was at his best.
“He kicked our asses for 15 years,” says South Point bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro. “Here’s a guy who was even money in a 64-man field.”
Magliulo estimated that the golf handle dropped at least 30 percent when injuries knocked Woods off Tour but has recovered thanks to interest in young stars such as Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and rookie Jon Rahm. (“Folks are definitely enamored with him,” Magliulo says.)
Head-to-head matchups drive a lot of the wagering on golf; last week South Point posted some 40 individual matchups at The Players.
“The individual matchups are the most fun to play,” Musburger says, though he finds golf and NASCAR two of the most difficult sports to bet. His advice: Hold your fire – “Anybody who bets before a tournament might as well just give your money to the bookmakers” – then ride a hot golfer on the weekend.
Musburger knows the problems the golf industry has experienced. He notes that some 800 courses have closed in recent years, that time and money hinder the game’s growth. He suggests that a little more action might help the game broaden its appeal.
“It’s a better betting game than mainstream America understands,” he says. He studies a sheet with the early odds on the U.S. Open and contemplates bettors’ interest in a matchup between Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy. “You’d have some early action on that,” he says. “Golf is a great betting game. It’s a great betting game to play.”
Then he begins making his way across South Point’s sports book toward the VSiN studio, pausing to talk with friends old and new. It’s almost show time.
Part of VSiN’s mission, he believes, is to convince doubters of that fact. He even expresses optimism that sports gambling will be legalized nationally, particularly given President Trump’s history in the casino business. The biggest opponents will be the sports leagues. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been open to the idea, but he doesn’t have much company from other leagues.
“I’m really not a fan of hypocrisy,” Musburger says during the round at Cascata. “The truth of the matter is that professional sports in this country would not be as big without gambling on the outcomes. A lot of people engage in this because they like the action. Don’t pretend you’re holier than thou when we all know better – especially the National Football League. Gambling has helped tremendously, so you might as well legalize it and try to share in the profits.”