Professional Conference Call: Chad Millman, Head Of Media, The Action Network

One of our more recent guests on the Sports Business Chronicle weekly conference call was Chad Millman, Head of Media at The Action Network.

Millman discussed prior editorial stops at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, why he left Bristol for startup sports betting media company The Action Network, the search for big media personalities, his outlook on the betting space, competition in the U.S. market and advice for up-and-coming students, among other topics.

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On his career path…

When I got out of college, I was working at Sports Illustrated. I was covering the NFL. I was there for five years and ESPN The Magazine started in 1998. They hired me to cover the NFL for them as an editor and as a writer. When I was there, a couple years in, I ended up having the idea to write a book about guys who bet on sports for a living and the bookmakers who create the point spreads. That book was called The Odds, and it was really centered around college basketball and Vegas, essentially for a college basketball season, tracking guys who the bookmakers at the Stardust and there’s one professional better in particular named Alan Boston, who was considered the best professional college basketball bettor in the world, and was betting huge sums of money everyday upwards of seven figures everyday on college basketball and certainly exceeding that on the weekends.

So, I wrote the book and had a really good time and got sort of immersed in the culture of sports betting. Was still at ESPN and was still an editor, sort of working my way up the ranks there and in 2008, I started writing a column just about the inner-workings of sports betting. How bookmakers make their decisions. How bettors make their decisions. It wasn’t meant to make predictions or make picks, but sort of cover it the way we cover the NFL at ESPN. That sort of became a podcast and that became television and that became a regular daily column on Insider. In 2011, I became Editor-in-Chief of the magazine, and we did a gambling issue, and I continued to sort of cover the industry in a lot of different ways.

Then, in 2014, I took over the magazine and ESPN.com and we launched a vertical, called Chalk, which covered sports betting on a daily basis on its own platform. So, I had always been interested in the space. I had known a lot about it. I had contacts. I think that parallel conversation in sports is really valuable for fans. The Chernin Group, which owns Barstool and produces a lot of movies and television shows and was founded by Peter Chernin, who had been president of News Corp for many many years, he launched his own media company, and they were very interested in niche digital properties and wanted to start a sports betting media property. They approached me last summer to join them to launch this new company, called Action. I did that in September and we launched our site and began all of our partnerships in January.

On his first interest in sports betting…

It was entirely born of naivety. I didn’t know anything about it. I was assigned a story for the magazine in the spring of ‘99 I think. I had been there less than a year, and they wanted to know like, ‘Who sets the point spreads for the college basketball tournaments for March Madness? What is the sort of business that follows?’ They are the first domino in this multi-billion dollar business set around this tournament for a three-week span. I ended up interviewing a guy named Joe Lupo, who at the time, ran the Stardust sportsbook. This is the late 90s, so internet sportsbooks were just not prominent then. It was right at the edge of when places were becoming more relevant and started to gain more traction, but most professional bettors, and most of the conversation around betting started with the point spreads that bookmakers in Vegas made. I spent a lot of time talking to Joe Lupo and wrote this story about him for the magazine. I had written the book when I was at SI, and I was looking for a new idea, and I just thought this was fascinating. I said to Joe, ‘I want to come out for this college basketball season and track you and some bettors’, and the rest is history. As a friend said to me, ‘My side hustle eventually became my hustle’.

On if his betting-related content resonated with readers of ESPN The Magazine…

Yeah. It was instant, and it was loud. Nobody was really doing it that way. You had people like Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal, who sort of threw open the door, because they talked about it regularly on Bill’s podcast, which is amazing, and they still do it. They were really thoughtful about bringing it into the mainstream, and the path I was taking was covering it in a way that was more than just the fan way to do it and with some sort of journalistic credibility and reporting behind it.

I think that people just really liked the conversation. It was a visceral language. They were excited to hear what was happening in Vegas, even if you weren’t betting. To be able to sit at the bar with your buddies on a Sunday and know why the Panthers +9 was the pick for the wise guys in Vegas and be able to use that language, I think appealed to people, and so I got a lot of feedback from that. From the industry itself, I got a lot of positive feedback just because people were excited to have a light shined on it in a way that was different than sort of people talking about…800-numbers and trying to sell your five-star picks for $15.

On his first meeting with the staff at The Chernin Group…

I had been following what they were doing for a while. I knew of Mike Kerns, who is the president of Chernin Digital. Just from work he had done. He had started Sportacular, which was a really popular sports app. For a time, the most popular sports app. He started a company called Fitness and Sports that Yahoo had bought and then he was running Yahoo. When he went to Chernin, he’s unbelievably well-known and respected in the digital sports space.

I met with him for lunch. We had never met before. He just emailed me out of the blue, and he started telling me about their vision. He told me some of the companies they were buying. I knew two of the companies really well. He told me they were buying three companies. He told me two of them. I knew them both really, really well. One of them was Sports Insights, which I had already done a deal with at ESPN, so I understood who they were and was impressed with them. I was impressed with what he was saying and the vision that he had in a lot of ways was bigger and broader than anything I could have envisioned at ESPN because he had pure restraint.

Like I would think about what we were doing at ESPN but knew there was going to be a limit. I don’t want to foreshadow that and say ESPN didn’t want to do gambling. A lot of it was about the resources and what the upside would be. At the time, at ESPN, it was significantly harder to make money than it will potentially be in the future. It was hard to commit to a ton of resources in addition to the fact it was just a hard thing for a lot of people at ESPN to wrap their head around because it’s illegal. He just had a broad vision for what they were going to do, which I thought was amazing and was everything I had ever wanted to do and combined what I had liked doing at ESPN in sort of building a team perspective and building an organization and also the opportunity to keep creating content about something I’m really passionate about.

On his first 30-90 days at The Action Network…

Those first 30-90 days were about letting every contact I had know about what I was doing. Then, it was about establishing a newsletter that I thought would be really important. Then, I thought it would be about establishing a voice on social. I wanted to build towards a Super Bowl presence. It was recruiting and then establishing a baseline of the stuff I thought most we needed to get to the audience that I thought was most important and also, we were buying three companies, and I needed to get a better understanding of who the personnel were and what was already being produced.

On if he was inundated with requests to work with The Action Network when it first started…

I would say it’s never overwhelming when people want to work with you. It’s actually just flattering, and you’re excited, and you want to talk to every single person who reaches out. So no. That was fantastic and awesome. I was thrilled that there was enthusiasm. Generally, that’s all there’s been so far. People just being really pumped that somebody is trying this, and there was something that has a little bit of a voice.

On The Action Network’s upcoming content programming…

Obviously, our core competency is digital. The stuff where we think about most and the stuff that’s going to be the most important for us is what can we do in our app that drives users to the product and then converts them to be subscribers? That’s the core basis for our model is going to be subscribers. Over the long term, how can we build an affiliate business? So, as more states roll out legalized sportsbooks, we want to have as qualified a CRM as possible so we can convert people to users of the products for the sportsbooks that are operating in various states. We need to make sure our app is as good as can be. That’s No. 1. No. 2, we have a lot more stuff planned for the fall that is both social in nature and that is wittier for broadcasting nature. A lot of it I can’t talk about because we’re in the middle of a bunch of a deals, and I’m not really allowed to say.

On looking for people with big personalities for the shows…

Always. Like at the end of the day, the name of the game is going to be about talent. The more high-profile talent we can hire that have vast audiences. Most people are bigger than our platform. We’re still starting, so we need to find people like Jason Sobel. Find people like Matt Moore who can be really strong brand drivers for us as we continue to grow and get bigger. We’ve had a lot of success and a lot of attention early on and that’s great because sort of the people we’ve hired and what the executive team looks like. People are sort of interested, ‘OK. These people are innovative thinkers. Why are they leaving to do this in the space?’ Certainly, with the legalization, that’s brought a lot more attention, but we’re still a startup. We’re a rapidly-growing platform that has bigger numbers year after year, partially because we started from a pretty small base.

On if there are opportunities to work with Barstool Sports based on the Chernin connection…

We’re certainly anxious to figure out ways to work with them. We did a pretty big sponsorship deal with them around the Super Bowl. We did another one at March Madness. Obviously, the two of their three biggest personalities, Big Cat and Portnoy, are gamblers and they were users of the Action app long before Action Network existed. One of the companies we bought and was incubated in the Chernin environment is now the core technology we use. They were users of that long before I was on board and this existed. Yeah, we’re going to look for ways to partner with them all the time.

On how his outlook on sports betting has changed over time…

I didn’t pay much attention to betting in college at all actually. When PASPA was passed, I don’t even know if I knew about it. It really wasn’t anything on my radar until I got to ESPN, and I worked on this story for the magazine. I’ll be honest, even when I wrote The Odds, I don’t even remember mentioning PASPA in the book. It didn’t really matter. There weren’t any places to gamble on sports when I was growing up outside of Vegas that didn’t require a bookie. … PASPA just became a thing in the last 10 years for me when I started hearing more and more about states wanting to get into the gambling game after the recession in 2008 and wanting to find more ways to raise money and thinking that betting was a good way to do it because every other form of sports betting was legal and that wasn’t. That’s when I started focusing on it, reading on it and reporting on it a lot more.

On leaving ESPN and joining a startup…

I was playing the odds. I was definitely playing the odds. I had done enough reporting on PASPA over the years to know that if it got to the Supreme Court, then I felt good about its chances of being overturned in some way. There were probably three different things that could happen. They could overturn it completely, which they did. I actually didn’t think that would happen. I thought what they would do is keep the law in place, but let New Jersey have sports betting through sort of a very specific language they wrote into their legislation. Then, I thought every state would have to follow that path and re-litigate it based on new legislation they passed. I thought there was more than a 60 percent chance, if there were three outcomes, two of which were favorable, that it would go in my favor. The Supreme Court decided to hear the case in June of 2017, and that was in the middle of when I was talking to The Chernin Group. I remember I was probably less than 50 percent interested when we first started talking and then when this happened, I instantly became a lot more interested, because I felt like this was going to be a big deal, and I want to be in this space and get a head start before anyone else was there.

On other media outlets that are covering the sports betting space…

It’s really interesting, because overseas they don’t cover it the way I think we’re going to in the U.S. Firstly, because it’s been such a natural part of what they do for so many years that they don’t need special coverage just for betting, like it’s part of every conversation. Here, obviously, like I love what we started when I was at ESPN. I think David Purdum, who is still there, is crazy good at what he does. I love what (Darren Rovell) does and keeping track of the big tickets. I think that’s really good, and it’s obviously stuff that we do as well at Action, and I think that I’m just seeing more and more mainstream companies now engage in this trade in interesting ways and just sort of cover it the way I had been doing 10 years ago at ESPN. Except now everyone is doing it more aggressively because they expect everyone to be more interested, but also, at larger media outlets, the fact that it’s now legal is giving everyone more comfort.

On how much he thinks about international companies breaking into the U.S. market…

I think it’s great. These are companies that want to be aggressive in the space. I look at everybody right now as a mix of potential partners, whether it be for content that we want to license, which we do. We’ve already done a deal with ESPN and we, obviously, have a lot more things we’re talking about for the fall. Or they’re people who might want to access our customers, so I think they’re great.

On his advice for people who want to work in the sports industry…

No. 1 is stay in your lane of passion. I too often see people who want to work in sports and will take any job in sports regardless of whether or not it’s something they’re interested in and what ends up happening is they get burned out of the thing they loved about sports to begin with because it’s a challenging field. A lot of it becomes about logistics and operations and money. … If you think you want to be in that industry, then I would recommend staying in the lane of your passion.

That’s No. 1. No. 2, nothing is ever going to beat contacts. The more you network, the more you do things like this, the more valuable it’s going to be, because it’s hard to find people. We are trying to hire nonstop for content positions, and it’s not easy to do. (Jack Settleman) came to us because he’s connected to our social team. We had interviewed many, many people and Jack stood out of because of his experience, but also because he had a personal connection with the guy. Unfortunately, the challenge for people who are hiring managers, is it makes you a little lazy because you want to hire someone quickly, and you might not do the diligence to make your organization as diverse as it could be. Sometimes you might not be getting the best person, because you’re only going to people you’re connected to, which isn’t always the smartest thing to do, but the reality is is that’s what it is. The more you can network, the more you make connections. You never know when a conversation today might lead to something a year from now. You’ve got to have a lot of patience about how to build those relationships.

On if he did anything early on in his career that made him stand out to an industry contact…

When I was in college, I grew up in a town called Highland Park, which is outside of Chicago. There was a writer for Sports Illustrated, named Rick Telander, who lived in my hometown. We played basketball at the same gym together. He was on this original show called “Sports Writers on TV,” which eventually became like a spoof on Saturday Night Live, sort of like a very old SNL skit. I met him playing basketball. Told him I wanted to work at Sports Illustrated, and he’s like, ‘I can try to get you a job at SI, but you’ll be fact checking out of the offices in New York. I’m working on a book if you want to be my research assistant’. So, I ended up working with him all summer on a book. The next summer, I ended up interning at Sports Illustrated because of that relationship. Because of that, I got a job at SI right out of college. I can always remember that very specifically.

About Mark J. Burns

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