NESN’s Sammy P. is not a household name around here, but it’s way better than even money that he will be soon, if you are among the many who believe that the legalized gambling industry is about to wash over pro sports in Massachusetts.
Hands up now, all three of you, if you think the Bay State is going to remain on the betting sidelines. It’s only a matter of how soon, and Sammy P., who watched his home state of Illinois finally come around to it a couple of years ago, is hopeful that we’ll see the betting fire hose open full blast here by the start of the next NFL and college football seasons.
“I think the dollar signs popping up around the country, and the amount of money it brings a state, and goes into a state,” he said the other day, “I just think it’s too tough to ignore.”
Uh, bingo. Like the casino business, there’s just too much dough to be had, and it’s too painful to watch it bleed out to neighboring states such as New York, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.
Sammy P., who came aboard at NESN at the start of the year, is the first person to be placed full time in a gaming/entertainment role by a local television/cable entity. He is the space holder for what portends to be a whopping industry and potentially humongous media play.
NESN jumped out front on this one, and Sammy’s its guy, though for now the Red Sox/Bruins-owned network has fashioned his role, be it on air or online, as “free to play” and “predictive” rather than “gambling.” It’s a fine line, and one that promises to vanish quickly when the gambling talk at the State House moves from “in committee” to real-life betting.
A quick Sam Panayotovich primer: age 32, a Chicago South Sider of Serbian descent, attended Catholic high school (Mount Carmel), then the University of Illinois before getting his undergraduate degree from Columbia College Chicago. “They had a radio department, which I didn’t know was a thing,” he said of his switch to Columbia. “I started as a radio guy.”
Panayotovich began as a WGN intern in 2012, worked his way up to producing and reporting and anchoring, a run that included a five-year stint producing the Blackhawks’ pregame show hosted by Judd Sirott, now the Bruins’ play-by-play voice on 98.5 The Sports Hub.
“He gets it,” said Sirott. “Shrewd. Big personality. Bright. And fun to hang out with. Sammy’s good people.”
Panayotovich waded full time in the gambling pool upon leaving WGN about three years ago when he moved to Las Vegas, enticed by an offer to host a sports betting radio show.
“I thought, ‘Well, I know what I’m doing on the radio, and I think I can figure the gambling thing out,’ ” he recalled. “And two and two equaled four, at least at that point.”
It was Rick Jaffe, briefly NESN’s vice president of programming and production, who hired Panayotovich here. They had worked together in Las Vegas and it was Jaffe, who left in March to join the Sinclair Broadcast Group, who positioned him essentially as the network’s betting guru in waiting.
With the Red Sox season underway, NESN viewers will see more and more of Panayotovich, building on his weekly, engaging, informative appearances during Bruins broadcasts. How much of a household name he becomes, and ultimately his length of stay, will depend on the quality of his information and where he steers those viewers who are seeking real bets.
The betting universe is packed chip-to-jowl with carnival barkers promising sure winners and endless profits. In the end, it’s a wins-and-losses business. If he’s to have a substantial run here, Sammy P. will have to win both on the strength of personality and whether his wins outrun his losses.
“As of right now, there’s only one person who has a full-time sports betting job at NESN,” he noted. “It’s exciting, but it’s also terrifying. In this city, if you start losing out of the gate, you’re in trouble, man.”
The sports industry is ever-changing. In recent decades, the major entities of free agency, billions of dollars in TV rights fees, and the evolution of analytics have been driving, transformative forces. All of these leagues today barely resemble, other than in acronym, what some of us grew up loving about sports during the quarter-century that followed World War II.
Now it’s legalized gambling’s turn to make a profound impact, one that, as a Baby Boomer, brings me no joy. Gambling opens the door to addiction among the fan base and the possibility of corruption within the playing, officiating, and management ranks. It is kicking its way through the gate as a means of enhanced fan engagement, a way to entice more people to watch, to spend, to bet, with endless betting action that can be placed right down to the final shot, out, or tick of the clock.
It’s easy to understand the seduction, because even $5 worth of skin in the game can make even a blowout a thing of beauty. Your favorite pitcher who gives up three home runs in an 8-2 loss? Fine by you if your bet was he’d yield three dingers. He’s still your guy even if he finishes 2-18, provided he got jacked for two or three homers every time out. Betting changes everything.
NESN won’t be alone. It’s only the first, and it looks like it made a smart, engaging choice in Sammy P. Other media outlets will follow, and quickly, to feed from the advertising trough.
To ignore the change at hand would be as dunderheaded as those who felt no one would pay to watch cable TV or that the Internet never could disrupt the newspaper business.
Nope, like it or not, Massachusetts one day soon will be all in, with Gillette Stadium, TD Garden, and Fenway Park the emerald gaming tables of our sports entertainment.
When I talked to Sammy P., he was motoring along Storrow Drive, making his way downtown in a city he says he likes more each day. He’s embraced the charm of the North End, the brick, the cobblestone, all an easy walk from his apartment.
“Hold on,” he said over the phone, “I’ve hit some traffic here at Cambridge Street . . . and, uh-oh, I’m doing it without GPS.”
Sammy P., folks, the guy at the steering wheel of a whole new world.