It may be a few miles removed from the strip, but the South Point Hotel Casino and Spa still feels stereotypically Las Vegas. Endless rows of video machines crowd the middle of the floor, chirping for every pull of good fortune. Restaurants line the western wall, hawking everything from fine dining to fast food. A persistent stench of secondhand smoke stains the air. But just beyond the sportsbook, one sight rises above the standard trappings: a brand-new, $1 million television studio.
It's toward that studio that Brent Musburger strides. It's a little after 1 p.m. on the first day of the NCAA tournament, and Musburger, clad in all black and toting a well-worn briefcase, weaves around the hundreds of gamblers gazing at the four college basketball games playing across 24 giant television screens. For decades, Musburger introduced audiences to marquee sporting events like these with his signature opening line, "You are looking live..." He called everything from the Final Four to the NBA Finals, from the World Cup to the College Football Playoff.
But a little more than a year ago, he walked away from the booth and came here to serve as the lead analyst for VSiN, the Vegas Stats & Information Network. His show, My Guys in the Desert, is the nascent network's premier program. And as Musburger settles in behind the microphone and slips his headphones on, he hears himself being introduced. "You know him, you love him, and we have him at VSiN," the announcer says. "It helps to be connected, and no one knows more bookies than Brent."
For decades, Musburger was the emcee. In Las Vegas, he's become the main attraction.
An hour into Thursday's broadcast, Musburger is wrapping up a segment with his longtime producer, Ron Flatter, and a gambling guru named Amal Shah when his voice breaks. "Amal, you and I will be back, in...we...just a few minutes here on VSiN.com." He begins to crack a smile. As he takes his headphones off and slicks back his well-groomed gray hair, he guffaws. "You guys have no idea how close I just came to saying ESPN," he says. "I got the 'E' halfway out!"
Inside the glass-paneled box, which is the size of a small studio apartment, about a dozen producers and assistants laugh. To many sports fans, especially in the South, Musburger's name immediately brings to mind the sports media behemoth. After spending the first 22 years of his career at CBS, Musburger jumped to ESPN in 1990 and lasted nearly three decades there. His calls included everything from the Little League World Series to the Indianapolis 500, but he was best known as a college football broadcaster. His audience is significantly smaller now, but in many ways, VSiN is the perfect culmination of his career.
From his childhood, Musburger always had a fascination with sports betting. The first wager he placed was over a boxing match as a teenager. He can't recall who fought, but he won the bet with his father and collected $10. As a broadcaster, he was always acutely aware that there was interest in the final scores beyond the winners and losers, but he didn't realize the depth of that interest until he started meeting sportsbook managers like Jimmy Vaccaro in Las Vegas in the 1980s. The first time they had lunch together, Vaccaro was managing the book at the Mirage, and he told Musburger about a gambler he knew who was betting "30 every night on NBA games."
"Thirty dollars?" Musburger asked.
"No," Vaccaro replied, "thirty thousand dollars."
"Brent almost choked on his sandwich," Vaccaro says now.
Musburger's first high-profile assignment was as the host of CBS's NFL Today, but network executives there forbade him from discussing point spreads. Only in the late 1980s, when he was entrenched as the network's top play-by-play man, did he begin making veiled references to sports betting. At the end of a college football game that finished close to the line or the over/under, he might say, "That score means more to some folks than others." As public attitudes toward sports betting began to shift, Musburger became emboldened and, at times, openly discussed lines and referenced "my guys in the desert."
"I specifically felt that people were interested in the betting aspect," Musburger says now. "And I knew that college football fans, particularly in the South, liked to bet games. That was just part of the culture. The morality never, ever, ever entered into my thought process. Gambling and sports have always gone hand in hand, and they always will go hand in hand."
Only once did Musburger gamble on a game that he called. Before a Lakers game in Portland in the late 1980s, he bet dinner for the production crew with his director, Tony Verna. Late in the game, the Lakers opted for a long three-pointer that missed rather than pounding the ball inside, and the point differential made Musburger a loser. As he criticized the strategy—which didn't affect the final result—he realized he could never be objective if he had skin in the game. For perhaps the only time in his life, he was content with quitting as a loser.
Musburger says that, as a gambler, he's the opposite of a good quarterback or pitcher, who have short memories of their failures. He can't recall the most money he's won, but he can easily conjure his biggest loss—$5,000 on the Atlanta Falcons to win the 2017 Super Bowl.
"I've lost the last two Super Bowls," Musburger says. "And I remember vividly the Atlanta game, because I'm drinking at halftime. I'm cashing my ticket. I'm the smartest guy in the room. And then [Falcons receiver] Julio Jones catches the ball at the 22-yard line, and for whatever reason, that Atlanta Falcon coaching staff elects to throw the ball [on second down]. And they take a sack. And now suddenly, they're out of field-goal range. Instead, they could have run the ball and made [Patriots coach] Bill Belichick take his timeouts, had [kicker Matt] Bryant kick a field goal, and I would have been home free. They screwed it up. I remember every moment of how that unfolded against me. So this year, I decide, I'm never, ever betting against [Tom] Brady and Belichick again. How'd that work out? Not so well."
After his Thursday broadcast, Musburger takes off his headphones and asks, "Who wants a cold one?" A small group, including his brother, Todd, who is also his agent, and his producer, Flatter, makes a beeline for a bar on the opposite end of the casino. At the table, Musburger fishes some drink coupons out of his briefcase and peers into an envelope containing his betting tickets. On a TV over his shoulder, Kentucky beats Davidson by five. The game closed with Kentucky as a 4.5-point favorite, but when Musburger placed his bet, the Wildcats were giving 5.5 points, and they failed to cover.
"March is madness," Musburger says, "and it always will be."
Before Musburger can order another round of drinks, a man in his mid-40s walks up and plops a bottle of beer on the table for him. "It's great to have you out here, Brent," he says. For decades, Musburger ambled electronically into fans' living rooms. With his folksy charm, he made himself familiar to them. And when he walks around South Point now, people approach him unabashedly, calling him by his first name and asking for or offering (unsolicited) gambling advice.
"They know that I've always been a fans' guy," Musburger says. "This whole thing doesn't exist without all these people who love the games. March Madness doesn't exist. This thing in Vegas doesn't exist. Your favorite team doesn't exist without you and the other fans. They're the most important part of where I was and where I am now. And if you forget that, then your ego is in the way."
Musburger rarely let his ego get in the way at ESPN. In 2014, after having called five straight BCS National Championship Games, he was removed from the network's main college broadcast booth and became the lead voice of the SEC Network. In the main booth, Musburger had rightly come under fire for his comments about women, particularly FSU fan Jenn Sterger and Miss Alabama Katherine Webb. But at the SEC Network, he found a home with a passionate fanbase. He was so enamored with the assignment that he signed a three-year contract extension in 2016. If not for VSiN, Musburger says he wouldn't have left ESPN.
The original idea for VSiN came to Brian Musburger as he listened to his uncle, Brent, and Jimmy Vaccaro trade insider knowledge at a meet-and-greet with high rollers in Las Vegas a few years ago.
"I just knew that this was a conversation people would love to be a part of," Brian says.
For a few years, Brian worked behind the scenes to secure funding and a studio location. Once the network signed a deal to stream on SiriusXM satellite radio, he felt comfortable with asking his uncle to come join them in the desert.
VSiN's investors—Brian, Brent and Todd own a majority stake—are among many who believe a sea change in sports gambling is coming. Any day now, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in Murphy v. NCAA, which could strike down a federal prohibition on sports betting and allow states to legalize the practice if they so choose. The ruling could mean a big boost for business, which Brian says is already generating millions in revenue and is on a path toward profitability. On its best days, Brian says, the network's audience already rivals the average daytime block on Fox Sports 1. And for now, Brent remains the biggest draw.
"The only problem," Todd says, "is that Brent is 78 and not 28. We need to clone him or make him younger."
While Brent tried to be cautious with his criticism of league partners at ESPN, he now is free to offer his full-throated opinions. Among the major sports leagues in the United States, he says, the NBA is by far the most progressive when it comes to sports betting. Commissioner Adam Silver has publicly pushed for it.
The most backward, he says, is the NCAA.
"One of the biggest gambling vehicles in this country is that bracket they release every year. Whether they admit it or not, that's gambling. When you push forward this contest, you're gambling. That's the very definition of the term. You're running one of the biggest underground gambling rings.
"The problem with the NCAA stems from the fact that the suits get all the money and they don't see a reason to make changes. ... They don't make their money off of football. It comes from basketball. I would argue that their problems with the FBI and the wiretaps and illegality—they have far bigger problems than paying players or people betting on games."
But even as he has become more outspoken, Musburger's enthusiasm for the games hasn't waned. He discusses sports betting now with the same excitement he once employed in critical moments as a play-by-play man. The job now requires fewer hours and less travel, but it involves more homework, as he's expected to speak fluently about every major sports league, not just about the SEC and the two teams he'd drawn for the week.
As a broadcaster, he was part of countless iconic moments, including Villanova's 1985 national championship, the Flutie Game and the Celtics' triple-overtime win against the Suns in the 1976 NBA Finals. But when asked, he would always say that his favorite assignment would be his next one. And he says the same thing now—every episode of My Guys in the Desert is his favorite assignment. He is one year into his original two-year agreement with VSiN, and he has no plans to leave.
"I retired once, and they built me a studio in the casino!" Musburger says. "How did that ever happen? My plan is to try to make a bet tomorrow where I cash the ticket. That's my only plan."
On the way out of the casino after his Friday broadcast, he sees a group walking in from the elevator. "Welcome to the beautiful South Point Hotel and Casino," his voice booms. He takes the elevator up and climbs into his car. He drives off into the desert, but not yet into the sunset.