Ex-ESPN Reporter’s Suspicious Sports-Gambling Behavior Sets Off Alarms
A recent online controversy shed light on the strange dealings of the Action Network, a popular sports-gambling site founded by the Chernin Group and formerly aligned with ESPN.
Darren Rovell, the former ESPN sports business reporter who currently works for the Action Network, a subscriber-based sports gambling information website, found himself under intense scrutiny after gambling aficionados on Twitter posted evidence he’d edited his bets after they’d been placed. And those bets were originally larger by many orders of magnitude than his usual bet sizes.
Though he’d been challenged about the size of the bets as far back as six months ago and told they distorted the overall picture of his gambling skills, Rovell had mostly shrugged off the criticism. But as the clamor grew on Monday, Rovell drastically reduced the amounts he’d wagered. Now, he insisted he’d made a mistake in January, pinning the issue on his lack of gambling knowledge at the time. Still, Rovell denied that he had been intentionally trying to buff up his betting résumé or had done anything wrong, even if his explanations don’t entirely add up.
What’s more, Rovell insisted he’d been specifically asked by his critics to retcon his betting history. After he’d done so, he then charged those self-same critics with acting in bad faith, describing one as a person “looking to start garbage.” (Rovell did not respond to an emailed request for comment prior to publication.)
All of this fits snugly with some of Rovell’s prior social media behavior, but in the midst of this online kerfuffle, a managing director at an Action Network site suggested that Rovell wasn’t alone. The site had noticed “several other featured bettors,” whom the director did not name, placing outsized bets in order to juice total winnings and create a false impression of their skills. To be clear: Rovell is not an Action Network featured bettor nor an experienced one, as he will readily admit.
The Action Network was founded in 2017 by the Chernin Group, and recently received an additional $17.5 million in series B funding from a variety of investors, including multiple pro teams. At their website, they offer a wide range of tools for the prospective gambler, including an introductory how-to guide, betting lines, articles with their experts’ picks, and an online gambling show that was broadcast on ESPN's subscriber service, ESPN+. Currently, for $4.99 per month, readers gain additional gambling information and “exclusive betting data,” the site says. The site’s app allows bettors to track their picks over time and see how featured bettors are doing, too.
Or as Rovell wrote, “We don’t sell picks. We sell you a subscription to our data so that you can be a better bettor. Our writers use that data to suggest picks. Touts don’t have our data and give picks on both sides. Our personalities pick and track their bets.”
The Rovell wagers in question were placed back in January: 50 units risked on the under for Virginia at Duke and 150 units also risked on the under for Michigan at Indiana, both at -110 odds. (A unit, in gambling parlance, is standard betting amount per game, based on a percentage of a gambler’s total bankroll. Most of the other bets he posted risked one unit). In this instance, Rovell fared well, winning the latter bet and earning 136.36 units and losing the former for a loss of -50 units.
Sunday night, Rovell was boasting about his recent spate of gambling success. He tweeted out a screenshot of his winning percentage on all wagers from the year to date, which now stood at approximately 54 percent. Then he encouraged his over two million followers to partake in all the gambling advice and information available on the Action Network’s app.
In response to this victory lap, @gamblingRonB posted a tweet early Monday morning with screenshots of both inordinately-sized January bets, pointing out that were it not for the 136.36-unit win, Rovell would not be in the black, college basketball-wise. (Rovell has known about this since the day after the bet was placed, six months ago.)
Later that day, another Twitter screenshot revealed that at some point, someone had gone back into the Action Network’s system and changed the amounts wagered after the fact, from a little over 136 units down to one. The reconfigured total now left Rovell with an identical winning percentage, but because he now claims the intent was to wager far less, he was up by fewer total units.
By the afternoon, and after he was pressed by a New York Times reporter, Rovell had copped to the deed. There was no intent to deceive anyone, Rovell insisted, and the idea that he’d tried to get away with some sort of ruse was “hilarious.” The 136-unit winning bet from June was placed because he simply didn’t understand the difference between units and actual dollars.
In multiple tweets, Rovell further claimed he’d been asked to change the number of units won on Monday morning. That’s partially true. After one person described his record-celebrating Sunday night tweet as “pathetic” and a “scumbag move” intended to hype the Action Network, a slew of other replies were sent his way, many of which were similarly negative and often vulgar. But in one thread responding to Rovell, someone else first surmised that perhaps he’d conflated units and dollars. (Given similar wagers risked by another Action Network employee, another individual suggested that was unlikely.)
Screenshots were then posted showing that users of the Action Network’s app could alter bets made after a game had ended, and “correct” any mistaken entries. “The most generous interpretation of this [is] they’re still scumbags,” he added. It’s unknown if these are the tweeted requests Rovell was referring to, but about an hour and a half later, someone noticed that the units in his January wagers had been changed.
Reached for comment, Chad Millman, the Action Network’s chief of content, told me he’d spoken with Rovell and was “pretty comfortable with the explanation” he provided on Twitter. It was a reasonable mistake, corrected six months later in order to provide full transparency.
Because the flub occurred a mere two months after being hired, Rovell, who previously wrote that he “got the bug” to cover gambling starting in 2004, hadn’t been brought up to speed on the entirety of gambling terminology.
“He has a personal page,” Millman explained, which currently is only followed by 236 Action Network subscribers. “And, you know, he wanted to participate in what we do in the product. And when he first joined Action, he put in bets that conflated dollars and units.”
“That’s why we don’t make him a featured expert,” Millman continued. “He’s a guy we hired to cover news and information, to break stories, to tell stories. We do not ask him to say, ‘Who do you like in this game’ and then put that on our website.”
Another way to put it might be, as Rovell told the Washington Post shortly after his hiring was announced: “They’re buying me as a brand.”
There’s one problem, though: Whether or not Rovell had previously used the terms “unit” and “dollars” interchangeably, he has tweeted that he intended to place an inordinately large bet on the Michigan-Indiana game, on a day when he also risked a number of other one-unit wagers. On January 26, the Twitter account @HowTheProsDo called him a “fraud” (and also compared him to Fyre Fest founder Billy McFarland) while pointing out that Rovell’s stats looked good thanks to the aforementioned single bet from the previous day. Rovell countered that the bet—in units, as he specified—was reflective of his faith in the pick.
If true, and the larger-than-normal bet was one he placed on purpose, why the need to reduce it or change it at all now, regardless of what language he was using—or misusing—at the time?
As to why Rovell hadn’t rectified this sooner, Millman said he’d hesitated to do so, fearing it would only draw further attention from his critics. When the questions about the bets persisted, Rovell finally relented, making revisions his critics had requested. In a follow-up email, Millman said Rovell had asked “one of the managers on our team” on Monday if it was OK to reduce the number of units bet. The unnamed manager gave him permission “for the sake off [sic] accuracy,” he said.
But other, non-Rovell “featured bettors,” as the Action Network described them, may have engaged in a similar pattern of behavior. In all likelihood, they couldn’t chalk up the problem to a lack of familiarity with the lingo.
Justin Phan, a managing editor for FantasyLabs, a daily fantasy sports site acquired by the Action Network, chimed in while Rovell was being called out. He tweeted that it would have been impossible for any featured bettors to juke their stats without assistance from one of the site’s developers. That said, outsized bets like Rovell’s had been placed by some verified Action Network bettors whose totals appear on the app, according to Phan, a practice they did not espouse. (Phan declined to comment, referring all questions to Millman.)
Brian Mead, the co-founder of a native gambling app also acquired by the Action Network, took time to comment in a series of tweeted replies, denying that there was any subterfuge on Rovell’s part, stressing that they should have spotted the issue beforehand, and asking subscribers to help them monitor the site.
Why would a gambler place bets like these? According to one bettor knowledgeable about sports wagering who agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity, the practice of suddenly and randomly increasing bet sizing by several orders is commonly referred to as “yoshing.”
When a sports tout is facing a losing record at the end of a sports season, there’s not much downside in placing wild bets that, if they pay out, give the appearance of a positive year overall.
“If you win, great, you can claim you finished the season a winner,” the bettor said. “If you lose, who cares? You were already in the red.” As noted above, Rovell denied he was yoshing at the end of the college basketball season, but rather blamed the error on his unfamiliarity with certain aspects of gambling.
By Phan’s account, other bettors who may have engaged in yoshing had already been dealt with internally.
Asked what procedures, if any, have been put in place to ensure that this doesn't happen in the future, Millman said via email: “Our system is designed to ensure this doesn’t happen because experts are not able to make changes to their account. Darren [Rovell] is not identified as an expert, so this hasn’t been a problem.”
It’s a statement which doesn’t quite address Phan’s assertion that some other featured bettors had been placing 100+ unit wagers, which were then reduced by the Action Network on their app, and resulted in the loss of their featured status. Millman offered a narrow response: One single bettor had done so, been unverified, and subsequently was kicked off the app.
Following this email exchange, Millman requested I call him for a second time.
“One thing that’s troubling me which I didn’t know is that there’s a past history with you and Darren,” he said on Tuesday afternoon. Specifically, he meant that I had been blocked by Rovell on Twitter some time ago. My behavior must have been “egregious,” Millman speculated, in order to warrant such an extreme step by Rovell. To the best of my recollection, the impetus for the blocking was that I had repeatedly quote-tweeted this insight, which Rovell posted during the final 2016 Trump-Clinton debate.
“I’m just saying, like, are you going to be including that in the story?” Millman asked. “Does your editor know that you have a history with him and you’ve been blocked by him for going after him on Twitter?”
I asked if he really thought it qualified as a legitimate conflict of interest.
“Dude, I don’t know,” he replied.