[Vegas on My Mind]

ESPN’s Sal Iacono has become a football-gambling star, right under the NFL’s nose

The gambler: Cousin Sal is talking about football odds on ESPN, and that’s odd.

Each year as the calendar lurches toward that all-American holiday known as Super Bowl Sunday, pop-culture figures emerge. Zero-to-hero quarterback stories, like the Rams’ Kurt Warner in 2000 and the Panthers’ Jake Delhomme in 2004, are popular. Last year, trash-talking, Stanford-educated Seahawks star Richard Sherman grabbed the headlines. In 1986, it was a 330-pound defensive tackle for Da Bears we all called the Refrigerator.

This time out, the head-turner is a peculiar one, particularly knowing how much the NFL hates all things Vegas: a self-confessed degenerate gambler named Sal Iacono, otherwise known to legions of Jimmy Kimmel fans as the Vegas native’s goofball sketch sidekick Cousin Sal. Sal (actually Kimmel’s cousin) had been making picks for and on Grantland editor Bill Simmons’ podcast for a while before graduating this season to ESPN’s SportsCenter. He captured imaginations by going on an epic 15-0-3 streak from October until his pick, the Arizona Cardinals, got creamed by the Carolina Panthers on January 3.

Iacono’s rise is a fascinating conundrum for the NFL. The NFL and ESPN have this critically symbiotic relationship, and the NFL as an institution has this long, long history of punishing its media partners when they even breathe about pro football and sports betting at the same time.

“I go really, really deep into [odds and betting on football], way more than they ever did before on ESPN, and I was actually surprised they allowed us to repeat intense gambling talk that I’ve been providing,” Iacono told me in an interview last week. “I guess, because I was winning, they let a lot of it slide, and there haven’t been complaints so far, as far as I know.”

So it’s not my imagination that this is kind of a sea change. More than a decade ago, the NFL made big headlines by refusing to allow “What Happens Here Stays Here” ads to run during the Super Bowl. In subsequent years, there were sanctions against local network affiliates who aired Vegas ads during the time the local stations are given to sell. When NBC landed Sunday Night Football in 2006, the NFL forced the network not to advertise its Monday night soap Las Vegas during games. And in 2010, even after loosening up the rules a bit, the NFL still threw a fit about CBS airing a Kia ad nationally during the Super Bowl that showed Yo Gabba Gabba! sock puppets cruising the Strip in a convertible.

Yet now one of the most interesting sideshows to the Super Bowl matchup between Seattle and the Patriots is going to be how close Iacono comes in his predictions for the “Big Game,” as Vegas casinos must legally refer to it in advertisements for their viewing parties. Iacono himself anticipated blowback that has yet to materialize, perhaps more proof that the NFL knows just how good betting is for the public’s interest in the outcome of games involving teams they otherwise don’t care about.

“It’s like a hypocritical thing where gambling is cool and Fantasy Football is cool, and the League and ESPN … want to acknowledge that the games wouldn’t be as big, and their ratings wouldn’t be as big if these things didn’t exist,” he said. “I do think they see it as a little bit seedy, and they don’t want to publicize it as much as maybe they should.”

Iacono, 43, spoke from personal experience, too. Since he was a kid growing up on Long Island, he’s had friends placing bets for him in Vegas. Everything is more interesting—even his kids’ Little League games—when he has money on it. Indeed, what’s so great about Iacono’s moment is how open he is about his love of action and how fundamental it is to his enjoyment: “I never am as interested in the National Anthem as I am when it’s sung before the Super Bowl and I have $300 that it will come in under two-and-a-half minutes. I am not even kidding! I will typically lose two or three parlays on a typical Sunday before the kickoff. I bet on everything. I bet that the Best Supporting Actress will cry after she receives her award during the Oscars.”

Still, ESPN did draw a line that can only be a bow of deference to the NFL, barring Iacono from creating a bankroll of fake money with which to “bet” on his picks and keep a running tally during his twice-weekly SportsCenter segments.

“At the last minute, they thought better of it,” Iacono said. “That would be flying too close to the sun for them, I think.”

This confused me because Cousin Sal does, in fact, have a fake-money scorekeeping gimmick that he uses, a currency he calls jermajesties (after Jermaine Jackson’s oddly named son) that he uses in his columns for, which is also owned by ESPN. “For some reasons, the print version of ESPN is more lenient when it comes to that,” he said. “Crazy, right?”

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