ESPN Looking to Join Sports Betting Fray

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A view of the logo during ESPN The Party. Mike Windle/Getty Images for ESPN/AFP

The US legal sports betting industry has certainly come a long way. The latest indication of the widespread mainstreaming of the platform comes with news that Disney-owned ESPN is seeking opportunities to enter the legal sports betting space.

While seemingly a logical step for the sports broadcasting brand, there is no shortage of controversies that could come with ESPN’s potential foray into legal sports betting. There are the ethics concerns that come with being owned by Disney, there are the apprehensions of anti-gambling groups about the societal ills of such a platform and there are a host of optics-concerns for Disney’s inclusion into what was once perceived a not only illegal, but unsavoury industry.

But the potential financial rewards could end up outweighing the concerns in this case, and Disney’s ESPN could realistically become the next major sporting brand to cross over to what had once been seen as the “Dark-side”.

The Evolution of Sports Betting

The evolution of media company/sports betting provider partnerships has been a quick and lucrative one for the forward thinking. Fox Sports and FOX bet have been active in the market for about a year, PointsBet has been running as NBC Sports’ official sports betting partner, CBS has a deal in place with Caesars Sportsbook and Bally’s purchased Sinclair Broadcasting and has since rebranded all of their stations under the Bally’s name.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn its blanket ban on legal sports betting in 2018, most of gambling’s opponents have slowly evolved their way of thinking on the platform. Previously adamantly opposed sports leagues like the NFL have signed multiple partnership deals with gambling providers and even the NCAA has shown an openness to sports betting, culminating with Caesars last week singing on as an official sports betting partner of the Fiesta Bowl.

ESPN Quietly Been Moving in That Direction

Subtly and subliminally, ESPN has already been moving in a sports betting direction. The broadcaster has a deal in place with Caesars which provides data and odds across all ESPN platforms, and they have a deal in place with one of the two DFS behemoths to provide Fantasy content for their viewers.

A number of sporting events that air on ESPN are sportsbook sponsored. It is nearly impossible not to see sportsbook branding during ESPN’s boxing and MMA broadcasts, as well as other events, carried on the network.

Programs like “Daily Wager” already air on ESPN and there is currently a certain amount of odds and betting-related content built into ESPN programming, including the ticker on all Sports Center broadcasts.

More about the Potential Deal

The Wall Street Journal on Friday reported that ESPN was seeking a licensing deal for their brand. That means that jumping into the sports betting industry feet first may not be in the cards – just yet.

It is reported that ESPN approached two sportsbooks about licensing their brand – Caesars Entertainment and one of the two DFS giants-turned sports betting provider behemoths. ESPN currently has partnerships in various capacities with both and will simply be looking to expand on those commitments.

As part of the deal, which is being called a potential “exclusive marketing deal”, the sports betting company would commit a significant amount of funds toward advertising on ESPN’s platforms and ESPN would promote their brands.

The Ramifications

ESPN is not messing around with their rumored interest in licensing their brand to sports betting companies. The number $3 billion has been tossed around as what the multi-year commitment will end up costing.

There is no word yet on the lengths that sports betting companies are willing to go and if $3 billion is a reasonable ask. But the fact that conservative, family-focussed, Disney owned ESPN is even discussing the potential is a huge step for both the brand and the industry on the whole.

Everybody is looking to cash in on the estimated $150 billion spent on sports betting in the US every year and estimated $4 billion in revenues. Some, like Disney and ESPN could use the funds to help mitigate some of the COVID-related losses experienced, while at the same time putting them on a more level playing field as other sport media companies.

If ESPN and Disney are in, the mainstreaming of legal sports betting in the US is nearly complete.