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Could Disney-Owned ESPN Cash in on Legal Sports Betting?

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

The mainstreaming of the US legal sports betting industry has been moving at lightning speed. The latest example comes from the Wall Street Journal which reports that ESPN, owned by the conservative, family-friendly Disney Corporation is looking for ways to cash in on the legal sports betting industry.

There has been a strong move by media outlets to align themselves with sports betting providers since the US Supreme Court overturned their blanket ban on sports betting in 2018. ESPN is just the latest and perhaps most important media brand to be looking into the viability of including legal wagering into their portfolio.

Disney Corp. has been a vocal opponent of the launch of legal sports betting in Florida and the ethics concerns surrounding their apparent desire to align with the sports betting industry is bound to drum up some controversy. But with gambling’s increasing status in the US and its legalization in more than half of US states, joining the legal sports betting family looks more like a necessary move rather than a desperate play to increase profits.

The Deal

According to the Wall Street Journal, ESPN is simply looking for a licensing deal with sportsbooks for the ESPN brand. An actual ESPN-branded platform doesn’t look to be in the works yet but aligning with one of the big players in the sports betting provider universe does.

The Journal has reported that both Caesars and one of the two DFS giants operating in the sports betting provider space have been approached about a licensing deal. Both already have partnership deals in place with ESPN, meaning that any licensing commitment would simply be an expansion of an agreement already in place.

ESPN is said to be seeking $3 billion for a potential multi-year deal. It would entail the media behemoth advertising and using sportsbook-branded odds, data and wagering content on the network. In return, the lucky sportsbook would be expected to commit a significant amount of advertising capitol for ESPN and all of its media platforms.

It’s Quietly Been Happening Anyway

Sports betting content has quietly been a part of ESPN programming for years. Odds are always featured on the media brands’ ticker and a number of sporting events that air on the network are sponsored by sportsbook brands. Boxing and MMA are two such sports that feature heavy betting content on their broadcasts with many other sports having a more subtle wagering angle on their broadcasts.

As mentioned, ESPN already has partnership deals, although a tad limited, in place with the two sportsbooks they are currently negotiating with for licensing of the ESPN brand.

ESPN produces and airs daily programs like “Daily Wager” on their network in which the odds for daily sporting events and the best bets for that day are discussed by a panel of experts. Such programming is expected to increase with the further mainstreaming of the gambling industry.

Keeping up with the Fox’s

ESPN is one of the only major media outlets in the US that hasn’t yet fully embraced legal sports betting. ABC, like ESPN doesn’t have a sportsbook partner just yet. It too is owned by Disney, which has been reluctant to fully enter the betting fray.

Fox Sports is aligned with FOX Bet and have been active for about a year, NBC signed ground-breaking partnership deal with PointsBet last year, CBS and Caesars have deals in place and Bally’s purchased Sinclair Broadcasting last year and has since moved to rebrand all Sinclair stations to the Bally’s name.

All of North America’s major sports leagues have partnership deals in place with sportsbook operators in the US legal sports betting industry including the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Even the NCAA has opened its mind to the inevitability of legal sports betting becoming a part of their offerings, thanks to the deal signed last week between Caesars and the Fiesta Bowl.

What It All Means

If and when ESPN signs a deal with a major sportsbook, the media mainstreaming of the legal sports betting industry in the US will almost be complete. With $3 billion on the table, it looks as though ESPN, and their parent company Disney are serious about their foray into the wagering world.

Navigating the optics for the conservative, family-focussed Disney Corp. will likely provide the biggest challenge. The company hasn’t been shy about their desire to slow the legalization process in a number of states.

But when looking at the $150 billion expected to be wagered on sports every year in the US and the estimated $4 billion in revenues that come along with it, ESPN, as arguably the largest broadcaster of those bet-on sports in America is simply looking to get their piece of the enormous pie.

A $3 billion alignment with a sports betting company gets their name in the game, while at the same time keeping it one step back from a full-throated endorsement of the platform. It also helps offset some of the COVID related losses that wouldn’t otherwise be able to be made up.