ESPN Latest Media Company To Eye Its Own Sportsbook

    • ESPN 'all-in' on sports betting, say sources.
    • Previous line extension in restaurants and phones failed.

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Would you place a bet with an ESPN sportsbook?

The media giant is going “all-in” on sports betting, said sources. ESPN is exploring the possible launch of its own branded sportsbook, sources said.

The discussions are in their early stages, said sources, but ESPN has been looking at multiple ways to capitalize on the convergence of sports betting and media.

Just a few weeks ago, ESPN executives watched closely as politicians in the company’s home state of Connecticut legalized sports betting. The state’s Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes casino operations could offer sports betting in time for the fall NFL season.

“Everything’s now on the table at ESPN,” said one source. “They’re exploring everything.”

ESPN declined to comment for this story. But the sports giant has been making multiple moves into sports betting. Among them: 

— Despite tight budgets that have seen talents like Kenny Mayne and Mike Golic Sr. walk out the door, ESPN has been on a hiring spree for gambling talent.

The company hired sports betting analysts Tyler Fulghum and Joe Fortenbaugh last year. They’ve joined host Doug Kezirian on ESPN2’s “Daily Wager” sports betting show. Regular contributors include Anita Marks and “Stanford” Steve Coughlin, co-host of “Bad Beats” with Scott Van Pelt.

Kelly Stewart, a Las Vegas-based handicapper, was another recent hire. But ESPN terminated Stewart less than a month into her contract, reportedly over offensive social media posts. 

— In September, it signed separate multi-year deals with DraftKings and Caesars Entertainment. The deals directly connect fans to DraftKings and William Hill, Caesars’ sports betting partner. Last summer, ESPN and Caesars opened a new studio at the LINQ Hotel + Experience in Las Vegas to serve as the studio home for “Daily Wager.”

— In April, ESPN offered “Daily Wager’s” first alternate presentation of an NBA game. Kezirian, Fortenbaug and Fulghum called the Brooklyn Nets vs. Philadelphia 76ers from a gambling perspective. “Daily Wager” also offered special pregame and halftime shows around the game. There’s also the new “Bet” show on the ESPN app and an ESPN sports betting channel on YouTube.

—  ESPN recently promoted executive Mike Morrison to the new title of vice president, sports betting & fantasy to lead the company’s charge in sports betting. Morrison previously served as VP of business development and innovation. ESPN’s biggest on-air personalities now talk sports betting, such as Mike Greenberg with the new “Bettor Days” on ESPN+ and Van Pelt’s “Bad Beats” segment on SportsCenter.

ESPN’s not alone. The explosion of sports betting has created a Wild West like atmosphere for expansion.

Fox Sports and The StarsGroup teamed up to create Fox Bet in 2019. Fox described it as a “first of its kind” partnership between a national media giant and a gambling company.

Flutter Entertainment acquired TSG in a $6 billion deal. So, Fox is now in business with the same global betting giant that owns FanDuel and PokerStars.

Meanwhile, Penn National Gaming has launched Barstool Sportsbook app and products in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and, most recently, Indiana

The big question for ESPN is whether it’s worth the capital investment to operate its own operation, said Patrick Crakes, the former Fox executive turned media consultant.

“Right now, we don’t even have legalized gambling in all 50 states and while the sponsorship value is clearly incremental it’s far from clear just how big this can get despite the optimism,” Crakes said. 

“Remember, it’s not like the equity of casino companies have been sure-fire winners over the past couple decades. There’s also the question of just how large gaming will get with the general market sports viewing/fan.”

Depending on how the market shapes up, ESPN can gain many of the same financial benefits via strategic partnerships, Crakes added.

“Not hurrying would seem to be the right call and in the future you can enter into larger deals where you don’t have to take as much risk to get the benefit of ownership without the headache of operations and assumptions about future market segment size,” he said. “There’s precedent here on the radio side of the business, for example, with FOX Sports Radio. It’s a license deal with Premier Radio Networks but is also a revenue share above a certain level of defined net operating income.”

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An ESPN sportsbook would test the limits of the Walt Disney Co.-owned  brand. But ESPN’s famous four letters have launched line extensions before.

Over the years, ESPN successfully rolled out ESPN2, ESPN Radio, the Spanish-language ESPN Deportes network, the ESPN+ streaming platform and the college-focused SEC, ACC, and Longhorn Networks. 

The network has grown well beyond its home campus in Bristol, Conn., with new studios in Los Angeles, New York, and Charlotte.

But ESPN’s expansion into themed restaurants, magazines, and cell phones fizzled. 

With the exception of two renamed locations at Walt Disney World, all of the old ESPN Zone restaurants have closed. 

In publishing, ESPN The Magazine ceased publication in 2019 after a 21-year run. 

ESPN abandoned its disastrous foray into mobile phones after only nine months in 2006.

Driven largely by sports betting and online gambling, April was the second-biggest month ever for the U.S. gaming industry, according to the American Gaming Association (AGA). 

Commercial revenue grew 26% to $4.4. Billion. That trails only the record $4.8 billion in March, when sports bettors wagered on March Madness.

According to AGA, 21 U.S. states offer legalized sports betting. Another nine U.S. states have legalized sports gambling and are on deck to launch.