The writing appears to be on the wall for ESPN and their parent company Disney. The popularity of the legal sports betting industry has forced both to change gears and look at opportunities to build their brands through previously taboo wagering platforms. “Certainly the world is changing, and [talent] deals going forward will have to reflect the fact that the world is changing,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said Tuesday at an investor conference.
That changing world has come to include sports betting in relation to the overall viewer experience. The acceptance and adoption of legal sports betting content have been swift and something that ESPN has quietly been doing for years anyway through odds on their flagship SportsCenter broadcasts and even sponsorships for programming on their network.
It is because of the overall mainstreaming and evolution that Chapek on Tuesday told inventors to expect Disney to adopt an “aggressive” strategy to maximize their sports betting presence across the exploding US market.
Legal sports betting has become ingrained in the sports viewing experience since the Supreme Court ruled against its nationwide blanket ban in 2018. A new American Gaming Association report released last week showed 7 in 10 Americans accepting legal sports betting in their states. 26 states now have their own platforms, and 111 million Americans now have the ability to place a legal wager from home.
Simply put, it was time for ESPN and Disney to acknowledge not only the presence but the overall popularity of sports wagering.
“Let’s just say our fans are really interested in sports betting. Let’s say our partners in the leagues are interested in sports betting, so we’re interested in sports betting,” Chapek said. “Strategically, sports betting gives us the ability to appeal to a much younger sports fan who has a very strong affinity for those sports. So it’s definitely a place we want to be.”
Disney and ESPN have seen other media brands enter and succeed in the legal sports betting space, both financially and from a profile perspective. The benefits for Fox Sports and FOX Bet, NBC and PointsBet, CBS and Caesars and Bally’s and Sinclair have been immense and have so far left ESPN out of a major revenue generator.
Disney owns THE most iconic, go-to sports media outlet on the planet. ESPN’s jump into the legal sports realm would be a lock to succeed right off the bat – a fact not lost on the new Disney CEO who said that the company is “starting to take some pretty big steps along that way.”
It seems more of a logical step as much as a necessary one for Disney.
It remains to be seen just how far that Disney/ESPN go with their foray into the legal sports betting industry. A Wall Street Journal report last month had the company pursuing licensing deals in the $3 billion range. An ESPN branded sportsbook seems a ways off for now but could certainly be something coming down the road.
“There’s a long way between embedded into the ESPN business model and licensing the name out,” Bob Chapek said when asked about their goals for entrance into the legal sports betting space. In that call with investors, he stopped short of a full endorsement of an ESPN branded sportsbook but left the door open to some sort of sports betting affiliation.
There will ne no shortage of companies lining up to align with Disney and ESPN. Last month’s Wall Street Journal report had Caesars and one of the two DFS giants lining up for a shot at partnering with the company. Rush Street has been mentioned by analyst firm Eilers & Krejcik. “There’s logic to a [deal between the two]. BetRivers has struggled to make a dent in markets where it doesn’t have a big retail casino gaming presence and ESPNBet would surely change that,” the firm said.
We don’t’ have to go back very far to find the reluctance of Disney to legal sports betting. In 2019, then chief executive Bob Iger said the company would never enter the sports betting game “by facilitating gambling in any way.” Fast forward to 2021 and now CEO said the company is “starting to take some pretty big steps along that way.”
It seems just a matter of time before ESPN starts to offer more than just odds on their programs. The time is coming when the company starts to benefit financially off the legal sports betting industry that has taken the US by storm and has the backing of 7 out of 10 citizens.