Disney finally loaned the ESPN name to a gambling company, locking in a guaranteed $150 million in annual payments from Penn for the next 10 years in exchange for the use of its brand and the marketing apparatus behind it. Penn expects to spend another $150 million per year on off-channel marketing and advertising to support its new endeavor.
There is no shortage of opinions on how this partnership will play out, and the breadth of guesses suggests that nobody is quite sure what to expect. Are we witnessing the formation of the new dominant sports betting operation in the US, or just another Fox Bet in sheep’s clothing?
The bear case for ESPN Bet
What do realistic expectations look like for Penn and ESPN Bet?
Industry onlookers are generally skeptical about the potential for the ESPN brand to drastically change Penn’s trajectory in sports betting. It is not like this is the first try for the media blueprint.
The ambitious 2019 deal between The Stars Group (now part of Flutter) and Fox Sports was a pioneer for the first generation of attempts at sports media integration the US. It did not work.
Wasteland of media brands in US sports betting
Neither Fox Bet nor ‘Yahoo Sportsbook’ ever earned a meaningful role in US sports betting. The same can be said for efforts to leverage other media brands like Sports Illustrated, Maxim, and Fubo.
All of the previous attempts to do what Penn is trying to do with ESPN have either failed or are currently failing. That list also includes, perhaps most notably, Barstool Sports.
Familiar territory for Penn
Penn itself tried this approach once before, with Barstool Sportsbook.
Its acquisition of Barstool in 2020 was cut from the same cloth of trying to shoehorn an existing media brand into the regulated sports betting marketplace. That did not work either.
Even as the best performer of this group, Barstool Sportsbook’s national share is languishing in the low single digits in every market it serves. Its overall slice of revenue across its 16 active states is less than 5% and trending down as it prepares to join the graveyard of US sports betting brands.
It is pretty easy, then, to make the case for why ESPN Bet will not succeed. Penn has not demonstrated any particular prowess in sports betting, and media brands have so far proven ineffective against the product-first approach taken by the legacy fantasy sports and casino brands that dominate the industry today. Why might ESPN Bet be any different?
The bull case for ESPN Bet
Some of these very same skeptics, meanwhile, argue that the current balance of power in the US is not fixed and perhaps even ripe for serious disruption. Indeed, a wider view of the global sports betting industry suggests that a bigger, better operation will inevitably come along and shake up the top of the leaderboard.
If there is any brand that can do it right now, it is ESPN.
ESPN is the number one sports media brand in the country, with more than 100 million monthly unique visitors and more than 25 million subscribers to its premium ESPN+ product. For a large segment of the American population, ESPN is synonymous with sports in a way that no other brand is. It is the first place many, as a nation, go for sports.
Not just for scores, either
That goes for sports entertainment too. With a nod to current market leaders FanDuel and DraftKings, note that ESPN has a larger database of fantasy sports players than either of them at more than 20 million.
There is no doubt that ESPN is better positioned for this type of integration than Barstool, Yahoo or Fox. Penn CEO Jay Snowden called the comparison to other sportsbook media entities “apples to eggplants.”
Culmination of Penn’s grand plan?
Meanwhile, there is not another company on the planet that has invested more money in sports betting partnerships and technology than Penn has in recent years.
Its efforts to rectify shortcomings in product center on its $2.1 billion purchase of Score Media in 2021. Barstool’s recent migration onto that platform has been mostly seamless by all accounts, and early testing indicates that the new product already represents a small step forward.
Barstool might have turned out to be a mistake, but Penn’s continued efforts to build a better platform via theScore’s tech should no doubt have a positive long-term impact on its capabilities.
Why should ESPN Bet not succeed then, even where others have failed? Isn’t this the one everybody has been waiting for?
“What we announced,” Snowden told investors, “is something new and different to think about that probably wasn’t in the consideration setup for anybody a day ago. And so it’s going to have an impact on what that overall market share looks like. And we think we’re going to be a major player.”
How motivated is ESPN for sports betting?
Much of the potential for ESPN Bet hinges on how involved ESPN is willing to get. Is this a set-it-and-forget it licensing deal where Penn will do all of the heavy lifting, or will ESPN really work to leverage its own assets beyond just the brand?
There will be content, of course, but that is already the case. ESPN has become a primary source of betting content for a segment of the gambling population, and this agreement will unify that portion of the business under its own banner. The current ESPN partnerships with Caesars Sportsbook and DraftKings will go away soon.
What to expect from ESPN beyond that is a little less clear. Snowden indicated that Penn will have access to ESPN talent, but he parried most of the specifics on integration until Penn’s Investor Day this fall.
Will Van Pelt, McAfee front ESPN Bet?
Given the portfolio of assets Disney and ESPN have to play with, the possibilities are almost unlimited.
ESPN could leverage gambling-savvy presenters like Pat McAfee and Scott Van Pelt to become direct ambassadors for ESPN Bet. Of course, Shams Charania might have flown a little too close to the sun with FanDuel to make that palatable to the public and Disney executives.
Certainly there is a universe where ESPN Bet even becomes the US equivalent of Sky Bet, with broadcasts and betting completely integrated into one platform. In a fully invested ecosystem, customers could even use sports betting reward points to book a Disney vacation.
There are obviously more questions than answers at this stage, but the success of this integration partially hinges on Disney’s willingness to let Penn borrow on its intellectual property for the purposes of gambling.
So how good is Penn’s new app tech?
Of all the unknowns, perhaps the most critical to ESPN Bet’s potential is the product itself.
Penn’s previous sportsbook platform, built through a partnership with Kambi, was at best OK in terms of features and functionality. It was fine for an off-the-shelf product, but not nearly robust enough to pose a serious threat to the current leaders.
That realization ultimately drove Penn into its costly acquisition of Score Media, and it spent the better part of two years integrating that tech stack into the Barstool Sportsbook product.
Early returns look good, check back NFL Week 1
It is too early to know whether or not Penn has found the right solution, but the boss seems pleased with the new version of the product.
According to Snowden, theScore Bet maintains a double-digit market share as the leading brand in the competitive Ontario marketplace. And the integration of the new tech into Penn’s US product so far looks like an incremental improvement over the previous generation.
“We think it’s very competitive with other top-tier online sports betting platform offerings,” Snowden said. “And we feel like when we go live here in November with ESPN Bet, we’ll be able to say the same thing. The beauty of what we have here is that we’ve built this from the ground up, and it was really built for the North American markets. And we’re going to be able to continue to iterate.”
What does ESPN Bet success look like for Penn?
So this is the real test. Penn now has the king of American sports media brands to pair with some of the better reimagined betting technology money can buy. It is going to have another go at cracking the code on this type of comprehensive integration.
In terms of performance, Penn has been fairly clear about what it hopes to achieve with ESPN Bet.
It has long sought to carve out a 15% slice of the US sports betting pie, a number it wasted three years chasing with a Barstool brand that proved to have a clear, unbreakable ceiling. TheScore Bet has a real chance to be that brand in Ontario, though, and it is worth contemplating theScore as the primary sports media outlet in the province in the same way ESPN is across most of the US.
How long will it take?
From a branding perspective, ESPN is a huge upgrade from Barstool in that regard.
Profitability is the ultimate measure of success, of course, and this reset puts Penn back behind the curve. Snowden’s comments suggest the company is going to revisit the traditional model of acquiring customers through affiliates and bonuses, with plans to rival the leaders’ spend on direct advertising. As it relates to the bottom line, he concedes that ESPN Bet will not be profitable over the next 12-18 months.
Beyond that, questions remain.
“I think it depends on what level of scale and where we are on the podium as to what ‘25 and beyond look like,” Snowden said, “but that will certainly be the year where you really start to see the returns starting to come through the (profit and loss.)”
Place on the podium for ESPN Bet?
Slides from the partnership presentation put `15% market share in the middle of the target range for ESPN Bet, and that would indeed be enough to secure a spot among the top three. Behind FanDuel and DraftKings, both Caesars and BetMGM are pushing to find a double-digit share in the current battle for third place.
Still, it is hard to find exactly where that 15% would come from. The top four brands together account for more than 90% of today’s US sports betting revenue, so breaking up that quartet would require both some conversion of existing Barstool customers and also some direct cannibalism of the competition.
And that number is?
The 10-year agreement between Penn and ESPN notably includes an opt-out after three years should ESPN Bet fail to reach an undisclosed level of penetration in the market. Based on Snowden’s comments, it is fair to assume the target share is no lower than 10%.
“We haven’t disclosed (the threshold) and we’re not going to,” he said. “That’s in our agreement with ESPN. But I would just say that probably safe to assume that the bottom end of the range on slide 9 (10%) is going to be a level that we’re starting to get excited about, both ESPN and PENN. And below there is not really exciting.”
Can Penn and ESPN create something good enough to steal bettors away from the leaders? And can they find the right recipe to retain them? It it certainly possible, but none of this will come easily.
Given the price tag on this partnership and Penn’s path to this point, both sides likely see anything less than a place on the podium as a failure.