Sports Illustrated became the latest media outlet to lend its name to a sportsbook last month, thanks to a new deal with 888.
The agreement made plenty of headlines in its own right. But it also shifted the focus to ESPN as one of the last sports media giants not to jump into the betting fray.
How long will it remain that way?
‘Greater appetite’ for sports betting
The company has hinted at grander plans beyond its current content and advertising deals with DraftKings and Caesars.
On an April earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek was asked about sports betting for ESPN.
“I think going forward, we see this as an opportunity. We know that it represents very little risk to the company and very little risk to ESPN.
“As a matter of fact, it’s actually – it builds the brand equity from the research that we’ve had in terms of some of the younger audience that follows sports because it’s such an integral part of the experience.
“And so we think it’s actually a growth vehicle for us, but we’ll walk into it carefully and monitor it carefully. But we have a greater appetite to do more and more in that area.’
More recently, Front Office Sports (FOS) reported ESPN was “going all-in” on sports betting. That could include a branded sportsbook.
So how likely is ESPN to follow through and launch a branded sportsbook?
An ESPN spokesperson told LSR:
“While the sports betting space offers many opportunities, we are not commenting on this [FOS] report.”
But consider the wider industry picture.
“I think they should do it in some fashion,” said Robert Davidman, a partner at gambling marketing agency Fearless. “They have the perfect audience. So do they continue to send that audience elsewhere, or do they try and own that audience? There is a much bigger upside if they put some skin in the game.”
Finding ideal partner for ESPN Sportsbook
Davidman said the best route forward for ESPN would be a partnership with an experienced gaming operator like 888.
888 of course is now off the table, so are there any other options?
Last year, FanDuel co-founder Nigel Eccles suggested bet365 as a potential partner for ESPN.
“If those two pair up, they could be the number one player, with that platform and ESPN’s brand,” Eccles said.
Would that fit though?
Bet365 has never operated on a B2B basis, so perhaps that is a long shot.
DraftKings is another intriguing option, considering it owns the SBTech sportsbook platform. It is also an ESPN partner currently, while Disney owns a 6% stake in DK.
That said, DraftKings CEO Jason Robins has been clear that DraftKings is focused on B2C in the short term.
Hurdles to clear for ESPN Sportsbook
Beyond finding a suitable partner, there are plenty of other stumbling blocks.
For one, ESPN is already making plenty of money from its sportsbook partners with basically no risk. Would it give up that money to get into a new business with heavy red tape, intense competition and relatively thin margins?
“Why compete with 20 other sportsbooks when they could take checks from those companies?” asked Joe Brennan, industry consultant and founder of SportAD. “The sports media landscape is changing and it is their due diligence to look into sports betting. But I think that’s all it is. ESPN is one of the biggest tire-kickers out there.”
Does ESPN Sportsbook make economic sense?
The economics of sports betting in the US are not as rosy as sometimes perceived.
So a potential ESPNBet would have to be a market leader to make a big move worthwhile. After all, a 5% market share is not really going to move the needle for Disney.
But a leadership position is far from a sure thing. For one, the media model is not yet proven. Barstool Sportsbook has seen declining market share in recent months, while FOX Bet remains a second-tier sportsbook.
888 has seen its share price fall since announcing the SI deal, suggesting the market still needs to be convinced on the media model.
Still playing catch up to DFS brands?
DraftKings and FanDuel arrived with a built-in advantage: money in current users’ hands.
“Will ESPN’s content and brand guarantee they become a dominant sportsbook?” Brennan said. “It’s tough because they still lack the embedded user base with a funded wallet. That’s why FanDuel and DraftKings lead the market and ESPN won’t have that.”
The season-long fantasy database is another interesting asset. But it’s worth noting that Yahoo Sports hasn’t necessarily been the richest source of customers for BetMGM.
“Season-long fantasy does not convert anywhere near as well as DFS does,” Brennan said.
There are some other questions around Disney and licensing. But the question ultimately boils down to this: could ESPN really deliver a top-tier US sportsbook?