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Then-Disney CEO Bob Iger said early in 2019 that he didn’t foresee the company “facilitating gambling in any way” through its sprawling ESPN properties.

That is officially a very long time and very sharp contrast in CEOs ago.

At the Disney D23 Expo in Anaheim, Calif., last weekend, current company head Bob Chapek said Disney is working on a way for ESPN to facilitate gambling: a branded sports betting app.

“Sports betting is a part of what our younger, say, under-35 sports audience is telling us they want as part of their sports lifestyle,” Chapek said.

So, an app?

“We’re working very hard on that,” he replied.

Chapek worked hard on Thursday to clarify that ESPN won’t ever be the house, but a highly-visible partner.

“We at ESPN have the ability to do that. Now we’re going to need a partner to do that, because we’re never going to be a book, that’s never in the cards for the Walt Disney Company,” Chapek told CNBC. “But at the same time, to be able to partner with a well-respected third party can do that for us.”

Disney owns 6% of DraftKings. Small world, after all.

ESPN’s Sports Betting Overture Should be no Surprise

ESPN has been signaling its sports betting intentions. Company president Jimmy Pitaro told The Athletic’s Sports Media podcast in June that sports betting is “pretty much at this point a must-have” and “something we need to be doing. It’s something that our fans are expecting from us.”

And ESPN has been working hard on sports betting content for years, expanding the availability and volume of betting information on general programming, and launching dedicated websites and a Daily Wager show shot in a Caesars-branded studio. Last week, ESPN announced it had re-signed betting analyst Joe Fortenbaugh to a multi-year contract that will keep him on the show and in a new podcast role.

“ESPN continues to invest in its sports betting content, and Joe will be a big part of that moving forward,” Scott Clark, ESPN vice president, fantasy & sports betting content, said in a release. “We are happy he is remaining with ESPN as we continue to ramp up our efforts around sports betting.”

Long before sports betting had its own air time at ESPN, late-night anchor Scott Van Pelt and cohort Steve Coughlin turned their bad beats into an iconic segment.

It’s a Small World, After All — or at Least a Different One

When Iger made his pronouncement, sports betting was legal and underway in just five states, and Fox Sports (as FoxBet) and theScore were about a year from becoming the first North American media outlets taking bets as operators.

Sports betting is now legal in 33 jurisdictions and has become so ingrained in media and revenue-planning for pro leagues that it feels like decades since the Supreme Court set all this in motion by squelching the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act in 2018. Legacy publication Sports Illustrated has SISportsbook. The Associated Press enlisted FanDuel as its official odds provider. Things have undoubtedly changed. Or at least become more normalized. Broadcasters Brent Musburger and Al Michaels, after all, had been inserting gambling references with a wink and a grin well before 2018.

Disney helped fund a successful anti-gambling referendum in Florida in 2018, but, again, that was ages ago and designed mostly to stem an industry that could leech away tourist dollars from its massive Orlando operation. Preserving its wholesome aura was a by-product.

Disney, which owns 80% of ESPN,  would likely incur some blowback in launching a sportsbook, but its inclusion of R-rated movie titles and more adult-themed entertainment in its vast portfolio has been accepted by customers in recent years.

With so many characters and brands under the company’s umbrella, there figures to be insulation for ESPN. Deadpool parlay anyone? Iffy. Piglet points boost?

Bad idea.

ESPN Could Convert Viewers, Fantasy Players Into Bettors

While customer acquisition has become an expensive and time-consuming process for operators as sports betting spreads, ESPN could possibly recover from its late start with name recognition borne of more than 76 million viewing households — even with its pay-distribution total shrinking 10% in 2021 — and 22.8 million subscribers for ESPN+.  DraftKings and FanDuel similarly leveraged their databases of millions of email addresses to convert daily fantasy players into bettors. ESPN also provides fantasy sports.

An Odds Assist survey of 660 US respondents, age 25 and older who currently patronize legal sportsbooks, asserted that 73.3% said they would patronize an ESPN sportsbook, and 15.8% was unsure.

The first week of the NFL season bore out the reach of the “World Wide Leader” and signaled there may be customers waiting. According to an ESPN Digital release, the ESPN fantasy app recorded its best two days ever in terms of unique fan views, with a record 9.2 million on Sunday. This beat the record of 8.3 million set three days earlier.

According to an ESPN release:

  • The ESPN Fantasy App was the No. 1 free sports app and the No. 2 overall free app in the Apple App Store before the NFL season began.
  • The ESPN Fantasy App is “consistently the No. 2 most-used sports app in the U.S. during football season,” behind only the ESPN App at No. 1.
  • Last season, the ESPN Fantasy App had 55% more users than its closest competitor, Yahoo! Fantasy. (Source: Comscore)
  • The median age of ESPN Fantasy App users last year was 37.5. That’s almost five years younger than the average mobile app user and just two years older than a typical TikTok user, one year younger than users of Instagram, and nine years younger than Facebook users. (Source: Comscore)
About the Author
Brant James

Brant James

Brant James is the lead writer for Gaming Today canvassing events and trends in the gambling industry. He has covered the American sports betting industry in the United States since before professional sports teams even knew what an official gaming partnership entailed. Before focusing on the gambling industry, James was a nationally acclaimed motorsports writer and a long-time member of the National Hockey League media corps, formerly writing for USA Today, ESPN, and the Tampa Bay Times.

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