Is Mickey Mouse allowed to wager on the ponies? It’s clear that attitudes (and laws) around sports gambling have changed in recent years, with networks and leagues welcoming in sportsbooks with open arms — you can’t go more than three commercials during an NFL game this fall without seeing an ad for sports betting.
But is the shift in public feeling toward sports gambling enough for Disney, which has spent decades carefully crafting a very wholesome image, to bet the Magic Kingdom on a growing market? After all, U.S. sports betting is on track to generate $4 billion in revenue this year, according to gambling industry analyst Chris Grove of the research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming.
“Sports gambling, like cannabis retailing, has moved into the mainstream for a portion of this country and I think it is less of an issue for Disney than it was before,” MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson said. “With that said, it needs to be walled off from all things Disney.”
While rival Fox Corp. has launched its own Fox Sports online betting site in and bought Travis Clay’s media and betting company, OutKick, ESPN is making its biggest push into the fast-growing world of sports gambling — but in a slower and more hands-off way.
In recent months, the sports network has held talks with Caesars Entertainment and DraftKings to license its brand name in deals that could be worth as much as $3 billion. ESPN would license out its name for a sports betting company to use, either for branding purposes or even rename its sportsbook after them.
Just two years after soon-to-be former Disney employee Bob Iger claimed Disney and gambling would never co-exist, Disney is clearly rethinking that view. “Let’s just say that our fans are really interested in sports betting. Let’s say that our partners — with the leagues — are interested in sports betting. So we’re interested in sports betting,” Bob Chapek, Iger’s successor as CEO, told investors last month during a conference. However, he cautioned that “there’s a long way between embedded into the ESPN business model and licensing out,” he said.
Of course, all this assume that Disney doesn’t sell off ESPN as a report on Friday suggested; an insider told CNBC’s Julia Boorstin that the report was “inaccurate” and that Disney is “focused on building the value of ESPN+ for its digital bundle, and that it is also pursuing sports betting for ESPN and ESPN+.”
Caesers and DraftKings declined to comment for this story. Reps for ESPN pointed to Chapek’s comments when TheWrap reached out.
The sports gambling space, which had for years existed solely in Nevada, has burgeoned since a 2018 Supreme Court decision paved the way for more states to legalize sports gambling, which led to more casinos and sportsbooks partnering with leagues, teams and even stadiums.
ESPN has incorporated gambling and betting lines into some of its studio programming and even tried out betting-themed shows. But it has not launched its own sportsbook, which would mean handling payouts to winners and collecting money, as Fox has done with Fox Bets and OutKick, among the first sports media sites that went heavy into the gambling space.
“I do think you’ll see ESPN continue to extend into the gaming space to include doing very large license and sponsorships deals and even make some minority investments that are straight forward but the challenges of involving and exposing the brand directly to the day to day operations of a gaming company seem out of scope for them, at least for now,” said Pat Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive who now works as a consultant.
Nathanson argues that the economics of a sportsbook doesn’t make sense for ESPN anyway: “No, they shouldn’t because they don’t have the skill set or the assets to compete now in this game with several large online players and a few major casino operators. Fox Bet hasn’t really scaled at this point, not sure that ESPN will either.”
ESPN already has marketing partnerships with both Caesers and DraftKings, and any deal would come with an exclusive marketing commitment that would require the sports-betting firm to spend a certain amount of money advertising on ESPN’s platforms, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.
For years, gambling and sports have not mixed well. There was the infamous Pete Rose lifetime suspension from Major League Baseball for betting on games while he was manager of the Cincinnati Reds, and college sports is littered with point-shaving scandals that were tied to betting. The National Hockey League had to investigate reports that one of its star players, San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, gambled on his own games (the league said it didn’t find any evidence to support those claims). Kane himself admitted to being a gambling addict.
Former NFL coach and current NBC analyst Tony Dungy criticized the NFL for courting sports betting — the league is poised to make $270 million from its partnerships this year.
“I don’t know why the NFL changed its stance. My objection is just personal. I don’t think we should encourage people who are watching the NFL to gamble. Especially young people,” Dungy said in September during a broadcast of “Football Night in America.”
Even ESPN is finding itself in some tough situations. NFL reporter Adam Schefter is an investor in Boom Entertainment, which makes sports and casino gambling apps. Another investor? New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, which would appear to be a conflict of interest. (ESPN also declined to comment when TheWrap asked about this specifically).
“While the excitement and investment around gaming is accelerating in the U.S. the majority of states haven’t legalized sports wagering fully and we do not have any type of federalized system for gaming,” Crakes said. “With that in mind its clear to see that the road is at the least more complicated then I think the media has portrayed and its not obvious where exactly we’ll end up in what states and under what regulations. That’s why the approach ESPN and Disney have taken so far makes perfect sense.”