ESPN Has Been Exploring Bigger Push Into Sports Betting, Chairman Says

ESPN Has Been Exploring Bigger Push Into Sports Betting, Chairman Says

ESPN has been exploring a further push into the sports betting space, ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro confirmed Wednesday. 

Speaking at a Sports Business Journal conference in New York, Pitaro was asked about reports that ESPN had been having conversations with DraftKings. ESPN already has some partnerships with the sports betting company, as well as a branded studio in Las Vegas with Caesers Entertainment, but Pitaro said there may be room to do more.

“Yes, we’ve been exploring. We’ve had conversations with all the usual suspects and looking at what could be the logical next step for us,” Pitaro said. “We are not going to, and I’ve said this repeatedly, we are not going to create a book. We’re not going to take people’s money. We are not going to set lines and spreads and odds. It’s not what we do. But the idea of leaning in a bit more here and creating a more seamless experience is something that’s definitely on the table.” 

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ESPN has done research into sports betting and found that sports fans like ESPN’s presence in the space and would like to see more, Pitaro said. The sports betting audience is “very attractive,” Pitaro noted, since its higher net worth and typically spends more time consuming sports. 

Still, Pitaro does not expect any deals to be “imminent” given the recent executive change at Disney and the need to catch returning CEO Bob Iger up to speed on the landscape and the state of the business. 

Pitaro welcomed the return to working with Iger, who he noted hired him in 2010 as a direct report at the Walt Disney Company. Pitaro was scheduled to update Iger on the state of ESPN at a board meeting later Tuesday. 

“We have a very good relationship. I trust him. I feel like he trusts me. But most important, fast forward to today in terms of looking through the sports lens, he’s just got great sports instincts. He really understands this industry,” Pitaro said. 

The decision to keep ESPN within Disney or to spin it off, as has been called for by activist investors, is also ultimately up to Iger, Pitaro said. But asked to explain the benefits of remaining within Disney, Pitaro spoke to the crossover programming between ESPN and the company’s other media properties, with ESPN+ adding live sports to Disney’s streaming bundle and the linear ESPN network providing programming for ABC.

For now, Pitaro still plans to stick with ESPN’S “parallel” strategy of having a complementary ESPN+ streaming service alongside its linear channel offerings, which currently exclusively features some of the more popular programming such as Monday Night Football

“That being said, will there come a point in time where our flagship channels are available a la carte direct to consumer? Yes. What makes that decision? We’re monitoring it. Of course, we’re looking at the traditional ecosystem. We’re monitoring subs, and I don’t have a date. I don’t have a number,” Pitaro said. 

Looking at competitors such as Amazon and Apple, which have been snatching up sports rights, Pitaro said he believes Amazon’s move into the space benefits ESPN because it could potentially bring in a younger audience and get viewers used to streaming sports. But at the same time, Pitaro acknowledges that it brings in more competition for sports rights. 

“If they’re training folks to watch a Thursday Night Football game on a direct-to-consumer platform, that we feel like that will also help ESPN+,” he said. 

Pitaro called Apple’s 10-year agreement to stream Major League Soccer a “fascinating deal” and an “interesting price point,” with some matches available to existing Apple+ subscribers and others requiring a separate MLS subscription. It’s a deal he and others will be watching.

“I’m just as curious as everyone in this room to see how it plays out,” he said.