ESPN/PENN Entertainment Deal: How Missing Transparency Could Mean Market Manipulation
On August 8, 2023, ESPN and PENN Entertainment (“PENN”) announced a 10-year, $2 billion exclusive “deep integration” partnership. Headlined by ESPN’s first-ever branded sportsbook, ESPN Bet, the deal marks the most important chapter in the increasingly interwoven story of sports media and gambling since the Supreme Court re-legalized sports gambling in 2018. Despite the benefits for both parties, there remains a legitimate question of how ESPN’s journalistic integrity could be affected by PENN and ESPN Bet’s financial structure relying on people betting wrong. Without transparent and concrete answers, sports fans should be concerned that their trust could be manipulated for profit.
The Benefits of Working Together
The sports gambling landscape is currently dominated by DraftKings and FanDuel, the first two major companies in the industry. This practical duopoly boasts an estimated 85% of online sports gamblers using their sites on a monthly basis. For PENN, the operators of 43 casinos throughout North America, breaking into the competitive sportsbook business requires a unique edge over the competition.
PENN’s first attempt to gain an edge was by purchasing a 36% stake in Barstool Sports in January 2020 for $163 million, before buying the whole company in February 2023 for an additional $388 million. Despite launching the Barstool Sportsbook app together, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy explained in a video that Barstool’s content and brand identity were routinely flagged by state gambling regulators, which cost PENN opportunities to obtain sports gambling licenses.
With interests proving to be too conflicting, PENN agreed to sell Barstool Sports back to Portnoy for $1 (plus 50% of gross proceeds of any future sale of the brand and certain non-compete clauses) and shifted focus to a new partnership with ESPN. PENN’s belief in the ESPN partnership extends beyond the $2 billion investment, as PENN’s 10-Q report to the SEC explained how the sale of Barstool back to Dave Portnoy would be a “pre-tax non-cash loss ... estimated to be between $800.0 million and $850.0 million (inclusive of $705.0 million to $720.0 million in goodwill and intangible assets write-offs) to be incurred in the third quarter of 2023.” While the Barstool Sports ownership stint did not bridge the gap, it led PENN to negotiate with ESPN. Now, with unrivaled promotional access through the most engaging sports media and entertainment company in the nation, PENN might rival the duopoly within the lifetime of its new deal.
For PENN, ESPN’s historically trusted brand brings significant engagement numbers to the new ESPN Bet sportsbook. For ESPN, increasing production costs and declining advertising revenue recently forced ESPN to lay off employees and explore a possible sale of minority ownership to ensure profitability. However, PENN’s $2 billion offer is certainly helpful to ESPN’s current financial situation. Moreover, consumer statistics show just how much more financially engaged and interactive the average betting sports fans are as opposed to the average non-betting fans. Thus, the long-term prospects of PENN’s investment and transformation of Barstool Sportsbook into ESPN Bet capitalizes on gambling fans’ increased financial engagement and may be the perfect lifeline for ESPN.
The Concerns about Partnering
For example, just two hours before the 2023 NBA Draft, respected NBA writer for The Athletic and “FanDuel Partner” Shams Charania shocked his two million Twitter/X followers (and nearly ten million users who saw the tweet) with the following statement:
Before the tweet, Miller was the betting-odds favorite over Henderson for weeks. But after the tweet, fans placed enough bets on FanDuel (and other sportsbooks) that Henderson became the new favorite when the pick was being announced. However, despite Charania’s “sources,” Miller was drafted second overall. And while FanDuel was cashing in on an eleventh-hour flurry of wrong bets, people noticed the “FanDuel Partner” in Charania’s Twitter bio.
Allegations quickly arose that FanDuel used Charania to manipulate his trust and following for its financial gain. In the backlash, FanDuel stated it is not involved in Charania’s tweets. Whether or not manipulation occurred, this demonstrates how much influence just one reporter can have on sportsbooks.
Hypothetically, how much money could ESPN Bet make if ESPN used its army of respected reporters to manipulate the odds on its own sportsbook? Now that ESPN and PENN’s bottom lines are inextricably linked, at a time when ESPN needs money, how will audiences know that PENN and ESPN will never deceive them?
Next Steps and Considerations
Similarly to FanDuel, ESPN issued the following in a statement after announcing the PENN deal:
“In concert with PENN Entertainment’s comprehensive responsible gaming programming, ESPN will use its platforms to educate sports fans on responsible gaming, including but not limited to:
Continuing ESPN’s high standard of journalistic integrity when covering the sports betting space.
Developing an ESPN committee of responsible gaming, representative of a diverse cross-section of the business, to regularly review compliance, programming, and policies.
Implementing responsible marketing policies and guidelines to safeguard fans.
Working with industry experts on best practices and continual review of responsible gaming programming.”
Billion-dollar partnerships are not agreed to without deliberation. ESPN and PENN are rightfully aware of the potential for scandal. As such, Massachusetts state gambling regulators have already met with PENN to discuss the changes, which included PENN’s assurance that ESPN will not have a role in any sportsbook operation, other than the named partnership and branding.
However, plenty of questions still remain. Which experts will be consulted? Who will be on the internal committee? What policies will be implemented? Most importantly, how will ESPN safeguard its high journalistic standard from potential interference? These are questions other publications have raised.  Yet, neither ESPN nor PENN have answered or said if or when they plan to provide answers.
Another recent example of potential blurred lines occurred on October 9, 2023, when ESPN sportscaster Matt Barrie criticized Ohio State football’s head coach Ryan Day for kicking “a meaningless field goal to go up 20.” He emphasized that the “spread was 19 1/2.” and “[f]or those of us that were on Maryland plus the points, that was a real backbreaker.” Importantly to note, Matt Barrie’s show is not a gambling-specific show, which raises the question of why he felt the need to criticize Ryan Day for messing up his bet at all.
The occasional prop betters, the weekly parlay fanatics, and even sports fans who do not gamble should be very concerned about the kind of mass manipulation that is more possible than ever before. For a company priding itself on its journalistic integrity, ESPN must do a better job of communicating its plans. Until they do, watch and bet at your own risk.
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