ESPN Execs Talk Sports Betting, Growth of Streaming Service

Connor Schell - ESPN Images Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Joe Faraoni/ ESPN Images

The network announced a deal with Caesars Entertainment that includes a branded studio inside The LINQ Hotel & Casino.

ESPN executive Connor Schell on Tuesday opened the very first press briefing of the new consolidated Disney, dubbed the Disney Experience by the company that recently officially swallowed up more than $70 billion in 21st Century Fox assets, including FX and Nat Geo. But ESPN remains the biggest revenue driver in the company’s portfolio and Schell, executive vp content, pointed out that ESPN is still the No. 1 television network in primetime and total day among “every key male demographic.”

To that end, ESPN has announced a partnership with Caesars Entertainment on an ESPN-branded studio at The LINQ Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas for millennial-skewing sports betting-themed content including segments for ESPN’s recently launched Daily Wager program. Caesars’ data and branding will be integrated across the networks programming, and it will also become the official odds partner of ESPN.

The betting space has seen a rush of interest since the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on sports betting. So far, seven states have legalized sports betting with about two dozen more expected to do so soon. And Turner-owned Bleacher Report already has a studio inside the sportsbook at Caesars Palace. But Disney CEO Bob Iger has stressed that the family-friendly company will not be getting into the business of taking bets, and Schell reiterated that stance: “We’re thinking about the space in very responsible ways. We’re going to serve those fans with information and analytics. We are not promoting betting in any way. But we know there are sports fans who are interested in that type of content.”

ESPN’s well-publicized subscriber losses (it is down to 86 million from more than 100 million in 2011) have forced the network to innovate. And Schell — along with Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vp programming and scheduling — spent much time in their portion of the press Q&A fielding questions about direct-to-consumer service ESPN+, which launched in April 2018 and now has more than 2 million subscribers.

Magnus, who heads up the network’s rights portfolio, noted that ESPN+ has allowed the sports network to make rights deals it would not have otherwise had the shelf space for on linear platforms. That includes a pact with popular Italian soccer league Serie A, which includes AC Milan, Inter Milan and Juventus, where star Cristiano Ronaldo plays. The deal, which was sealed last year, gives ESPN+ 340 games including a match of the week.

“Rinaldo joined after we made the acquisition,” said Magnus. “It’s that kind of property that would have been difficult for us to do what we do without it; ESPN+ is a must-have for global soccer fans.” 

ESPN+ is also heavy on boxing and MMA via deals with Top Rank and UFC, among others. And Magnus noted that they did hold talks with WWE when deals for Raw and Smackdown were in play (WWE signed a deal worth more than $1 billion with Fox for Smackdown, while Raw remains on USA), but the WWE’s 52-week schedule did not allow for the acquisition. “We took a hard look at it," he said. "We’re big fans of them, but we can’t clear anything 52 weeks a year live — we have a pretty full cabinet.”