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Steve Friess: The ESPN Bet Launch Was An Unexpectedly Bumpy Ride

Written By Steve Friess on November 16, 2023 - Last Updated on November 27, 2023
Steve Friess State Of Play A Bumpy Launch For ESPN Bet

State of Play with Steve Friess

State of Play is a column that focuses on the trending stories in the casino and gambling space with sharp and clever insight from senior staff writer Steve Friess. Over his 25-year career, Friess has contributed to publications such as Newsweek, Time, New York Times and more.

It seemed like something was wrong. It was midday on Tuesday, the much-hyped launch date for what is likely to be the last new major player in the U.S. online sports betting game before consolidation kicks in.

And yet ESPN Bet still did not exist. No app was to be found in the Google Play or Apple App stores. A mere billboard of a website still promising something was coming soon. A fleet of journalists all as baffled and unclear when this momentous occasion was going to occur. And this sad image if you opened the Barstool Sportsbook & Casino app:

Very strange. We are conditioned by a decade of Netflix and other online media properties to understand that new things drop online at midnight of the day they are expected. ESPN Bet is nothing if not a hybrid of a media property and a gambling app; it is the power of its media brand that is forcing the industry to sit up and take notice in a way other new market entries have not.

Alas, things weren’t quite as smooth as one might expect from a veteran company like Penn Entertainment and a major media brand like ESPN.

It seemed like ESPN Bet was expected to launch sooner and smoother

You can tell Penn intended ESPN Bet to launch at least five hours earlier because new account promotions — a 100% first-deposit match on up to $1,000 — and for existing Barstool customers  ($200 in free bets after a sports wager of any amount) were set to begin at 10:30 a.m.

Surprisingly, too, ESPN Bet’s first post-launch post on X, formerly Twitter, faced low engagement. At 3:14 p.m. ET, the account, which took over the existing Barstool Casino account in order to keep its 5.4 million followers, finally announced the app was live by providing an image of a smirking Scott Van Pelt smirking holding a phone. Two days later, the post has just 125 likes, 15 retweets, and 13 comments.

Maybe the company is lucky so few people noticed, though. The link to download it went to the Google Play store, so anyone who tried it on an Apple device saw this:

Finding the app in the various stores was an exercise in dedication. Somehow neither ESPN nor Penn thought to buy up the ads that are served with searches for “ESPN Bet,” so the first things you found were promotions for competing sportsbooks.

While I understand it takes time for these things to populate, I would have expected these folks to know that and perhaps get a placeholder app up sooner. Instead, there was nothing until deep into Tuesday afternoon.

And when it showed up, ESPN Bet was at least 15 choices down. You had to scroll and scroll, and when you got to it there was no artwork.

Around 4 p.m., I thought to try reopening the Barstool Casino app. That’s when I saw this:

That actually worked. I actually had the app, used my old Barstool credentials, placed a $1 bet on the second set of a Novak Djokovic-Jannik Sinner tennis match that was live and that I care not at all about.  And voila, I had my four $50 bonus bets available to me! Easy peasy.

Except for the life of me, I could not figure out where the 200 bonus casino spins promised by the above notification were. I looked and looked. I thought maybe it was an either/or deal, but that’s not the language they used. I thought maybe I needed to have a separate Hollywood Casino app, but none existed for Michigan.

I wrote customer service. I never received any response.

Two days later, I have found it in the promotions section on the desktop version. (Still haven’t found it on the mobile app.) But, well, it doesn’t work. Every click tells me there’s an error and to try again.

There were two more glitches of note. In one instance, I was summarily bounced from the app with this mean message:

That disappeared quickly when I refreshed, but I was sure ESPN and Penn were reading my grousing in our company’s Slack and decided I wasn’t worth keeping as a customer.

But then, also, there was this:

That’s me being told I can’t use my bonus bet because I don’t have “enough available funds to place this bet.” That was on my phone. I logged on to the desktop version and was able to do it.

So some stuff to work out.

After the glitches, ESPN Bet has figured it out

Two days later, much of this – but not all – has been ironed out. ESPN Bet sits atop Apple’s sports-related apps. This should make them happy:

It’s worth noting that being atop that list still doesn’t push the app into the top 150 apps overall, although to be fair that’s a national list and this app can only be used in 17 states.

As for the app itself, there’s a lot to like. It’s easy to navigate and appealing for all the images of ESPN personalities seeming to endorse various betting offers.

And there’s one small innovation that I really appreciate and haven’t seen elsewhere.

See that little line under the team name? For NFL, NBA and NCAA college football, at least, they remind you of the teams’ records and status in their conferences or divisions. It’s a small, simple thing, but a pretty useful reminder of who these teams are.

I was surprised that ESPN Bet doesn’t appear to offer any real-time animation of the games. Maybe it has decided it’s more trouble than it’s worth; those graphics rarely keep up with the action and become a bit of a distraction if you’re trying to place in-game bets. My hope is that Penn will leverage ESPN’s access to sports broadcasts at some point. Perhaps if you bet enough on a given game, you get the live stream of that game should it be carried on an ESPN-related outlet?

I’m still excited about this sports betting app as a market move and for synergistic ideas like that one. Wall Street seems to agree; Penn stock was at $22.99 on Monday, opened at $23.89 on Tuesday in anticipation of the launch, and sits at about $24.40 at this writing. That’s a 6% bump and put it at its highest point since Aug. 9, the day after the $1.5 billion partnership deal was announced.

Still, you only get one chance to make a first impression, and this one wasn’t great. It’s disappointing, too, given the vast pedigrees and experience of ESPN and Penn. It’s not like either of them are new at this.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess writes the State of Play column for PlayUSA twice a week. He's a veteran gambling-industry reporter who began covering Las Vegas in 1996 and covered the openings of resorts in Asia, Europe, and across the U.S. His bylines have appeared in The New York Times, Playboy, New Republic, Time, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. He, his husband, their children and three Poms live in Ann Arbor.

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