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Steve Friess: Why I Can’t Wait For ESPN BET To Launch

Written By Steve Friess | Updated:
Steve Friess State Of Play ESPN BET Launches Soon

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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.

Let’s put the obvious, understandable suspicions to rest right away.

No, I’m not being paid (by ESPN) to write this. No, I don’t own any Disney stock. No, I do not hope for nor will I accept any gift baskets from Bob Iger.

But it’s November and ESPN BET is almost here and I can’t tell you how excited I am. OK, I guess I can since that’s the task I’ve assigned myself today.

As I wrote in August when it happened, Penn Entertainment’s decision to simultaneously divorce Barstool and consummate a 10-year, $2 billion deal with the American sports world’s most recognizable media brand is so smart. ESPN gets $1.5 billion in cash over the coming decade-plus $500 million in Penn stock, and in exchange, Penn’s mobile sports betting platform is rechristened as ESPN BET.

ESPN launches Nov. 14 in the 17 states where it doesn’t need further regulatory approval.

I’m very excited. Let me count the ways.

No. 1: Make (some) sports betting great again

My happiest time as a sports gambler came in 1995 when I lived in Las Vegas. My alma mater, Northwestern, was on an improbable run to the Rose Bowl and I could go to almost any casino I liked to watch games that weren’t available on television.

Obviously, that’s not a novelty anymore and these days there’s a way to watch just about anything from wherever you are. The problem arises, however, if you’re solely on your phone — as I usually am on a Sunday afternoon — and trying to simultaneously keep an eye on shifting in-game odds and the action on the field causing the shifts.

On DraftKings, where I’ve been mostly putting my sports betting money this NFL season, I’m stuck watching a slow-to-update graphic representation of action on the field which often misrepresents the amount of time left and can be one and sometimes two plays behind.

PENN is essentially a technology partner, and it is planning to offer a widget that allows customers to toggle back and forth from ESPN’s mobile app to ESPN BET. There’s likely to be some sort of incentive that will make ESPN+ cheaper or free to a certain level of bettor.

At least when it comes to games being streamed by ESPN or ABC, then, the coming ESPN BET app looks likely to solve this issue. The toggle, presumably, will allow the experience I had years ago of sitting in a sportsbook watching whatever I want.

Nobody else can do this because nobody else actually broadcasts or airs the games. I never did understand why FoxBet didn’t, but it’s gone now so that’s that.

No. 2: ESPN is a brand I love

The reason I’ve been (mostly) loyal to BetMGM over the years since mobile sports betting has been legal in Michigan, is that I also always loved the MGM Resorts properties in Vegas. There’s something for everyone and every mood — Bellagio, the Mirage, the Mandalay Bay, the New York-New York — and I hoped for that sort of experience from my gambling apps.

I can’t say it’s entirely been that successful. I still use BetMGM for poker because it’s one of three poker apps in Michigan, but the sports betting app isn’t any better or worse than the others. I happened to get a good offer from DraftKings for this football season so I figured I’d give it a try and, for the most part, I like it.

That doesn’t mean I’m hooked. If ESPN can offer something different, I can be persuaded to defect. I’ve been watching and loving ESPN for decades; I’m already inclined to want to use their app on that basis alone.

No. 3: ESPN BET does not have any association with Dave Portnoy

Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy is very rich for having sold and bought back the Barstool brand from Penn. Good for him. That doesn’t erase the fact that he was one of the biggest liabilities Penn had in drawing customers to a betting site. I tested Barstool out because it’s my job, but once I was done I stayed away because he’s an odious figure.

Between the credible allegations of sexual misconduct, the manifest examples of misogynistic comments, and his advocacy of cryptocurrency, I never wanted to help him make money. With so many better choices to lay bets, I never had to. And now I don’t have to even think about him ever again.

No. 4: The deals are going to be epic

As ESPN BET bursts onto the scene, it’s going to force DraftKings and FanDuel to step it up. ESPN also has a mammoth database of daily fantasy sports players, the secret recipe that those two brilliantly used to rocket ahead of established casino brands to the top of the pack in every state.

That means customers in mature sports betting markets like Michigan are about to have a huge wave of marketing and promotion heading their way as ESPN BET launches. Even if you’ve already enjoyed some introductory bonus from PENN in the form of whatever Barstool’s welcome sweetener was, this is a whole new thing and they’re going to put a lot of money into bringing you into the fold.

If the competitors are smart, they’ll have to match or exceed it. There will not have been this exciting a level of bonuses and freebies since these states first launched mobile gambling. Don’t miss this feast!

No. 5: That new ESPN BET logo is amazing

Haha, no. I kid. It’s stupid. They’ve got the word “BET” in mint green which I suppose is some allusion to money and wealth. In the process, they’re giving up on decades of branding awareness that has trained the public to associate ESPN with its signature red color. Just imagine if McDonald’s decided to brand some part of its business with hot pink arches. That’s this.

Will it matter? No. But I did need to needle them on this. You know, just to show I’m objective.

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Photo by courtesy of ESPN; illustrated by PlayUSA
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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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