Regulator Doubts Linger Over ESPN Massachusetts Launch

November 8, 2023
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Massachusetts gaming regulators will allow ESPN Bet to launch in the state next week, but commissioners continue to voice concerns over potential sportsbook integrations with ESPN programming.
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Massachusetts gaming regulators will allow ESPN Bet to launch in the state next week, but commissioners continue to voice concerns over potential sportsbook integrations with ESPN programming.

Penn Entertainment is set to launch its ESPN Bet brand in 17 states on November 14, including Massachusetts, but regulators asked Penn executives to further explain the partnership at a meeting Tuesday prior to the planned launch.

Members of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) have questioned how consumers will react to scenarios such as ESPN personalities making picks on air or potential ties between ESPN’s breaking news reporting apparatus and the sportsbook.

“ESPN is developing a comprehensive set of employee guidelines to include on air talent that will ensure that ESPN maintains its high standards of journalistic integrity and that insiders remain independent from ESPN Bet,” said Chris Rogers, chief strategy officer for Penn Entertainment.

“There will be no connection between ESPN insiders, reporters, or the news desk with anyone who handles risk or trading for Penn,” Rogers said.

Commissioners asked to see a finalized version of ESPN’s policy regarding on-air talent, which Rogers said the company was still in the process of completing, but ultimately commissioners agreed that it would not be a condition for permitting the launch.

However, they asked to either see the documentation of the policy or receive an update on it prior to a commission meeting next month.

“I’m concerned about the name being the same, and being that level of exclusivity and integration,” said commissioner Eileen O’Brien. “You are unique in that you've gone out to a branding outside your company's brand, to a preexisting brand.”

“And in this context, you create a heightened risk … because the conflation is so tight to the names and the exclusivity and the marketing, and the cross-pollination of the editorialization of the reports.”

Rogers expressed some frustration that Penn was being treated differently compared to other operators simply because of its decision to utilize a media partner.

“I'm struggling to figure out the distinction around just utilizing the brand,” Rogers said. “To me, that would almost imply that there would be a lower standard for operators who are just using marketing affiliates, when they're not using the brand.”

While a majority of the commissioners requested to see further information regarding the ESPN policies, MGC chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said she believed Penn has met the requirements to launch.

“One of the things I've struggled with here is, we expect compliance with our regulations and our statutes and as a regulatory body, that is our job, and we have done a really good job of making sure our regulations address our values around consumer protection, responsible gaming and integrity of gaming.”

“And so crucially, this last point, right now, I don't understand,” she continued. “I see this proposal as being in full compliance, as opposed to anticipating non-compliance.”

Another concern commissioners had voiced was regarding the popular ESPN College GameDay program.

The commission had similar concerns about the Barstool Sports College Football Show, because both shows are hosted remotely on college campuses.

Rogers said that College GameDay personalities will not promote ESPN Bet and that the company will not feature ESPN Bet signage, but added that ESPN Bet integrations such as commercials or other sponsored segments may be added in to be aired to the television audience, but not the live crowd.

“Penn and ESPN both recognize the importance of compliance with the commission's regulations and the significance of ensuring that any activity that takes place involving a college campus receives a heightened level of attention and control, primarily with respect to age appropriate and responsible gaming measures,” Rogers said.

Penn announced in August that it would scrap its existing Barstool Sportsbook brand, and had reached a deal with the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports" on a partnership that included licensing the Disney-owned brand to use on its sports-betting platform.

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