Massachusetts Regulators Pose Questions Over Penn-ESPN Partnership

October 20, 2023
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Massachusetts gaming regulators are looking for answers from Penn Entertainment as to whether its new ESPN BET brand will tread on some of the same issues as its predecessor Barstool-branded sportsbook.
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Massachusetts gaming regulators are looking for answers from Penn Entertainment as to whether its new ESPN BET brand will tread on some of the same issues as its predecessor Barstool-branded sportsbook.

During a meeting Thursday (October 19), members of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) discussed some of the questions it has for Penn regarding the new venture, and asked the company to submit information regarding its plans ahead of a special meeting next month.

“Everything I know about what is proposing to happen here has not really come from Penn Entertainment, and so that’s, I think, a disadvantage for us as a commission because we really don’t know where to start,” said commissioner Nakisha Skinner. 

“I, for one, would like something to respond to as opposed to us coming up with a range of questions that may or may not include all of the questions we have in their entirety.”

Commission staff said they would ask Penn to submit general information regarding the company’s plans for the ESPN BET venture, as well as more information on specific issues raised by commissioners.

Penn announced a sports-betting agreement with ESPN in August, and this week revealed branding for ESPN ahead of an anticipated launch as soon as next month.

“This licensee is a little bit different in that their branding is tethered to a completely separate, pre-existing entity that they have attached themselves to, and so this is a rebranding, third-party marketing affiliate, there's different ways to conceptualize it,” said commissioner Eileen O’Brien.

“You cannot have someone obviously, who works for the [ESPN BET] entity that is also recommending specific bets that are going to be on their platforms and that sort of thing," she continued.

“This was something [Penn] navigated with Barstool, and I'm curious to get sort of the same information as it relates to the new branding relationship with ESPN.”

With Barstool, one area that the Massachusetts commission and other state regulators expressed concerns about was the “Barstool College Football Show,” which traveled to different college campuses to host live broadcasts. Amid prohibitions on the advertising of sports betting on college campuses, regulators frowned on any attempt to market the Barstool Sportsbook on the live on-campus broadcast.

ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” Saturday pre-game show broadcast will likely face similar scrutiny.

“I think that I will hold ESPN to the same standard that I held Barstool during the application process,” said commissioner Jordan Maynard. “They’re swapping one media company for the other, they’re very different companies, but just because ESPN is big and a behemoth doesn’t mean I won’t hold them to the same standard I did Barstool.”

“I kind of want to see how Penn is thinking about this relationship swap, and it’s not as easy as just taking one thing off and putting another thing on,” Maynard said. “There are shows, and I mean, arguably, ESPN has more opportunities to have sports shows than Barstool did.

“Knowing how that relationship works is very important to me, going forward, but I think my main piece of advice would be don’t treat them any different.”

The commission is planning a special meeting on November 7 to discuss the tie-up with Penn officials.

Unlike with Barstool, which was a subsidiary of Penn, the ESPN BET venture will likely require a licensing process as a third-party marketing affiliate, commission staff said Thursday, depending on the answers the commission receives from Penn.

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