Massachusetts regulators said Tuesday morning they “won’t stand in the way” of a Nov. 14 launch of PENN Entertainment’s rebranded ESPN BET sports betting platform, but they will require PENN to provide additional information next month.
During a heated two-hour meeting dedicated exclusively to ESPN BET, PENN Chief Strategy Officer Chris Rogers repeatedly objected that his company was being questioned about issues that other operators had not been asked about. But Massachusetts Gaming Commission members said they have major concerns about crossover between ESPN and ESPN BET and insisted that they had, in fact, put conditions on other operators during the licensing process.
“I feel like I am having amnesia,” Commissioner Jordan Maynard said. “We went through this” in operator licensing.
At that time, the MGC required Massachusetts operators to agree not to partner with colleges and universities and not to advertise anywhere where the majority of the audience would be 21 or younger, among other provisions.
It’s about consumer protection, not branding
PENN and ESPN announced a partnership in August, and last week during PENN’s third-quarter earnings call, CEO Jay Snowden said the plan is to launch the ESPN BET brand on Nov. 14 in the 17 states where Barstool Sportsbook is currently live.
In addition to standard paperwork, the MGC has required PENN to come before it twice in the last two months to explain details of the new relationship. The commission clearly has strong concerns about the interplay between ESPN’s sports network and the new wagering platform. Commissioners stressed that they view the issues not so much about branding as about consumer protection.
ESPN BET will launch on Nov. 14, ESPN and PENN Entertainment announced.
More on the app’s upcoming “first impression” and PENN’s long-term view of the partnership — https://t.co/fUTMDDrCtU
— Bennett Conlin (@BennettConlin) November 2, 2023
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“I don’t think any of us are in favor of a delay of the Nov. 14 launch,” Commissioner Nakisha Skinner said, “but we are all interested in what the conditions will be.”
The MGC did not take a vote but told the PENN officials that the regulator wants a look at an in-house document that describes guardrails around responsible gambling, including rules for what can be said related to the sportsbook on the air or on ESPN’s media and social media platforms. PENN late last month provided a letter that outlines the in-house guidelines, but it has not yet provided the actual document to the MGC.
Rogers said the document indicates that PENN is “the responsible party” when it comes to sportsbook operations and that ESPN is a marketing partner. He also said the document outlines responsible gambling guidelines, including that ESPN BET will not target those under 21, will not reference black-market sportsbooks, and will not use anyone under the age of 21 in sportsbook advertising and marketing. It also states that ESPN BET advertising will not include any “crass, lewd comments” and will not feature any intoxicated people or illicit substances.
The agreement is that the MGC will review those guidelines at a Dec. 14 meeting, and it presumably reserves the right to ask PENN to alter the guidelines or even fine the company if it feels the company has gone astray of state regulations.
Rogers repeatedly said that his company is being treated differently than others.
“I’m concerned that we are being questioned because we have a media partner, but this is an industry-wide issue,” Rogers said.
Commissioner Eileen O’Brien responded that PENN “put yourself in that position because you’ve chosen third-party rather than in-house.” Every other legal platform in Massachusetts uses its own branding — the Caesars platform is Caesars Sportsbook, DraftKings is DraftKings Sportsbook, etc.
‘College GameDay’ will be under microscope
The key issues involve the commission’s concern that consumers will be “encouraged” or “advised” to wager by ESPN personalities. As an example, Maynard said that he would be uncomfortable if any ESPN personality said, “Here’s a bet you should make,” but he also acknowledged that he’d never heard that on an ESPN program.
“I don’t have an issue with an opinion,” Maynard said, but a directive to bet would give the commission pause.
The commission spent significant time discussing ESPN’s College GameDay show, which often films on or near college campuses. Previously, the MGC came down on Barstool Sportsbook — the platform that PENN is abandoning in favor of ESPN BET — when personalities offered sign-up bonuses or betting suggestions to audiences of college students. Massachusetts has some of the strictest advertising regulations in the U.S. and has forbidden operators from partnering with Massachusetts universities.
PENN’s Rogers said ESPN will continue to film its College GameDay at or near college campuses but will refrain from any sports betting references or promotions to the live audience. Rogers said there will be no ESPN BET signage, no solicitation for sign-ups, and no mention of bets or ESPN BET to the in-person audience. He did indicate that ESPN may still overlay betting information on screen to the television audience.
Rogers stated that while ESPN employees will not be prohibited from betting, there will be “no connection” between risk, trading, and the editorial side of the operation. There will, however, be references to ESPN BET in copy and on air.
Here’s where ESPN BET will launch
Beginning Nov. 14, PENN has plans — subject to state regulatory approvals — to rebrand platforms in not just Massachusetts but Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The other states have not applied the same level of scrutiny to PENN’s plan as has Massachusetts, perhaps feeling less concern about rebrand of an existing product than launch of a new one.
The company entered into a deal with Barstool Sports in 2020 to purchase the digital media company and use its brand in launching Barstool Sportsbook, both at retail locations and online. That partnership put PENN, a large regional casino operator, under the microscope in several jurisdictions due to Barstool’s cutting-edge personalities and the controversial reputation of founder Dave Portnoy. When PENN signed its new deal with ESPN in August, one requirement was that it sever ties with Barstool Sports, which it sold back to Portnoy for $1.
Photo by Jill R. Dorson
PENN is planning a universal relaunch of its digital platforms, and changes to its brick-and-mortar sportsbooks will follow. At its Kansas Raceway property last week, a Barstool Sportsbook teller window and kiosks were still branded and available, though the sportsbook itself is closed off and under renovation.
In Massachusetts, PENN operates Plainridge Park Casino, which also has a Barstool Sportsbook. Plans for that space have not been revealed.
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