PENN Entertainment invested millions of dollars in recent years creating or redoing retail sportsbooks to carry the Barstool brand, and now it will be spending thousands more to remove that identity from its casinos.
Most of the focus of PENN’s recent mega-deal with ESPN has been on the rebranding of its online sports betting site, with ESPN BET to replace Barstool Sportsbook as the platform used by mobile customers sometime next month. A quieter corollary of the deal, in which PENN shed its ownership of the Barstool Sports media company, involves the national gaming company removing signage and other references to Barstool from its retail sportsbooks.
PENN has 43 properties, but not all of them are in legal sports betting states, and not all of the ones in sports betting states adopted the Barstool name. A company spokesman said 19 of PENN’s 32 retail sportsbooks carried the brand, which he said is in the process of being removed from all.
PENN has not indicated what the new name for the sportsbooks will be or how they will be different, including whether use of ESPN’s vaunted name and image would be involved. When asked about it, the PENN spokesman referred to a statement by CEO Jay Snowden on the company’s last quarterly earnings call:
“I think we have best-in-class retail sportsbooks across the portfolio today. … And with regard to what does that end up being or looking like, that’s TBD. We’re working through ESPN … and so we’re going to go through a process. And there can be potentially some ESPN-branded retail sportsbooks. And if not, we still have what we believe to be best-in-class destinations on the retail sports betting side, and sports bars connected to almost all of them.”
The ‘marketing geniuses’ have been abandoned
When PENN (then known as Penn National Gaming) in February 2020 initiated its acquisition of Barstool Sports — a colorful, irreverent media company with its broadest appeal to younger males — it was with the idea that it could expand its customer base by reaching the same demographic that embraced controversial Barstool founder Dave Portnoy and his omnichannel underlings.
PENN used the Barstool brand for the online sportsbook it launched that year and began gradual adoption of the identity for the retail sportsbooks in casinos. In some cases, Portnoy and others from Barstool would show up for ribbon-cuttings or other festivities inside the casinos, and Snowden referred to them at one point as “marketing geniuses.”
Some of the in-person books were created from scratch in newly legalized states, and some were remodeled as a result of the Barstool purchase and for other reasons, such as enlargement by removing buffets in the post-COVID era.
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In Pennsylvania, PENN created Barstool Sportsbooks in two new casinos and renovated two other casinos to carry the brand with more prominent betting venues. At all four of its Ohio properties, it debuted Barstool Sportsbooks just this year, only months in advance of abandoning Barstool itself.
The goal at those and the other Barstool-branded books was to attract a younger cohort of customers who might not otherwise visit the casinos. In a February 2021 earnings call, Snowden commented that Indiana properties that were among the first to rebrand had seen “meaningful increases in both gaming and non-gaming revenues.”
“Some people will come in because there’s a sportsbook, and another group will come in because it’s a Barstool Sportsbook and they’re Barstool fans,” Erin Chamberlin, PENN’s senior vice president of northeast operations, said when Hollywood Casino at York opened in Pennsylvania. “You not only get the sportsbook people, you get the Barstool people.”
When a Barstool Sportsbook at Hollywood Casino at the Meadows south of Pittsburgh opened in June 2022, PENN reported that it had spent $7 million on the space, with replicas of an Astroturf football field and baseball park brick facades accompanying a restaurant, bar, numerous large TV screens, odds board, ticket windows and kiosks. The Barstool name, logo (a barstool, naturally) and slogans (such as “Life’s too short to bet the under”) were plastered throughout, even extending to the surface of tables in the poker room nearby.
Now all that Barstool imagery has to be removed. Most of the money invested in the venues at the Meadows and elsewhere had nothing to do with Barstool — fixed costs for the infrastructure would have been required for any sportsbook and connected dining/drinking areas — but a former PENN official familiar with its retail sportsbooks said cosmetic changes will now cost thousands at each property, right on down to removing Barstool stickers affixed to betting kiosks.
“When you’re talking about signage, that’s not cheap,” he said. “That all has to be created and cut out and ordered well in advance.”
There’s also the issue of updating the PENN properties’ websites. Some currently have no reference to Barstool, some still note they have Barstool Sportsbooks but with no imagery included, and some still fully promote the brand with online photos as well as the name.
An opportunity with ESPN awaits … maybe
Despite the cost of undoing what was done in just the past couple of years, including at other PENN properties in Colorado, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, and West Virginia, the former company official — who asked not to be identified — said the goal of using Barstool to attract some younger customers was likely achieved. Like other sportsbook visitors, their spending on food, drinks, and other gambling may have justified the company’s costs.
But the bigger question in his mind is what happens now, in terms of being able to use ESPN as a marketing tool for the retail sportsbooks, just as was the case with Barstool. At one time early this century, the popular ESPN brand was made use of in nine ESPN Zone restaurants across the country. Those have all closed, but they could always get new life as part of the PENN properties’ sportsbooks, venture capitalist Wayne Kimmel recently suggested.
PENN has noted that its online casinos that are now attached to the Barstool Sportsbook mobile platform will be transitioning to the company’s Hollywood Casino brand, rather than the ESPN identity being used for them. The former PENN official said that suggests the possibility ESPN didn’t want its name used in that gambling context and won’t want to be prominent inside of casinos in sportsbooks, either. Company owner Disney has been adverse to gambling connotations in the past, although the source said he would consider that a missed opportunity.
“There’s tons of great things that can happen … like having Scott Van Pelt or Pat McAfee show up at the sportsbooks,” he said. “I look forward to seeing the opportunities that possibly can exist from a fully integrated effort between the two companies, but it’s an unknown right now.”
It’s unknown as of today, but PENN has its next quarterly earnings call on Thursday. That could be when something more is revealed about the future nature of its retail sportsbooks. With certainty, however, the short era of Barstool Sportsbooks is over.
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