The Biggest PR Challenge ESPN Faces When ESPN BET Goes Live

Las Vegas Raiders vs. Detroit Lions 2023 NFL Odds, Time, and Prediction

It’s late in the fourth quarter of Monday Night Football, and the marquee game of the regular season, between Kansas City and Philadelphia, is coming down to the final drive.
The Chiefs are trying to run out the clock. The Eagles are looking for a chance to get the ball back. The Eagles get the stop — but there’s a flag. Controversial penalty on the defense. Chiefs win and cover.
That is a decidedly plausible scenario. We know this because it’s exactly what happened the last time these two teams met.
The last time they met, however, the game was not televised on ESPN, and ESPN had not lent its name and brand to a mobile betting app.
When those two teams engage in a Super Bowl 57 rematch on Nov. 20, ESPN will be airing it, and thousands upon thousands of sports bettors will have wagered on the game using ESPN BET, an online sportsbook that will be six days old.
And in the above scenario, roughly half of those bettors will, as a result of the controversial flag, lose a bet they otherwise might have won. 
If the bettor loses, that means the sportsbook wins. From there, not many dots have to be connected to exit logical brain and enter emotional brain and decide, “ESPN wanted the Chiefs to win so ESPN BET could win my money, and the refs were in on it” — especially if you have no idea who or what PENN Entertainment is.

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The PENN behind the curtain
No ESPN employee will have anything to do with setting the odds on the ESPN BET app after it launches on Nov. 14. Sure, ESPN employees may attach their names to special parlay bets they endorse (if every other mobile sportsbook with affiliated broadcasters or brand ambassadors is any indication). But you are not up against Scott Van Pelt or Stephen A. Smith or even Jimmy Pitaro, the chairman of ESPN.
PENN Entertainment, a company headquartered some 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania, is handling all sportsbook operations, just as it did with ESPN BET’s predecessor, Barstool Sportsbook.
But much of the gambling public will see the great and powerful Oz while paying no attention to the bookmaker behind the curtain.
“There are always going to be people who just don’t get it, and it’s going to be hard for ESPN to make people realize that the risk room, the oddsmaking room, is not in Bristol [Connecticut],” Doug Kezirian, a broadcaster at ESPN from 2012 until this past July, told Sports Handle recently when asked about his former employer venturing into the sportsbook space after his departure. “It sounds like this deal with PENN was the right deal, but there is always a risk, and in this case, there’s going to be a brand risk.”
In short, Kezirian expects ESPN to get some blowback from folks who don’t grasp that ESPN is not “the house” any more than the CEO of State Farm is responsible for the field conditions at State Farm Stadium.
“There are stupid people out there,” Kezirian said bluntly. “Even though there’s going to be tons of separation, and ESPN is not making betting lines or anything — they’re partnering with someone who does it all, self-contained — there’s still going to be that small sliver of Twitter idiots who lash out.” 
From Barstool Sportsbook to ESPN BET
PENN Entertainment, formerly Penn National Gaming, operates casinos and racetracks in 20 states, from Pennsylvania and Maine to Nevada and New Mexico.
PENN acquired Barstool Sports in phases beginning in February 2020 and launched Barstool Sportsbook that September. From then until the Aug. 8 announcement that Barstool Sportsbook would be rebranded as ESPN BET and that PENN would sell the Barstool brand back to founder Dave Portnoy, the public largely saw Portnoy as the face of Barstool Sportsbook.
Portnoy was not setting lines, and bettors were not going head-to-head against him, but certainly there were customers on social media who held Portnoy accountable for whatever problems they had with the sportsbook, and Portnoy was not shy about leaning into that.
The situation will be different at ESPN. The network has its share of front-facing lightning rods, such as Pat McAfee, but no one person is bigger than the brand in Bristol.
The trick will be to use that brand to promote the sportsbook while still putting some space between the “ESPN” name and the “ESPN BET” name.
PENN is running the sportsbook. PENN has noted that it is keeping the tech stack used for Barstool Sportsbook in place.
But to the average person who doesn’t follow the ins and outs of the U.S. gambling industry, the PENN name means nothing, and the ESPN name has been front and center for as long as most of us can remember.
It’s a fine needle to thread. Expect some ugliness on social media as assuredly some bettors will not just count on Scott Van Pelt to report on the bad beats but will also blame him for them.

ESPN BET is almost here — get in on the action with our exclusive ESPN BET promo code when ESPN BET launches Nov. 14.

John SommersJohn Sommers is a distinguished figure in the world of gambling expertise, known for his deep knowledge and insightful analysis of the gaming industry. As a seasoned author, he has contributed extensively to the reputable gambling news site, TwinCasinos, focusing on providing valuable insights to English-speaking gamblers worldwide.

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