Walt Disney’s (NYSE: DIS) upcoming platform, ESPN Bet, poised to launch in November, signifies the company’s maiden venture into the public-facing segment of sports betting. This move comes following previous cautionary guidance from a high-ranking executive and a principal investor against the company’s involvement with sports betting.
The Wall Street Journal, in a comprehensive report, revealed that during Bob Iger’s initial tenure as CEO, Disney harbored reservations towards sports betting over concerns for the impact on its family-friendly branding. However, when Bob Chapek assumed the CEO role in 2020, replacing Iger, he exhibited a shift in Disney’s stance towards sports wagering. Iger resumed the CEO role at Disney just last year.
During 2022, Jenny Cohen, then serving as Disney’s head of corporate social responsibility, voiced apprehension to Chapek and other executives, both from Disney and ESPN, about ESPN’s potential partnership with a sportsbook operator. According to the Journal, Cohen warned her colleagues, including Chapek, that embarking on sports betting could tarnish the Disney brand, associating it with gambling addiction.
BlackRock, one of Disney’s significant investors and an asset manager renowned for incorporating environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles into its investments, reportedly conveyed its concerns to Disney. It suggested that establishing partnerships with sportsbook operators might prompt some of its Europe-listed ESG funds to divest their Disney stocks. However, it remains uncertain why similar advice was not extended to its US-listed ESG funds that also hold Disney shares.
During Iger’s first stint as CEO, Disney acquired 21st Century Fox for $71.3 billion, inadvertently gaining a minor stake in DraftKings (NASDAQ: DKNG). Iger initially resisted encouragement from Disney and ESPN insiders to grow that stake. However, this investment has since been liquidated by Disney.
Under Chapek’s reign, rumors swirled about Disney’s leap into sports betting, with whispers about potential partnerships with sportsbook operators and even acquisitions of gaming companies to amplify the sports network’s wagering footprint. However, no such agreement or purchase came into fruition under Chapek’s leadership.
Upon his return as Disney’s CEO, Iger continued maintaining a lukewarm attitude towards sports betting. That said, he signaled a slight shift in his viewpoint earlier this year after observing his adult children’s active engagement with sports betting via their smartphones. For ESPN, owned by Disney, broadening its sports betting presence is perceived as crucial for enhancing engagement with millennial and Gen Z males, marking key demographics for the network and sportsbook operators alike.
In August, Penn Entertainment (NASDAQ: PENN) announced an agreement with Disney that involves a $1.5 billion investment over a decade to utilize the ESPN Bet brand. Interestingly, Penn and Disney have an opt-out clause after three years if certain market share goals are not achieved. ESPN will also receive $500 million in warrants from Penn, allowing the network to purchase approximately 31.8 shares in the casino company over the next decade. Penn shed Barstool Sports from its portfolio to facilitate the agreement with the sports network.